A group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander non-government organisations has launched a round of community consultations across the country in the hope of addressing the over-representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.
Organisers say the consultations will raise awareness that children should only be removed from their families as a last resort.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show Indigenous children are almost eight times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than other Australian children.
It’s that over-representation, as well as a rapid increase in the numbers over the past decade, that has prompted the national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families to organise national consultations.
The first meeting was held in Darwin and among the attendees were the Northern Territory Minister for Children and Families, John Elferink, and NT Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath.
The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) organised the community consultation, one of a number to take place in each state and territory over the next 6-12 months.
Chief executive Frank Hytten says that time will be spent in developing state and territory-based plans to reduce the statistics.
“We’ve created a national program called Families Matter, Faith in Culture Not Care. This meeting was meant to be the first of one in every jurisdiction and probably more than that,” Mr Hitten says.
“What’s significant I suppose is that we’re starting with the NT where the problems are perhaps the most apparent, and communities are the most damaged by history and by what is going on now, with children still being removed in greater rates, I’m told, than in the Stolen Generations.”
He says there are many reasons why the rates of Indigenous childen in out-of-home care are higher today.
“Something like 35 percent of children removed, are removed for neglect. But neglect can be seen as a cultural issue,” Mr Hitten explains.
“I don’t mean cultural with a capital C. It just means things like kids playing barefoot or kids sleeping on the floor; those reasons are, I understand, why people are being taken away. It wouldn’t have been (the case) 20 years ago. That would have been seen as the way people lived.
“And abject poverty is probably the single biggest issue that creates a lot of this. Going to school is becoming more and more significant as a requirement from non-Aboriginal society. If education is about issues that don’t impact on Aboriginal society then kids don’t go to school.”
Margaret Furber is a Stolen Generations member and a board member for NT child protection group, Safety.
She knows well the impact of being removed from one’s family.
“[There’s] Loss of culture, loss of identity, and when you come out of care you have to go looking around for your family,” she says.
“I was old enough and lucky enough to still stay in Alice Springs and still allowed [to be] with my family. And I was able to connect back with them. But my brother and sisters didn’t.”
She says culture and family connection is central to preventing the cycle of disadvantage amongst Aboriginal Australians.
“That’s part of it that makes them feel whole again. It’s very hard (for) children who are taken away and don’t have anything. Then they come back to Aboriginal culture and then they finally feel relief and [feel] comfortable in saying: yea’h, I’m back where I belong’.”
Patricia Kurnith formerly worked for the Territory government for 26 years in the health department and eight years in child protection.
She says there are circumstances where children do need to be removed, for their own safety.
But she says she seen too many cases of children being removed unnecessarily.
“There were two children who were in hospital between [the ages of] 1 and 2. They were being fed by PEG [ Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy] – that means [they were fed with] liquid to gain their weight because they had feeding problems when they were born.
“Now when those children were taken into care, the mother was devastated. She tried so hard to do everything right.
“What happens is back home in the community – whatever happened, we don’t know the right story – the feeds were missed. So the children lost weight, [and] ended up in hospital. But if we were to support that mother back here in Darwin with accommodation and someone providing that care – and it doesn’t have to be all day, it just has to be someone checking for those feeds – then she would have got the children to the age where they don’t need the PEG eeding any more.”
She says a fresh approach is needed involving businesses, community groups and governments to get a significant reduction in the numbers.
“I hope we can look at ways of being flexible, ways of working in with families and children and maybe saying to the families out there if you need support, get it before it comes to this point.
“And then maybe [we can get] those high statistics that are there for our children in care, get it down to a level, you know? It happens because it happens everywhere in the world. But it shouldn’t be this high here [in Australia].”