Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

29 May 2019

Though the memory of the Stolen Generations remains fresh in the minds of many, the number of Australian Aboriginal infants being removed from their families today is only increasing, Melissa O’Donnell, Stephanie Taplin, and Rhonda Marriott write.

In 2017, Aboriginal community members in Western Australia (WA) approached us with concerns that more babies were being removed from their communities. They wanted to know whether we had evidence that this was actually the case.

Our research utilising data from the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and WA confirmed that, nationally, Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children. This disparity starts from infancy.

We also confirmed community concerns that the number of Aboriginal infants in out-of-home care had increased by 17 per cent between 2013 and 2016. Nationally, the rate of Aboriginal infants in care in 2016 was 29.1 per 1000 infants, which is 10 times the rate of non-Aboriginal infants at three per 1000 infants.

There are high levels of risk factors across both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families in which an infant had entered out-of-home care in WA. However, Aboriginal infants were at increased risk of being removed from women with substance-use problems and had greater proportions being removed from remote and disadvantaged communities than non-Aboriginal infants.

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Substance abuse and mental health issues – well-recognised legacies of the intergenerational trauma brought about by the forced removal of children in the past – were particularly identified as factors in Aboriginal infant removals.

Given the history of the Stolen Generations and the trauma of previous removals of Aboriginal children, there is a need to prevent further intergenerational trauma from, what some have called, ‘another Stolen Generation’.

There is an urgent need to reduce the over-representation and number of Aboriginal infants and children going into care. This means addressing the issues that place Aboriginal infants and their families at increased risk including disadvantage, mental health, and substance use issues, as well as ensuring culturally appropriate support services, a focus on family empowerment, and a national long-term plan for healing inter-generational trauma.

Aboriginal organisations such as the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) are calling for greater self-determination and governance regarding child protection matters. At this stage, however, most Australian states only utilise Aboriginal organisations in an advisory or consultation capacity. Victoria appears to be the only one that has handed responsibility for Aboriginal children in care to the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency.

The need for greater Aboriginal community involvement in case related decision-making and family support services is essential to reduce this horrifying imbalance. SNAICC and other respected Aboriginal academics have long called for the use of family group conferencing as a culturally appropriate approach to working with Aboriginal families involved in child protection.

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A challenge for government is that while we have federal and state policies, what works in one Aboriginal community will not always be appropriate in another. Place-based approaches are needed to develop community-based strategies to address the factors that exist in relation to child maltreatment and which work towards the community’s strengths. This involves the authentic use of co-design between Aboriginal community-based organisations and government agencies to develop a community strategy which meets unique needs.

While there are no simple solutions, interventions that strengthen and empower families will play an integral role. The focus must, therefore, be on gathering the political will to enable approaches led and designed by Aboriginal communities. Australia is arguably facing its most pressing social justice issue; addressing it must be one of the country’s highest priorities.

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