In the future another generation of Indigenous people will deserve an apology from government, not for removing them but for failing to protect them.
Last month marked the 9th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generation. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lamented the high numbers of Indigenous children being removed from their community and culture, saying: “We do not want another generation of young Aboriginal children unnecessarily separated from their culture. We do not want to see the emergence of a second Stolen Generation, not by design, but by default.”
On ABC’s The Drum, Alice Springs Councillor Jacinta Price rebuked Rudd saying: “Indigenous children’s lives must come before anything else. … So if it means they have to go to a non-Indigenous family, who can give them the opportunities they deserve … like any other child in Australia that should be the case.” She spoke of family members having “begged for children to be removed” and placed with non-Indigenous families they know and trust only to have child protection workers say “No, No. It’s their culture that’s more important” or citing the Stolen Generation as justification for not removing them.
The fact is there are Indigenous children living in the grip of dysfunction, abuse, family violence and addiction. Report after report confirms it. Smallbone Report (2013), Little Children are Sacred Report (2007), Breaking the Silence Report (2006), Gordon Report (2002) and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders Women’s Task Force on Violence Report (1999) found children exposed to some of the worst forms of violence, sexual assaults, psychological abuse and neglect imaginable. Last year the NT Coroner described family violence there as out of control with one child subjected to domestic violence and three witnessing it every day. No child should live in such environments.
The Drum’s official Facebook Page posted Price’s interview with the caption: “Indigenous children’s lives must come before anything else … even if it means taking them from their families. Jacinta Price shares her controversial view.” Since when is putting a child’s life first “controversial”? It’s the basis of Australia’s child protection system and Indigenous children have as much right to protection as any other. Of course children should know their culture and have the opportunity to be part of it. It isn’t more important than their right to live safely, free of abuse and violence and healthy, fed, clothed, housed, educated and loved.
If a child’s extended family is rife with dysfunction, and many are, no family member may be able to care for them. And it’s not always possible for Indigenous children to be cared for in community. I’ve fostered children. It’s a big responsibility. These children require a focus and effort many people simply can’t provide given their own family responsibilities. And if a child comes from a small, close knit community, where everyone has a kin relationship with everyone else, it may be impossible to protect a child if they remain there.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a choice between a child’s individual interests and the child living within their family, community and/or cultural group. This isn’t a hard choice. The child’s interests come first. Few people object to this principle when it comes to white children. When it comes to Indigenous children it’s sensitive or “controversial”; as if their membership of a group is more important than their wellbeing. This mentality is racist. Indigenous children are human beings, not museum pieces to be preserved in some exhibit.
Today’s situation is nothing like the Stolen Generation. Indigenous children aren’t being removed to assimilate them into white society in anticipation of Indigenous extinction, but because of abuse and neglect at home. Last year Victoria’s Commission for Children and Young People released its report on services provided to Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in Victoria. On the report’s release the headlines spoke of Aboriginal children being let down by being removed from family, culture and community, often placed in non-Aboriginal homes. Read the report and you’ll find 88% had experienced family violence and 87% were exposed to parental alcohol/substance use.
Last November at the National Launch of the Family Matters campaign, Senator Pat Dodson described the high levels of Indigenous children being removed from their families as “genocide”. I disagree. Even the Victorian report says “Most Victorian Aboriginal children are cared for in loving families, where they are cherished, protected and nurtured, where their connection to community and culture is strong, their Koori identity is affirmed and they are thriving, empowered and safe.” But if there’s a “genocide” those who abuse or neglect Indigenous children are responsible for it.
Price’s statement that child protection agencies justify leaving children in unsafe environments because culture is more important is shocking. This must stop. In the future there’ll be another generation of Indigenous people deserving an apology from government, not for removing them but for failing to protect them.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 17 March 2017