As reported by the Australian, the number being removed into ‘out of home care’ has doubled over the last decade from 3.2 per cent to 6.5 per cent of all indigenous children. The fact that so many indigenous families are evidently incapable of properly caring for the more than 15,000 indigenous children that currently live in care reflects a deepening national tragedy. The reality that so many need to be rescued shows that many indigenous communities are spiralling into social chaos and dysfunction — despite the tens-of-billions of dollars spent annually on Indigenous services.
But the explanation for the skyrocketing proportion of removed indigenous kids offered by the peak lobby group, the Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, is very misleading.
Under the banner of the new ‘Family Matters: kids safe in culture, not in care’ campaign, the Secretariat maintains that the reason indigenous kids are removed at 10 times the rate of non-indigenous is that Australian child protection services are not ‘culturally appropriate’. The claim is that they are unnecessarily removed because social workers do not understand how ‘unique’ Aboriginal parenting styles.
We have heard the same rhetoric about ‘culture’ before. The 1996 Bringing Them Home ‘Stolen Generations’ report blamed the over-representation of indigenous children in care on culturally arrogant attitudes; white, western social workers were accused of labelling Aboriginal family practices — such as lax parental supervision of children, and the way that kin (extended families) supposedly take care of children who roam the streets of the indigenous ‘village’ at all hours — as neglectful and as grounds for removal. Even 20 years ago, claims of cultural bias downplayed the problems in the worst communities. But in the wake of the attention focused on the legacy of the Stolen Generations, the effect on child protection practices has been profound. Hence the notion that our child protection services lack cultural sensitivity is absurd. To the contrary, contemporary indigenous child protection policies are awash with cultural awareness; to the point of being detrimental to children’s best interest. Child protection services have a powerful reason or excuse to overlook serious child welfare issues: to avoid appearing culturally insensitive or ‘racist’. This chiefly involves attributing major problems with indigenous child welfare — the chronic neglect of children’s physical, educational and other basic needs — to the ‘specialness’ of Aboriginal culture.
The upshot of this ‘culturally appropriate’ approach is that indigenous children can end up not being removed when they should be. The ‘cumulative harm’ these children therefore suffer – which often includes third-world standard malnutrition and other medical conditions and diseases of poverty – are a major cause of the shameful ‘gaps’ in health and other social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Take the death from rheumatic pancarditis of four year-old Kia Shillingsworth in 2012. The NSW Coroner found she was not removed from her family — despite suffering gross neglect and being reported numerous times —because local social worker were so ‘culturally aware’ that they tolerated the poor living conditions of Aboriginal children. This suggests that the crisis in indigenous child welfare is worse than even the shocking removal figures indicate. The real problem with indigenous child protection in this country is not that too many kids are removed – tragic though the number is — but that fewer children overall than should be are saved from the dire circumstances in which they live. As WA Aboriginal elder Carol Pettersen said: ‘The children must be taken, they have to be taken away (from dysfunctional families), because there is a risk there . . . rape and alcohol, and violence, and the trauma.’
If we are ever to close the gap in indigenous outcomes, we must call a halt to the double standards and hypocrisies of the Aboriginal Industry. The indigenous groups that back the Secretariat’s Family Matters campaign are staffed by members of the professional, university-educated Aboriginal middle-class that the official statistics show do as well in life as their non-indigenous peers. They live, work, and raise families in normal Australian cities, towns and suburbs. They do not live on traditional lands or practice traditional ways. Yet they assert via Family Matters that it is essential for some indigenous children to live on or near the rural and remote ‘homeland’ settlements so they can live ‘close to culture’ in order to maintain their indigenous identity.
The definition of indigenous identity applied to abused and neglected children, isn’t applied to professional Aboriginal people and their families. Moreover, the selective impact of ‘culturally appropriate’ indigenous child protection will ultimately limit the most vulnerable indigenous children’s opportunities for integration, advancement and prosperity.
These kids will end up trapped in the homeland settlements because they lack the capabilities to leave and thrive in a modern economy – an outcome that will perpetuate the need to persist with the ‘Separatist’ homeland experiment that has caused such indigenous suffering over the past 40 years. Ultimately, this will necessitate government’s continuing to expend the billions of dollars of taxpayer funding on the tens of thousands of professional jobs and well-off middle-class lifestyles enjoyed by the members of the Aboriginal industry, who staff the bureaucracies and NGOs that deliver ‘indigenous-specific’ services in the homelands.
‘Culturally appropriate’ indigenous child protection will ultimately serve the self-interests of the most advantaged indigenous Australians at the expense of the most disadvantaged.