Contributor: Esme Mathis
Indigenous children continue to be overrepresented in the foster care system, despite the Bringing Them Home Report celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year.
The national enquiry into the experiences of Stolen Generation victims was the first report to formally recognise the traumatic impact of twentieth century assimilation policies and provided recommendations on how to deal with issues of self-determinism, justice and healing in the future.
Twenty years on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent one third of people placed in foster care, despite making up 3 per cent of Australia’s population.
“It takes you back to the mission days when we were first taken away, and we had the white people telling us what to do, you can’t live here, this isn’t a safe place for you, even though we’ve been living here for thousands and thousands of years with no problems,” said Brendan Kerin, an Aboriginal foster care case worker for MacKillop Family Services in Blacktown.
There are more than 6000 Indigenous children living in out-of-home care in New South Wales. This number is expected to triple by 2035.
Indigenous children are typically placed in foster care because of exposure to domestic violence, untreated mental illness, substance abuse and neglect. They are ten times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than any other group in Australia.
Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal that the rate of assault is 17 time higher for Indigenous girls and young women and four times higher for boys and young men than non-Indigenous children and youth.
The foster care system does not offer a solution to these issues. The removal of children from their families does not break the cycles of abuse and is “a form of trauma in itself”.
Australian state governments continue to prioritise funding out-of-home care. In 2016, only 17% of child protection funding was spent on early intervention and prevention support services to families and communities.
“The whole system really needs to be pulled apart,” said Mr Kerin. “Families have generations of entrenched trauma that have coping mechanisms where they’re turning to alcohol and drugs because that’s all they’ve ever known.”
Aboriginal groups feel they have marginal influence in child welfare decision-making.
“White organisations when they are having these conversations about Aboriginal kids aren’t really involving the Aboriginal community. Most organisations have an Aboriginal committee, but I see that as a ‘tick the box’ exercise, and I substantiate that evidence based on the statistics,” said Mr Kerin.
Indigenous communities are urging people to start stepping up and taking action against this.
“The numbers will definitely keep rising. The [government and support agencies] are not making any impact whatsoever, even though everyone is trying their hardest. It’s just not happening,” said Uncle Ray McMinn, an Aboriginal Elder and Advocate for Aboriginal People at Uniting.
“The government has to start funding the communities to solve their own problems. It’s gotta be from within.”
Experts are now pushing for a shifted focus to early intervention and prevention. They are demanding that foster care should be offered as a “last resort”.
Self-determination policies are now starting to influence child welfare politics.
The 1997 Bringing Them Home Report defines self-determination as “Indigenous decision-making carried through into implementation.”
The Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat (AbSec) is New South Wales’ leading Aboriginal organisation offering policy advice on child protection and out-of-home care on issues affecting Aboriginal children, young people, families and carers.
“If we continue with the same sorts of approaches which we’ve tried in the past then it’s likely we’ll continue to see the number of Aboriginal children [in foster care] rise,” said Paul Grey, AbSec’s Executive Leader of Strategy, Policy and Engagement.
“We need to invest a lot more of our time and financial effort in actually working with families early to effectively prevent instances of kids needing to need any form of alternate care.”
AbSec’s policies have been directly influenced by the Bringing Them Home Report.
“Self-determination needs to be at the heart of this system, and I think in the 20 years since Bringing Them Home we haven’t seen really any significant movement on that,” said Mr Grey.
“I think those core principles persist, and they persist because I think that’s the track we have to take if we’re to truly make a difference in the numbers that we’ve been seeing and the growth of Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care.”
AbSec is working alongside NSW’s Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) to create a statewide model that addresses intergenerational trauma and strengthens families and communities.
“We’d love to see a state-wide security net of Aboriginal community controlled organisations who are empowered to design and deliver the services that are tailored to the families and communities that they work with,” said Mr Grey.
“They’re the guys who know the issues and understand the solutions that are going to be best placed for them, so they’re the experts we should be investing in to implement the solutions they need.”
Transcript: Brendan Kerin, Aboriginal Case Worker at MacKillop Family Services Blacktown
Support agencies and foster parents are working alongside the government to halve the number of children living in care across Australia by 2018. With your experience, do you think this is currently a realistic goal, or will the statistics most likely keep rising?
I think it will continue to rise, and I think what needs to be looked at is …look white organisations when they are having these conversations about Aboriginal kids aren’t really involving the Aboriginal community of Aboriginal people. Sure, most organisations have an Aboriginal committee, but I see that as a “tick the box” exercise, and I substantiate that evidence based on the statistics…The whole system really needs to be pulled apart. If you look at kinship care, there are three main focuses for the removal of Aboriginal kids, and the first policy and procedure and legislation is to look at kinship care. Now, if you have a child for example that [has] both families from the community, and that’s normally the case, and lets use domestic violence as the example, the Aboriginal child has been removed from the families again in Mount Druitt, both families are in Mount Druitt, they don’t really place the child with that family in Mount Druitt. So to me, it’s a set up for failure, a “tick the box” exercise. The second one is with Aboriginal carers. Now you’re not going to find too many Aboriginal carers, and that’s due to [the fact that] most Aboriginal people have a criminal record. And if you look at the statistics again on our incarceration rates, that again, you know, with the high amount of Indigenous people that do have a criminal record, it’s very rare that you’re going to find an Aboriginal carer that’s going to go through the paperwork and pass all the checks to become a carer.
Does that mean that there has not been an increased number of Aboriginal people signing up to become carers, despite increased awareness of the issue through various media campaigns?
I think it’s the process. You’re looking at a 6 to 12 month process before you’ve done the checks and passed all the paperwork, where lots needs to be done before you are a carer because again, you can’t really place an Aboriginal child with kinship if the family are all from the area, because quite often…let’s say mum and dad have been arguing and have had a fight and the child has been placed with an aunty, those two parents still have access to that child. I would much rather see that funding and that money go towards those people that have other children and have been addressing those issues to keep the children at home because what happens is removal of the child…I have a case now where the children were removed due to domestic violence, so as further punishment for the mother for being hospitalised, she’s had her children removed and the father is deemed a perpetrator. And they’ve both left the lane. So rather than putting supports around so that the father, and this is one of my pet hates that men are always portrayed as a perpetrator, and there’s just no support or no education…so let’s say dad goes to jail for domestic violence, he gets out, he gets in another relationship, he perpetrates domestic violence again, he goes to jail, he gets out, so it’s a never ending circle. And who’s to know why he is the way he is and how he’s gotten there…you need to know but those questions are never asked about that journey. He might have been brought up with his father as the perpetrator. So why not chuck the money at that to stop that cycle, rather than spending millions of dollars in housing these children in hotels. Quite often it’s not a safe place for them to be in care…Now the two children I work with have since been sexually abused in the care of FACS carers. These are the type of issues that arise all the time, and we hear about it in the media, but what about the ones we don’t hear?
Non-Indigenous carers are considered the “last resort” for an indigenous child. What do you think are the short term/long term impacts of an indigenous child growing up in this type of environment?
Personally I don’t care whether they’re black, white, yellow…I don’t care, I look at the need. Just because they are Aboriginal they have to have an Aboriginal carer. I think a good home is a good home, even if you’re just loving to any child no matter what colour. It’s a little bit the same as putting a Chinese child with a Japanese family. Just because they’re Asian doesn’t mean it’s going to have any benefits in the long term. I mean, as an Aboriginal person, I don’t come from this area, so my beliefs and my colouring and my language is different from a child from, let’s say, Dubbo. So just because I’m black and he’s black, what benefit is it of putting us together, apart from the visual?
There’s a little bit of black politics in there as well, and politics is a pain in the ass. And you can quite often hinder progress and you’ve probably got a model out there in the community, you know, black kids with black carers. Well people don’t often become a carer and help us get more Aboriginal carers on board. We don’t have them. There’s not a lot of Aboriginal carers out there, so what do you want these kids to do? To stop them from being in care in the first place, the Elders in the community need to step up and start having these conversations with these young fellas around domestic violence and abuse and where are the extended families?