In December, activists travelled to Jigalong, a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia that is crying out for help to stop the Department of Child Protection forcibly removing their children.
Jigalong is featured in the film Rabbit Proof Fence, about the experience of Stolen Generation children in the 1930s. But as Jigalong Elder Heather Samson told the ABC, “[The] Stolen Generation never ends. They say things have changed, but nothing. I don’t believe it… our kids are really missing out on the love of their family and community and the language and the culture that we want to show them”.
Australia-wide, there are currently more than 15,000 Aboriginal children in out of home care. This is more than one third of children in the child protection system, despite Aboriginal people making up less than 3 per cent of the population. The number of Aboriginal children being taken is much greater than at any point in Australian history.
Protests in the 1980s enshrined an “Aboriginal child placement principle” in child protection law. But less than half of placements in out of home care today are with people classified as Aboriginal kin. Even this does not stop the trauma of removal for many children and means the “kinship carer” becomes subject to surveillance from the Department.
The delegation to Jigalong was organised by Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), and joined by NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge.
GMAR unites Aboriginal families affected by the child removal crisis, and activists from across Australia, to demand Aboriginal control of Aboriginal child welfare. GMAR has organised protests and active support for families. In recent months groups in Ballina, Newman and Jigalong have formed.
In November, protests forced the Tamworth Child Protection office to sign an agreement on “guiding principles” with GMAR. The most important principle is that extended Aboriginal family should be consulted about child protection concerns to help find solutions as an alternative to forced removal.
A number of children have been returned to their families as a result of this initiative, but as yet there is no evidence of fundamental change. The group will lead a demonstration in Canberra on 11 February, marking eight years since Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.
Neglect and Aboriginal oppression
Rudd’s apology took place in the middle of an explosion in the number of child removals. Approximately 1000 new Aboriginal children have come into the foster care system every year since.
Aboriginal children have always been overrepresented in this system. Numbers began to climb in the Howard era, as Aboriginal organisations were attacked and assimilation once again became the byword in Aboriginal affairs. Most often the official reason Aboriginal children are taken is “neglect”. But the circumstances of poverty in Aboriginal communities are the result of generations of systemic neglect and racism by the Australian state.
And it continues. Children are removed from women experiencing domestic violence, while women’s shelters are closed down. Children are removed from overcrowded houses, or from homeless parents, while the government refuses to build any new houses and moves to close down whole communities. The disgraceful state of legal services means many Aboriginal parents go unrepresented in court and cannot contest allegations against them.
More than $1 billion annually is spent on Aboriginal child protection, while jobs and community programs are facing death by a thousand cuts.
Racism also drives some allegations of neglect. Aboriginal parents are punished for taking their children traveling to visit relatives or their country, or for allowing extended family to play an active role in raising the children.
GMAR was formed by Aboriginal grandmothers sick of the callous disrespect from a Department that refuses to allow them to take on care of their grandchildren. The Department raids houses, often with police, to forcibly remove children, rather than genuinely engage with families and communities about concerns. This includes removing Aboriginal babies, often straight out of the hospital ward, hours after birth.
Rather than punishing families for racism and poverty, the billions spent on child removal and policies like the NT Intervention could be redirected into funding for Aboriginal controlled programs that provide employment, liveable housing and meaningful support for Aboriginal families. Yet instead, things are going in the opposite direction. State governments have strengthened powers to make child removal more permanent and to make it more difficult for families to reunify.
By Paddy Gibson