Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed from their families at rates equivalent to and at times greater than the rates they were removed during the Stolen Generations. When comparing removal rates the comparisons have to be made against the numbers of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders peoples who have been identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander for more than a few generations rather than against the larger numbers of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people that the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census identifies, which in statistical terms reduce the medians – the hundreds of thousands who are being added despite being Aboriginal have lived in first world experiences. The Aboriginal experience of extreme poverty is still discriminated against by Governments and arguably its institutions, such as the Department of Child Protection Services (DoCS).
In NSW, one in ten Aboriginal children are in the care of the State, in Western Australia one in 14 Aboriginal children are in the care of the State. There are 80,000 people in Western Australia who identify Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage, and more than 2000 children are in the care of the State. Aboriginal people only comprise less than 3 per cent the Western Australian total population but Aboriginal children comprise 50 per cent of all children in the care of the State.
When then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the Apology to the victims of the Stolen Generations, at the time there were more than 4,600 Aboriginal children in State care in New South Wales alone, compared to an estimate of 1,000 in State care (church-run missions, institutions and foster care) in 1969, when the policy of forced removals ended.
The Bringing Them Home Report 1997, estimated that between 10 per cent to 33 per cent of all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children were removed from their families during the Stolen Generations. However, currently it appears in some jurisdictions of Australia 10 per cent of all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed.
During the Apology, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”
Senior researcher with the Jumbunna House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney, Paddy Gibson wrote recently that most Aboriginal children are being removed on the presumption of “neglect”. He pointed out, “Most removals occur because of supposed ‘child neglect’. But the real neglect begins with a racist system that holds Aboriginal people in extreme poverty and squalid living conditions.”
Mr Gibson noted that the “numbers of Aboriginal children removed has increased 500 per cent in the past 15 years.”
He referred to the rates of removal, remaining highest in NSW, where in 2011, 9.6 per cent of Aboriginal children were in “out-of-home care.”
Nationally, the statistic is 5.5 per cent.
Mr Gibson stated, “The Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry found that ‘up to 197 babies were taken from their parents hours after birth in north Queensland hospitals between July 2009 and June last year (2012). He said that people in communities “are calling it a Stolen Generation.”
“Many women who have their babies taken away are not represented at their initial court appearances – or don’t challenge the order because they do not know they can.”
Mr Gibson noted that according to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal and Advocacy Service, “the child protection system is too closely related to the historical discriminatory policies of the past which deemed Aboriginality to be sufficient grounds for removal of children.”
“This is the result of many years of a blame-the-victim approach in Aboriginal politics, aiming to shift responsibility for chronic social problems away from government neglect and racism and onto the Aboriginal people who are suffering.”
All up, one in six Aboriginal children in NSW are wards of the State. According the Bringing Them Home report, the last year, officially, of the Stolen Generations, saw 1000 children in the care of the State of NSW whereas now this is five time the numbers, nearly 5,000 children. Nationally, 35 per cent of all children removed are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders despite that they comprise 2.6 of the national population.
A Department of Children Services spokesperson said that the child protection officers only remove a child into care when they “are considered to be at serious risk of harm if they stay with their birth family.”
“(DoCS) makes every effort to place them in culturally appropriate placements.”
This means that according to DoCS one in ten Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children are at risk of serious harm unless otherwise removed. According to psychologists and psychosocial counsellors this statistic “cannot be right.” They say it is highly unlikely that such a high number are at risk and that instead the DoCS is overtly erring on the side of caution and various stereotypical assumptions, and that instead the DoCS should be better funded to work with families to keep them together, to support them. Psychologists argue that 1) poverty should not be a reason to remove children 2) familial incidents, other than violence to children, should not be a reason to remove children and 3) every real effort should be made to keep a child together with the family or one of the parents.
Extreme poverty does exist for many Aboriginal families, for 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – a poverty unbeknown to the rest of the Australia, a third-world-akin poverty. This legacy of the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal peoples has to be addressed and will go a long way to reducing the removal of children from families by DoCS, which whether it admits it or not does remove children because of extreme poverty.
In the Northern Territory, the number of children removed has tripled since 2003.
The Territory’s Minister for Children and Families, John Elferink recently pledged his support for Aboriginal controlled solutions. At a forum attended by over 140 non-government organisations and community members, Minister Elferink pledged his support for Aboriginal-controlled services. He said, “I would love for communities to come to me and say, this is what we want to do, this is how we could do it, can you support it? Bring me a model and I will support it.”
Minister Elferink was speaking at a public forum held in Darwin organised by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC). SNAICC chairperson Sharron Williams said that all the long-held evidence suggested that removed children “will experience poorer outcomes as adults in relation to their health and mental wellbeing, and that they will be at greater risk of contact with the judicial system.” Ms Williams also pointed out that overall they will not do as well as they could with education, that they are more likely to drop out of the education system and that low levels of employment and welfare dependency are endemic among people with a history of being removed as a child. The moral to this is that the ‘good stories, the success stories’ should not outweigh the stark reality for the majority.
Participants at the forum condemned the removal of children from their families and stated in a resolution that it was unacceptable and “had to stop”. They called on the Northern Territory Government to establish an Aboriginal Child Care Agency to deliver case management.
Further reading – previous article by Nicola Butler – Adopting, or Stealing Children?