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 18,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are trapped in the out-of-home care system in Australia. The majority will go to bed tonight in a place that is not their own, disconnected from kin, country and culture.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are now 11 times more likely than other Australian children to be removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care. This number continues to escalate, due to inadequate attention and action by Australian governments to prioritise and actively pursue a child rights agenda. This situation is a national crisis.
This is why in 2016, SNAICC – National Voice for our Children launched the Family Matters. Strong Community. Strong Culture. Stronger Children campaign – a national campaign to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people grow up safe and cared for in family, community and culture.
The campaign comprises an alliance of over 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous organisations, leading academics and prominent educational institutions working to build strong communities, strong cultures and stronger children, with the goal to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 2040.
We know that the unacceptably high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will continue to escalate while our people experience disproportionate rates of poverty, homelessness, family violence and racism. Until our families and children enjoy equitable access to quality services and targeted supports we cannot not expect these numbers to change.
Most fundamentally, until governments and the service industry understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are best placed to lead and implement solutions, we will continue to tell this same story for generations to come.
This requires a change in public discourse. While the causes of contact with the child protection system is a complex issue, any discussion about how to change the system must commence from a point of truth – the truth of our past and the shameful reality of our present. Australia continues to bear witness to the intergenerational impacts of the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Policies and practices premised on a belief or assumption that connection to kin, country and culture – the essence of Aboriginal identity – was dispensable. That as long as children were permanently placed with safe, stable, white families that they would thrive and prosper.
This outdated and discriminatory assumption was proven wrong in the testimony of the Stolen Generations and in the stories and lived experiences of our families who remain impacted not only by past but also contemporary experiences of child removal. While the intergenerational trauma and impacts of historic forced removals continue to this day, it is clear that current decision makers and policy makers have failed to learn from past mistakes. Even now, today, recently introduced legislation in NSW supports the permanent removal of children through adoption.
It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.
There is fierce agreement among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, peak organisations and representative bodies about the actions required to eliminate the over-representation of our children in the child protection system. This must start with the incoming Federal Government co-designing with us a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Strategy to end this over-representation.
Despite repeated calls for increased focus and investment in prevention and early intervention to support families and children, we continue to see movement in the opposite direction. We cannot keep our kids safe in family and culture if our families and communities are not supported. Proportional investment Australia wide in early intervention and child protection must be a central component of the proposed national strategy, as must evidence-informed healing programs and effective supports to ensure healing-informed practice across the relevant service sectors.
Despite acknowledgement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are best placed to design and deliver local responses, we see more and more money wastefully invested in mainstream, generic programs. This investment strategy has consistently failed and it is our children that bear the burden. The national strategy must contain a strong workforce development component and policy reform measures to ensure all our families in crisis have access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and programs.
When it comes to the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal children, the Australian Government has demonstrated a mastery of gesture politics that is absent in reform. The majority of recommendations from every related inquiry or report remain largely unimplemented. This is one reason why an independent, unapologetic Federal Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner to advocate for our children is so important. It is so fundamental to break from the mistakes of the past.
The Family Matters Roadmap provides a blueprint for clear and urgent action by all Australian governments and should guide a national strategy. The recommendations contained in the Family Matters Report provide solutions that are grounded in evidence, draw upon international human rights obligations and reflect the hopes and aspirations of our children, families and communities. There is opportunity for the incoming Federal Government to genuinely do things differently. To this Government I say, we have no other option.
Because of Them, We Must.