To help raise awareness of the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed from family, Family Matters asked leaders from across the country to share their reflections during the National Week of Action – on what a new government should prioritise, on what a national strategy to solve this issue should look like, and on what future they’re working to help build for our children.
Reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care must be a priority for the next Federal Government. The removal of our children often has lifelong consequences for their health and wellbeing by damaging their sense of belonging, connection to Country and culture, undermining their sense of identity, and exposing them to unsafe systems and situations.
My five top priorities for action are:
1. Family preservation
The Federal Government must properly fund comprehensive primary healthcare and social and cultural services that wrap around families, supporting the social and cultural determinants of health for the parents as well as the children. SNAICC, Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations (ACCHOs) and other community-controlled groups doing work in this space must be funded in accordance with the need for their services.
2. Focus on the earliest days
The Federal Government must invest in supporting the expansion of Birthing on Country and the First 1000 Days Australia movement led by Dr Kerry Arabena. Birthing on Country is “a metaphor for the best start in life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies and their families”, which provides an appropriate transition to motherhood and parenting, and an integrated, holistic and culturally appropriate model of care for all. Birthing on Country Models are maternity services designed, developed, delivered and evaluated for and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. They encompass some (or all) of the following elements: community-based and governed; provide for inclusion of traditional practices; involve connections with land and Country; incorporate a holistic definition of health; value Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander as well as other ways of knowing and learning; encompass risk assessment and service delivery; and are culturally competent.
The First 1000 Days Australia aims to provide a coordinated, comprehensive strategy to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families so they can address their children’s needs from pre‐conception to two years of age, thereby laying the best foundation for their future health and wellbeing. It builds resilience, generates learning and innovation, leads regional initiatives, and uses evidence for impact.
3. Support historical truth-telling
I urge the Government to support historical truth-telling as recommended by the Uluru Statement from the Heart in its call for a “Makarrata Commission” to supervise agreement-making and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The statement explains that Makarrata is a word from the language of the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land that means “two parties coming together after a struggle, to heal the wounds of the past, and to live again in peace”. It is about acknowledging that something wrong has been done and seeking to make things right. We need to ensure historical truth-telling and justice to address the legacy of the Stolen Generations policies if we are to stop our children today being removed from their families and communities.
4. Focus on children in care
Our children are more likely to end up in care if their parents were also removed to care as children themselves. It’s another reason we must invest in providing culturally safe support and services to children in care, ensuring they each have individual plans for developing their connections to Country and cultural identity. Building a strong cultural foundation for children in care will have long lasting benefits for them and their future families. I know this from my own experience of out-of-home as a young girl – because I was strong in my cultural identity, this helped me greatly, I knew where I belonged and who I was.
5. Culturally safe systems
In Victoria, the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 is based on a number of principles, including the need to “promote the cultural safety and recognise the cultural rights and familial and community connections of children who are Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or both”. This principle should underpin all relevant legislation nationally and in every state and territory. When I see the work of my husband Justin Mohamed as Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People of Victoria, I realise how much more could be achieved in keeping our kids out of care if we also had a National Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.
Underpinning action on all these priorities is the need for research and knowledge translation that is led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and driven by the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We only have to look to the work of researchers like Dr Catherine Chamberlain, demonstrating the impact of Birthing on Country, to understand why our evidence, our way must drive action on these five priority areas.
Because of Them, We Must.