Vanessa Culbong: your voice, your story

January 15, 2016
Vanessa Culbong.

Aboriginal child removals by government Child Protection agencies across the nation are taking place at an alarming rate.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported a rise in the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged up to 17 in out of home care across all states and territories over the past decade.

Aboriginal children are eight times more likely to be the subject of departmental intervention; nine times more likely to be on care and protection orders; and 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal kids.

Yolngu leader and Chairperson of the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation Dr Djiniyini Gondarra said: “About 60 Aboriginal children are being taken away every month by child protection services. They are being taken away at numbers not seen since the stolen generation.”

Since the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 the number of Aboriginal children in care has increased by 65%.

Vanessa Culbong could no longer tolerate the heartbreak of watching families and homes torn apart. She decided to bring Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) to Perth. In 2014 she founded Dembas Kulungas, Grandmothers Against Removals Western Australia (GMARWA).

She spoke to Green Left Weekly late last year.

* * *

What country do you come from?

I'm an Unggarangi woman. My ancestral bloodline goes back to Wardandi, Wiilman and Yinggarda countries, and also the Waygi Kiap, Koreang and Minang tribes. I'm mainly salt water from west coast top to bottom — all my people are along this ancestral bloodline.

Right now I live in Perth in the metropolitan area.

We have high rates of incarceration, child removal, suicide and homelessness. All these issues are causing my people to suffer.

Which issue is most connected to you and the work that you do?

I founded and am a part of the Grandmother's Against Removals WA. There are many incidents [of removals], but what enraged me was what happened when my Aunty was not home when the [Department of Child Protection — DCP] came on an unannounced visit. They went to the school and grabbed her little Grannie out of school and took her straight to a court of law, without representation.

She was about 9 or 10. The court agreed to put her on a plane and fly her to Queensland, without anyone knowing.

My Aunty was a part of stolen generation. She was traumatised. No counselling was offered to the parents or to the little brother. All the other students had to watch this little girl being ripped away from their class in the middle of the day.

This was a metropolitan school in the city, not far from the CBD. We ended up flying over to the east to fight the departments and take her home. It was a process, there was a lot of trauma involved.

What was the process? Was it getting community groups involved? Was it battling alongside your family that you got it going?

I was watching NITV and I saw that Aunty Karen Fusi in Queensland had won her children back after she had many issues with the [child protection] department. The next week I watched Grandmas of NSW standing up, and thought this is what we need, some support groups over on this side. There are so many kids and families being affected right now.

How did the word get out?

Aunty Patty Gibson brought us all together. She helped us and funded the flights to get the little girl home. We were funded by Grandmas Against Removals National. I went home and I founded the GMARWA, the Dembas Kulungas.

I get 20 calls a day. Every house you visit, you hear that every person in that house has a connection with DCP. Every person has another three stories of someone they know whose kids have been taken. It is heartbreaking to hear those stories. It is still happening. It hasn't stopped.

What would you like to say to the community of Australia to help people understand these issues?

Open your eyes to what the government is doing to our people, covering them up so well with the policies and their laws. The legislation that is made up for my people, be aware of it. It is all still happening, the statistics are at the highest levels ever in Australian history.

Start demanding the government stops the removals any way you can — email, make a silent protest, online protest, whatever. Get it out there. Try to make the wrongs right. The Recognition [campaign] does not make up for what they have done to my people.

Educate yourself on Australian Aboriginal history; First People's history, not Australian government history. Find out the truth about our history and what's been covered up. That will make people angry enough that they will want to change things, as they have been blindfolded for so long. A lot of people out there have no idea. It's not a lucky country for us.

For more information, and to donate to GMAR visit their website.

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