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.
More than 20 years ago, the Bringing Them Home report highlighted and documented the daily reality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the pain of children torn from their families. The report recounted the personal agony caused by past policies of removal and the horrendous impact that these policies have had, and continue to have, on our families and communities.
Throughout my professional life I have been steeped in the abuses that my people suffer. But never before had I seen the weight of suffering that so many of our brothers and sisters bear. As a co-commissioner for the inquiry, nothing could have prepared me for what I heard from witnesses as they spoke of the devastation to their lives.
Putting Indigenous children in non-Indigenous families or institutions does not give them happy and full lives. We knew this before the Bringing Them Home report and we have known it for the 22 years since the report was completed.
The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care is beyond a national crisis and must be addressed immediately.
The incoming Federal Government as a matter of urgency must progress the following five priorities within a national strategy to end over-representation of our children in out-of-home care:
1. Take practical steps to implement meaningful self-determination
Self-determination and connection to culture are the essential pre-requisites to leading safe, happy and fulfilling lives. A national framework for the principle of self-determination must be established that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to determine arrangements for their own children. The key is that communities, and not governments, decide how best to deliver health, education and safety for our children.
2. Fully implement the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home and the Little Children are Sacred Reports
The Bringing Them Home report made a broad range of recommendations to address the historical and continuing high rates of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, as well as to support healing and reconciliation for the Stolen Generations and their descendants. Similarly, the Little Children are Sacred report made broad recommendations to support and empower Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and to address ongoing issues to areas such as education and healthcare. The recommendations contained in these important reports remain as relevant today as when they were developed and should be revisited as a matter of priority by the incoming Federal Government.
3. Invest in education and housing
A quality education and stable housing are vital to providing all children with the start they need in life. Education equips children with the tools they need for lifelong wellbeing, and stable, appropriate housing provides children with the environment they need to thrive. A clear strategy, co-designed with our peoples, with significant investment into quality and culturally appropriate education and housing for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families is essential.
4. Provide specific ministerial responsibility and high-level public servant responsibility for Indigenous children in federal, state and territory governments
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people remain largely silent in public debate. Responsibility for the health, wellbeing and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children needs to embedded at the highest levels of federal, state and territory governments, including through specific ministerial responsibility and in senior public servants. This is the only means to enable a strategy that crosses all necessary departments to affect the change required.
5. Educate bureaucrats about the situation of Indigenous children nationwide
Too many public servants, and indeed the broader Australian public, remain unaware of the historical injustices and unacceptable situation currently experienced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children across the country. Government ministers and departments must be educated in a meaningful way about trauma and its impacts in order to support and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to develop and drive programs and services for their own children. Higher Indigenous employment within government is also critical to inform this process.
As a nation, we can no longer equivocate. The unacceptably high rates of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families is not a moment in history. The children taken from the parents of yesteryear have become the parents unable to teach today’s children. If they continue to take away today’s children, there may be nothing left to teach the children of tomorrow.
Because of Them, We Must.