Indigenous advocacy groups have called on the Australian and state governments to address the rising numbers of Indigenous children in out-of-home care, warning this increasingly prevalent phenomenon could lead to the creation of another Stolen Generation.
In mid-2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children accounted for 13,299 children in out-of-home care across Australia, more than one-third of the national total. Indigenous children are more than ten times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children, at a rate higher than at any times during the Stolen Generation era.
Paul Ralph, CEO of KARI Aboriginal Resources, told Tharunka, “The stolen generation scenario still applies today and has been here for a long time, and will continue to be here.”
His view was echoed by Elder Djiniyini Gondarra, representing 8,000 Yolngu people of east Arnhem Land, who noted that approximately 60 children are being removed from the community by child protection services every month.
“Children are being taken away from us at numbers not seen since the stolen generations,” Elder Gondarra said.
A Special Commission of Inquiry into the Department of Community Services (DoCS) found that in March 2008 there were four times as many Aboriginal children in foster homes, institutions or missions than in 1969, during the Stolen Generation era. From 2001 to 2007, the number of Indigenous children reported to DoCS increased by 300 per cent to 55,303, with 8 per cent of Aboriginal people over the age of 15 having been placed in out-of-home care in 2012.
In 1997, the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report on the removal of Indigenous children from their families stated that 2,785 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out-of-home care at the time, a number that has more than quadrupled in the years since.
This rapid increase saw the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child deliver a report on Australia in June 2012, highlighting grave concerns with the “serious and widespread discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children”.
Speaking at a forum held by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), Oxfam chief executive, Helen Szoke, said, “Maybe it is time for the Human Rights Commission to do another stolen generations report”, adding that a review of whether Australia is meeting its obligations under the convention would need to occur before the next UN inspection in 2018.
Marta Mauras, the recently retired Vice-President of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said the United Nations’ concerns with the treatment of Indigenous children remained.
“Australia is not meeting its international treaty obligations over the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children… The children continue to suffer widespread discrimination in government services.”
Dr Joseph McDowall, author of a 2013 report on out-of-home care by the CREATE Foundation, agreed, noting that according to a survey of more than one thousand children, Indigenous children move six times on average during their time in care, and do not have their cultural needs properly addressed.
“Indigenous children are more likely to be disadvantaged by the out-of-home care system than any other ethnic group,” Dr McDowall said. “Placement stability is a really big issue in the out-of-home sector, because the more instability there is, the more placements you have during your time in care. Shifting locations, shifting houses, making new relationships just disrupts your whole life experience.”
Stolen generations advocate, Aunty Lorraine Peeters, shared similar concerns to McDowall. “Who is going to be there for those children in 18 years’ time when they enter into trauma and want to know where they come from or who their families are? Our children are being removed at such a rate that I feel really sick in the stomach every time I look at the stats.”
Muriel Bamblett, CEO of the Victorian Child Care Agency, agreed, highlighting the need to implement culturally relative welfare programs with Indigenous people and increase early intervention measures with families to prevent the removal of children where possible.
“There is a tendency to be overly interventionist with Aboriginal families,” she said. “Rather than putting supports around the child, we say, ‘Let’s just remove them’.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, an average of 55.1 per 1000 Aboriginal children are in out-of-home care, compared with 5.4 non-Indigenous children per 1000.
New South Wales features the highest rate of removal of Indigenous children of any Australian state or territory. In NSW, 83.4 children per 1000 Indigenous children are removed from their families, vastly greater than the corresponding figure of 20.7 Indigenous children in out-of-home care in the Northern Territory, which has the lowest rates of removal in Australia.
NSW Community Services Minister, Pru Goward, told The Australian that this phenomenon is due to a “punitive” and “risk-averse” culture within the Department of Community Services, with NSW having a low threshold for triggering the removal of a child from their family.
“There’s no explanation for why our removal rates should be higher than other jurisdictions,” Goward said. “We’ve got to get much better informed about which children we take and remove into kinship care, and much better informed about how we make wise judgments in that area.”
Chief executive of SNAICC, Frank Hytten, agreed, calling for the Federal Government to halve the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care by 2018.
“Removing children seems to be a knee-jerk, almost first response,” Hytten said. “We need to work much, much harder at the prevention end and the reunification end.”
Innawonga Aboriginal leader, Julie Tommy Walker, said prevention is paramount in reducing the number of children placed in out-of-home care.
“If you don’t fix the underlying issues — unemployment, housing — that contributes to child protection, Aboriginal children will continue to be removed from their families,” Walker said. “Now we’ve got a new wave of stolen generations.”
While acknowledging that ‘stolen generation’ is a “very loaded term”, SNAICC chief Hytten reinforced the similarities of the current removal of Indigenous children with previous occurrences in Australian history.
“The Stolen Generation was built on a deliberate racist policy of removing Aboriginal children because they were Aboriginal, and that is not, at least not openly, happening now,” Hytten said. “But the fact is that the de facto nature of what is happening now results in the same place.”