Stats reveal poverty, not abuse

May 24, 2008

Only 35 of the 7500 Aboriginal children examined as part of the federal government's Northern Territory "intervention" have been referred to child authorities for suspected abuse, according to figures released by the federal health and reported in the May 19 Brisbane Courier Mail.

The Northern Territory intervention was launched in June 2007 by the former Howard Coalition government ostensibly to curb child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities. At the time, then-PM John Howard claimed that childhood in those communities had "ceased to exist" due to extremely high levels of child abuse.

Howard blamed the isolation of these communities and vowed to bring them into the "mainstream". His plan involved restrictions on welfare payments, bans on alcohol and pornography and the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land.

These were enforced by a massive police presence, backed by the Australian Defense Force.

The health department figures indicate that only 0.5% of children examined were "at risk" of neglect or abuse. These correct the distorted image, pushed by the Howard government, that sought to blame Aboriginal parents, in particular Aboriginal men, for abuse in the communities.

Sunrise Health Service chief executive officer Irene Fisher said the figures brought a "welcome perspective" back to the problem. "We screened 1100 of the children and less than a handful were suspected of being sexually abused", she said.

"Since June 21 [2007] I've been really concerned about the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people. Not only has it been made to seem like every male is a perpetrator of abuse, but communities have been labelled neglectful, when they just live in poverty."

The figures revealed that 40% of those examined needed referrals for other health problems such as ear, nose and throat infections. This is an example of the widespread health problems that are a result of inadequate funding and access to health services in remote communities.

Under the Howard government, a $4 billion gap in health spending between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia was identified by the Australian Medical Association as a key cause of disadvantage.

The Labor Rudd government has pledged to close this gap with a $1.2 billion injection over the next five years. But a third of this money is dedicated to maintaining the intervention of the previous government.

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