Updated: Aug 1, 2021
By Irisa R.
We would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this continent that was never sold nor ceded and whose civilisations are among the oldest in human history. We are honoured to live and work on the ancestral lands of the Darug people of the Eora nation and pay our respects to Elders past and present.
“Now they are saying it’s a new stolen generation, but it never stopped”
- Cherbourg Elder Irene Landers.
In school we learnt about Aboriginal history as a dead history: one that doesn’t have a real place in modern day Australia. When we were exposed to the horrors of the Stolen Generation, it was taught to us as a collateral of colonisation, as a tragic incident but neatly contained within our past. By my third year of University, I had spent a total of two weeks in a first year subject learning about modern Aboriginal kinship structures. Yet again, their experiences were described in an almost clinical - manner, and quickly contextualised by the larger issues affecting Australia.
In my fourth year of Uni, I joined Dr Libesman, a leading academic in this area, as a research assistant. Whereas I had previously spent my time researching at a desk where it was easy to disconnect, it was no longer possible to do this when I began work on the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in child protection decision making in NSW’ report focused on Aboriginal children in state custody. Speaking directly with people working in the field, I was immediately confronted with how wrong I was in my own assumptions about the realities facing Aboriginal communities today.
What’s happening right now?
I cannot disclose any of the stories that I heard while working on the report, but I have found some publicly available incidents that are reflective of broader trends that I witnessed while working in this space.
Two out of every five children in foster care are Aboriginal. When you realise that Aboriginal peoples make up a mere 2.8% of our population, this statistic becomes incomprehensible.
Suellyn Tighe, a criminal lawyer and co - founder of Grandmothers Against Removal NSW (GMAR NSW), argues that this statistic proves how systemic racism continues to exist in exercises of state power on Aboriginal families. She asks, “How can this just happen? How can 40% of the kids in care be Aboriginal?” This isn’t an accident. It points to the structures that are in place, and begs the question - why are non-Aboriginal children not subject to the same levels of early removal as Aboriginal families.
Right now, Aboriginal children are being removed from their homes at a faster rate than they were during the Stolen Generation.
In 2017, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, an investigator for the UN found that Australia’s child protection policy is “one of the worst” in the world when it comes to its treatment of Aboriginal children. She says that it is so unique in its brutality because Aboriginal children are being placed in non - Aboriginal homes, where their connection with their language, culture and Aboriginal identity is dependent on the whims of their non-Aboriginal foster carer.
Debra Swan, also co - founder of GMAR NSW, explains that, “even though some have good foster homes, they’ve still lost their sense of belonging. They were still searching and trying to connect with family.” The intergenerational trauma caused is disturbingly similar to the social ramifications of the Stolen Generation. It’s important to remember that some of these children being removed have mothers or grandmothers who were separated from their families during the Stolen Generation.
The process in which children are removed from their homes adds significantly to the trauma of their removal. Absec, an NGO who advocates for Aboriginal children in foster care, conducted an investigation where they found babies, who were only a few hours old, were being removed from the hospital and placed in foster care while their mothers were still asleep. Often the parents would not be alerted at all, and when they inquired on the whereabouts of their newborn they were forced to wait days, weeks and sometimes months for a response.
The purpose of Family and Community Services (FACS) is to look out for the vulnerable children in our communities, yet the way they administer this “justice” doesn’t centre the wellbeing of Aboriginal children at the core of their effort. At first I assumed that I didn’t know about these injustices because they were hidden from us, censorship at its best. Yet in reality, they aren’t hidden, they can easily be found because the media, academics and NGOs continue to expose these practices.
I kept asking myself, how did I not know about this? As an Australian, I hadn’t ever truly dedicated time to educate myself so that I could be an effective ally. The more I learned, the more complicit I felt in the injustices they faced.
Why Is This Happening?
Nobody is holding FACS accountable. There isn’t an independent body or parent organisation that checks whether their decision to remove a child is well - founded.
Section 13 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act (1998) identifies a strict protocol in deciding to remove children. It requires all Aboriginal children:
First be placed in their extended family or elsewhere in their community,
Or in an Aboriginal foster care,
Or as a last resort in a non - Aboriginal home.
If there are laws in place to prioritise the safety of Aboriginal children, why are they not being followed?
In NSW it is more closely followed, in comparison to Victoria and the Northern Territory, but caseworkers have still been found to be bypassing the first two options and going straight to non-Aboriginal placements. FACS defends against these allegations that they are targeting Aboriginal families with claims that their caseworkers will only ever remove children from their families as a last resort. However, it’s a subjective test - this means that the welfare worker’s judgement is final even if there isn’t a clear methodology as to how they got there.
What Do We Do Now?
These conversations are easily avoided because they can be especially disillusioning to hear. Modern Australia was built on the erasure and destruction of Aboriginal communities, and living with this reality as an Australian, no matter how and when our parents came, is confusing and unsettling.
Historically, the only way our government has navigated the relationship with Aboriginal communities is through paternalistic “solutions” that are disempowering.
“The Apology by Kevin Rudd in 2008 many believe signified the end to such paternalistic practices. However, the number of Aboriginal children forcibly removed has increased 5 fold. We call on the Aboriginal & non-Aboriginal people to say with a collective voice to our elected government representatives: No more, Not ever again & Not in this country ” - Grandmother’s Against Removal NSW.
I quickly realised that as a first generation Australian that I didn’t feel any personal obligation to go out there and better understand my responsibility towards these communities, even though these removals are sometimes a thirty minute drive from my house. When I called one organisation their front desk administrator said, “we don’t want anymore research bull**** unless we know it’ll directly help our people,” whilst another quickly assured me that “any report that highlights [Aboriginal] voices and experiences deserves to be supported.”
The only way this issue can be solved is by placing Aboriginal voices at the forefront of these solutions. There are organisations already benefiting the communities in the best ways, with the limited funds that they currently have. The work is already being done by the right people. We just need to listen to their solutions and give them the funding they deserve to bring their solutions to light.
These are five of the many organisations that are working at the forefronts of these fights. The organisations that are trying to help are underfunded, so please go help support them in any way you can, if it’s in donations or by volunteering.
* I’m not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and so I cannot speak for their experiences. I drew inspiration for this piece after spending last year as a research assistant for Dr Teresa Libesman, a UTS law Professor.
Lead Editor: Palwasha A.
Bessant, J. C. (2013), History and Australian indigenous child welfare policies. Policy Studies. [Online] 34 (3), 310–325.
Centre Human Rights Law Conference 2017, Children and Racism, Sydney, viewed 21 February 2020, <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/news/speeches/children-and-racism>.
Libesman, T. (n.d.) Indigenous child welfare post bringing them home: from aspirations for self-determination to neoliberal assimilation. Australian indigenous law review. [Online] 19 (1), 46–61.
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Susan Chenery 2018, I call it racism: when they took the children, it was in police cars, Sydney, viewed on 13 February 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/may/26/i-call-it-racism-when-they-took-the-children-it-was-in-police-cars>.
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Victoria Tauli - Corpuz 2017, Australia's rate of Indigenous child removal 'unique', UN investigator says, Sydney, viewed 10 February 2020,< https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/apr/04/australia-rate-indigenous-child-removal-unique-un-investigator>.