Child removal: The Stolen Generations continue…

In light of current practices, it is possible that the Stolen Generation may span across multiple generations, affecting the children of today. Tiarne Shutt writes about the lack of knowledge surrounding incidences of the removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Aboriginal flag

One of Rudd’s first actions in office under the Labor government was to formally apologise to the members of the Stolen Generation and to all who were affected. Prime Minister Rudd made his historic ‘Sorry’ speech on the 13th of February 2008 stating that “the injustices of the past must never, never happen again”. These powerful words instilled hope within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, however they were but empty meanings. It is time that the atrocities still occurring throughout Australia today are exposed, the current rate of child removal soaring higher than at the time of the Stolen Generation, with numbers continually climbing.

Australia’s racist foundations have infected our country’s entire history. The paternalism evident in the ‘protection-era’ saw thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families ripped apart, cultures erased, kinship ties destroyed, languages molded, merged or altogether dissipated and countless individuals robbed of their sense of identity.

The 1997 ‘Bringing Them Home’ report revealed that as many as 50,000 Aboriginal children and families experienced child removal. These children were taken from their families and placed on missions, rural stations (where they worked as slaves) and in out-of-home care, where many were abused. The report identified this process of removal as genocide.

As a nation, we appeared to have moved on from this dark era of our history. However, this is not the case. As of 30 June 2013, 14,267 Indigenous children had been removed from their families. This figure places the current rate of removal five times higher than the rate at the time ‘Bringing Them Home’ was published.

NSW tops the rate of removal, with 8% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children already taken from their families. This has prompted a comparison of Australia’s current situation to the Stolen Generation. Nationally, 55.1 in every 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in out-of-home care, compared to 5.4 per 1000 non-Indigenous children, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Indigenous children are 8 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be placed in out-of-home care, representing more than a third of all children in this situation. However, Indigenous children comprise just 3% of this population, indicating a gross over representation in these figures.

The 2013 Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (‘SNAICC’) conducted a forum, discussing the alarming rates of Indigenous child removal. They urged the government to reduce these figures by 2018, describing this as “our national shame”.

When asked about the current incidence of child removal, Aunty Lorraine Peeters, founder of Marumali Healing and member of the Stolen Generation laments “I feel really sick in the stomach every time I look at the stats’’.

However, positive steps have been made by the government to ensure a smoother transition for Indigenous children subjected to removal, also identifying removal as a last resort. The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, an instructive guide for the government, recommends that Indigenous children should be placed with Indigenous families/caregivers. This recommendation was prompted by reports of the 217 of the 271 Indigenous children removed in Victoria in 2002 being placed in non-Indigenous homes. While there have been improvements, the SNAICC forum in 2013 found that 31% of Indigenous children were still not placed with their kin.

The Northern Territory Chief Minister, Mr Adam Gillies took the view that policies regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child removal should move towards permanent adoption situations where the reason for removal is neglect. However, the term ‘neglect’ is ambiguous. History has shown us that failing to understand Indigenous cultures and their sense of community has created a one-way dialogue, in which only the government can speak and make decisions. In many Aboriginal communities, for example, it is the responsibility of the community as a whole to raise children and support them. This can mean that birth parents move their children to other members of the family. This is not seen as creating an inconsistency within the child’s upbringing, but gives that child a sense of community and kinship that their culture values. Unfortunately, this can be viewed as ‘neglect’ through the eyes of the government, exposing a disregard for Indigenous culture and values.

SNAICC held the government accountable for looking to child removal in the first instance, rather then a last resort, as recommended by the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle. They found that views like Mr. Gillies’ exhibit a misunderstanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. SNAICC reported that the government’s role should be focused towards removing the source of harm, instead of removing the child.

Indigenous Australians have continually been blamed for the conditions in which they live. Poverty and social disintegration is an evident factor in many rural Indigenous communities, the cause of these elements often attributed to the communities themselves. This leads to poor circumstances for Indigenous children, therefore leading to abuse. SNAICC contends that support is key and that a lack of available resources is a disservice to remote Indigenous communities who would otherwise be able to care for children adequately.

In 2012, the Northern Territory coordinator for remote services, Olga Havern released a report stating that almost $80m was spent on the surveillance and removal of Indigenous children, with only $500,000 dedicated to supporting impoverished families. “The primary reasons for removing children are welfare issues directly related to poverty and inequality. The impact is just horrendous because if they are not reunited within six months, it’s likely they won’t see each other again. If South Africa was doing this, there’d be an international outcry,” she stated.

A tape recently came to light, exposing footage of a child removal. It featured a mother witnessing her infant being taken away. “There is nothing wrong with my baby! Why are you doing this to us?” She cried. “I would’ve been hung years ago, wouldn’t I? Because [as an Aboriginal Australian] you’re guilty before you’re found innocent…their stealing of our kids is happening all over again!” The mother is then met by a welfare official, who offers only this: “I’m gonna take him, mate.”

The video features an official claiming to be conducting a mere “assessment”.

However, prior to the arrival of the official, two police officers warned two mothers, including the lady concerned to “get out of here quick”. The women fled, with both children eventually being seized and both mothers unaware of the location of their children.

Forced adoption and ‘guardianship’ will soon be an issue to be debated in the New South Wales parliament. It is possible that infants removed from their family for more than six months will soon be adopted into new families. Greens MP David Shoebridge commented on the proposal, acknowleded that “it’s setting up Aboriginal families to fail”.

In Indigenous affairs, wilful ignorance seems to be acceptable even when it ‘kicks a person when they’re down’. Perhaps it is time that we as a nation take action to help that person up off the ground and give our Indigenous people a little support.

NOTE: This article in no way suggests that Indigenous children should remain with caretakers/families/guardians in circumstances of factual neglect or abuse, but merely contends that more emphasis should be placed on supporting Indigenous communities and providing them with the tools to overcome barriers to optimal child rearing. The focus should be placed on providing children with support, with a view to achieving positive and just outcomes for all.