Cindy Blackstock and Brian Butler, SNAICC National Conference 2013 Cairns, Australia

Cindy Blackstock and Brian Butler, SNAICC National Conference 2013 Cairns, Australia

In an emotionally-charged few days, delegates attending the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care’s (SNAICC) Fifth National Conference held in Cairns this week – the biggest forum of its type ever held with over 1100+ delegates from right around the country in front of a strong international contingent including Associate Professor Cindy Blackstock, Director of The Caring Society of Canada and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, Professor Cindy Kiro, New Zealand’s first female and only Maori to have held the post of Children’s Commissioner and Marta Mauras Perez, the recently retired Vice President of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – committed to support the national campaign demanding action by the Australian Government to achieve its objective by 2018.

Delegates unanimously endorsed a national campaign, calling the Australian Government to accountability in halving the unacceptable high number of Aboriginal and Islander (including the Torres Strait) children in out-of-home care by 2018.

Federal and State Governments have a responsibility to our children, the First Nations children of this country. We have rights that already exist that we are failing to enact. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. These leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognises that children have human rights too. This international convention is there to inform and guide our Government in the way they develop policy and it’s metering out to our families, communities and nations.

The campaign will be undertaken by SNAICC in partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, the NSW peak body AbSec, the Queensland peak body QATSICPP, Families Australia, and the Australian Council of Social Service. SNAICC is seeking to create a groundswell of support from the Australian community to change what one conference speaker described as “our national shame”.

According to the Child Protection Australia: 2011–12 Child Welfare series no. 55 document, Out-of-home care is described as only being considered an intervention of last resort, with the current emphasis being to keep children with their families wherever possible, stating that ‘some children are placed in out-of-home care because they are the subject of child protection substantiation requiring a more protective environment’. Other situations where a child may be placed in out-of-home care include those where parents are incapable of providing adequate care for the child, or where alternative accommodation is needed during times of family conflict.

There is no national data available on the reasons children are placed in out-of-home care. Where children, for various reasons, need to be placed in out-of-home care, the practice is supposed to be focused on the attempt to reunite children with their families. And if and when this is deemed not possible and it is necessary to remove a child from his or her family, then placement within the wider family or community is preferred and consistent with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle initiated originally by Mollie Dyer at the inception of the launch of SNAICC in Australia in 1983.

The has the following order of preference for the placement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children:

• with the child’s extended family 

• within the child’s Indigenous community 

• with other Indigenous people.

All jurisdictions have adopted the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle in legislation and policy and the Principle is just one of the many considerations taken into account when making decisions on placements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Where placement options outlined in the Principle are not optimal for a child’s safety and wellbeing, the child may be placed in an alternative care arrangement; this is meant to be done only after extensive consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and/or organisations has taken place.

At 30 June 2012 there were 13,299 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care (a rate of 55.1 per 1000). Nationally the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care was 10 times the rate of that for non-Indigenous children. In all jurisdictions the rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was higher than that for non-Indigenous children. The rate ratio ranged from 3.4 in Tas to 15.8 in Vic.

31% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have not been placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers, or in Indigenous residential care as outlined in the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.

The Australia Government as a responsibility to address the inequities and disadvantage inflicted upon the First Nations children in this country as Aboriginal and Islander (including the Torres Strait) peoples force the issue, demanding change to ensure our children receive the appropriate nurturing, safety and love they are entitled to.                                                                                                                 

The description of Out-of-home care when underpinned by the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle seems somewhat hypocritical when evidenced against the statistics. It would seem that the majority of our children are being considered as warranting the ‘last resort attempt’ as the ‘first resort action’ by and ill-informed Australian Government which leaves the definition of ‘neglect’ very open to individual prejudiced interpretation.

In mid-2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children accounted for over one third of the 39,621 children in out-of-home care across Australia. Our children are being removed from their families at over 10 times the rate for other children – and at rates higher than at any time during the Stolen Generations eras.

This situation is beyond offensive and the serious nature of where our Government will head to next in policy development for our children must be influenced by us as a collective nation. We must make the change now before we see the words of our Northern Territory Chief Minister, Mr Adam Giles take hold as an all-inclusive view on behalf of the people as he seeks to move towards permanency policies in removing children of ‘neglect’ to be placed in permanent adoption situations.

Since Mr Giles’s international airing of his intention there had been a mass of media coverage on adoption as a possible solution, but SNAICC believes this to be a short-sighted option that does not come to grips with the factors that lead to child abuse and neglect.

“We need to remove the harm and not the children.” Sharron Williams said.

There is overwhelming evidence supporting the facts surrounding the removal of our children from our own peoples as one of the primary cause of susceptibility to intergenerational and trans-generational traumas that become embedded into the psyche of our children when they are removed.

Being taken away is soul destroying particularly when our children are taken into care that resides outside of the cultural heritage bounds necessary to connect to our families, heritage, land, culture and kin which are integral to forming our individual identity and sense of worth.

William Hayward, representative for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) agreed adding that “where people are placed outside the preferred hierarchy, cultural retention and preservation activities are essential to a child’s identity, development and life.”

Our children must stop being removed, and those children who are still living outside the bounds of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle must be returned and placed into the kinship care program at once. Those who have been disconnected from their culture through these practices need to have therapy and reintegration programs developed by Aboriginal people and delivered by Aboriginal people.

Many of us on the ground do not need to hear the figures and statistics to know the true state of affairs. We are all well aware of the levels of devastation and destruction that our children, families and communities face each and every day. This call for action must be the change, no more rhetoric, no more talking or discussion. The time to act is now leaving behind the corrupt practices that cause deprivation of human rights!

The figures above indicate a very sad state of affairs for our children, it is this routine act of removal from family, culture and identity that perpetuates the dispossession, destruction and grief that sees our children end up in boot camps, detention centres and prison from a ludicrously tender age.

Taking our children out of the kinship care system is a literal death sentence, all of the children we see being removed through the current policies and practices will inevitably contribute to the already increasing statistics of suicide into the future.

The time has come for Federal and State Governments to listen and act because they have an obligation to our First Nations children. Listen to the elders, the knowledge holders and wisdom keepers and support us in self determination to conduct our business our way.

We have the knowledge’s, we know what to do and how to do it and we have been shouting out the way to make positive inroads to healing and empowering for our communities for many decades.

SNAICC Chairperson Sharron Williams told delegates the high number of children in care was “diabolical” and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “would not stand for this any longer.”

Endorsements of this size create the groundswell needed to make positive change and support the principles of self-determination. This call for action must be taken seriously and carried forward by each and every one of us, every Aboriginal and Islander (including the Torres Straits) person must now rise to this call and take the necessary steps to support their families and communities in demanding that the current state of affairs continues no more.

This National Campaign is about saving our children, their culture and their identity!

What will you do to see your children and grandchildren have the opportunity to grow up with cultural knowledge, nurturing and love to enable them to reach their full potential?

Their survival depends on all of our actions as a Nation right here and right now!

This year the theme and focus of the National biennial event was ‘For Our Children: Living and Learning Together, which is Gibla Guddi Njudjun Wabu Minjaan – translation in the language of Yidinji (Cairns) and Nganyjin bibunbay-ngun.gu: nyiya-nyiya wunang dugayiynggu – translation in the language of Yirrganydji (Cairns).

Here are what some of our elders and leaders had to say about this pivotal and long overdue call to action and accountability:

“There is an underutilisation of and lack of understanding about what our real issues are and how we can be using our resources to address them. Building on a strength based approach we have to have systems that are aimed at creating change.” Muriel Bamblett, Chief Executive – Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA)

“It is time to act!” Rod Little, Director Chamber 1 – National Congress of Australia’s First People

“Lateral Love is the only answer to turning the status quo on its head” Brian Butler, Director Chamber 3, National Congress of Australia’s First People

“The Australian Government urgently needs to improve efforts to redress persistent discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child — to which Australia is a signatory — provides a strong, universal blueprint for the basic needs of children. Participation of Indigenous peoples is at the core of change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The power of mechanisms and supports that enable genuine participation can be staggering. Similarly, allocating clear resources and improving monitoring mechanisms will see tangible benefits for the most vulnerable groups.” Ms Marta Mauras Perez, recently retired Vice President of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

“We work for children – so we need to work with children to ensure we are doing right by them and their families. Aboriginal children in Australia, similar to our First Nations children in Canada are overrepresented in child welfare care due to neglect driven by poverty, poor housing and substance misuse. Governments are simply not doing all they can do because these are all solvable problems but equitable, flexible and culturally-based funding is required to empower community solutions. Equality is not an aspiration, it is a right.” Professor Cindy Blackstock, Director of The Caring Society of Canada and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta

“We must do it respectful way, that’s our culture” Benny Hodges, Principal – Wis Wei Consulting

“The biggest problem facing disadvantaged Maori and Pasifika children right now is a lack of adequate resources being committed by the government to crucial services and programs. Governments need to show leadership and foresight by investing in children now, and by having services focused on early intervention. If there is a failure to invest now, services won’t be as preventative as they should be.” Professor Cindy Kiro, New Zealand’s first female and only Maori to have held the post of Children’s Commissioner

“SNAICC has had these issues on the agenda for many years put there by the elders and leaders who have come before us and we are now in a position to progress this by continuing the journey and providing support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in moving forward to influence and guide the process in creating change” Frank Hytten, Chief Executive Officer – SNAICC

“A fundamental commitment must be made by Commonwealth State and Territory Governments to ensure an appropriate National implementation of proficient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led preventative early intervention and statutory support services. Priority must be given to States and Territories with limited to no community led responses in order to meet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and family’s needs. In addition models must move from limited participation and consultation to meaningful consultation and casework activities.” William Hayward, Representative – National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service

“As Aboriginal people we have to take responsibility for our own kids.We keep talking about Aboriginal people like this is always going to be a welfare problem. I really think we need to start talking about Aboriginal people creating and enjoying self-determined economic wealth.” Karen Dini-Paul, Manager Child Wellbeing Service – Wuchopperen Health Service

“Berry Street supports the National Campaign and will invest its resources, time and energy to bring about an end to the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. Australia must acknowledge the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to grow up safe with their families and strong in their culture.” Julian Pocock, Berry Street

“The National Campaign has the wholehearted support of the Australian Centre for Child Protection. We have made a commitment to do our part to prevent the ongoing removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, communities, country and culture. We urge every Australian to think and act to do the same.” Fiona Arney, Director – Australian Centre for Child Protection

“The National Campaign presents all Australian’s with the opportunity to address the most pressing issue for securing the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are over represented in the child protection system to such an extent that we are on the brink of a social crisis. The Campaign will address the ongoing removal of our children from their families and communities, and critically the removal from their cultural identity that threatens to repeat the dreadful impact and legacy of the Stolen Generations.” Richard Weston, CEO Healing Foundation, Canberra.

“We have talked about this process for so long it now needs to be actioned.” Sharron Williams, Chairperson – SNAICC

Need information about Child Protection Legislation in your State or Territory?

Commonwealth

Family Law Act 1975

New South Wales

Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 

Victoria

Children, Youth and Families Act 2005

Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005

Queensland

Child Protection Act 1999

Western Australia

Children and Community Services Act 2004

The Family Court Act 1975

South Australia

Family and Community Services Act 1972

Children’s Protection Act 1993

Tasmania

Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997

Children, Young Persons and Their Families Amendment Act 2009

Australian Capital Territory

Children and Young People Act 2008

Northern Territory

Care and Protection of Children Act 2007