When it comes to the Aboriginal news cycle, there's often not much cause for celebration. So much of the news seems to centre on reporting the negatives aspects of Indigenous experience in this country; often without our voices; or reinforcing government policy; again without our voices -- that a story of Indigenous lobbying and self-determination is a rare sight.
Yet last week's news that activist group Grandmothers Against Removals had successfully negotiated a deal with the NSW Government to ensure that elders are consulted in cases of children at risk was a story that gave me hope.
Formed in January this year, a collective of Aboriginal women across various regions in NSW stood together and challenged the government to serve our communities and our children better. What prompted action by these women was news that there has been dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal children being taken into care. Since Rudd's 2009 apology, numbers have increased every year to the point where Aboriginal children now consist of 35 per cent of all children in care. Additionally, fewer children are being placed within their communities than ever.
The safety of children must be paramount. Where children are at risk, their wellbeing must inform the decisions made on their behalf so they have a chance to settle down and thrive. Yet the idea that it is always best to remove Aboriginal children from their families and communities is one rooted in institutional racism. It has chilling parallels with assimilation programs of yesteryear – programs which, in many cases, led to the abuse of children in institutions.
One of the most common reasons cited for the removal of Aboriginal children is "neglect". This raises questions about why the removal of children is seen as preferable to tackling contributing factors such as entrenched community poverty.
In Victoria, soaring rates of domestic violence are often blamed for more children being taken into care. Yet where is the funding for better services to empower family violence victims to set up new homes with their children?
In cases where immediate family is unable to properly care for a child, extended family and community can often provide safe homes. Consulting with groups such as Grandmothers Against Removals not only provides authorities with the opportunity to forge community connections and build trust, but it also allows children to remain connected with their culture while receiving the stability they need.
The importance of the building of trust between Aboriginal communities and the authorities cannot be underestimated. When it comes to government programs, Aboriginal people have continually been sidelined rather than consulted. This breaks down trust and makes individuals less likely to seek assistance when it is truly needed.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on three boys in Western Australia who had run away from a care placement asking why it had taken the authorities so long to appeal to the public for information.
It's telling that just under two weeks ago, one of the three boys has again been reported missing. This time, Clive Hart had been gone three weeks before a public appeal for information on his whereabouts was made. On both occasions, it was reported that he most likely headed back to family members.
I am not going to speculate on the living situation he has been removed from, but I do wonder if an environment he has run away from at least twice is best serving his needs. Considering Western Australia has the highest rate of child removal, perhaps some new approaches are warranted to ensure that resources are being used to better support children rather than to chase them when they run.
I commend the strong senior women of Grandmothers Against Removals who have successfully lobbied their government for change so that the needs of children, their families and their communities are better catered for.
The fundamental strategy of building trust and engaging with community members has proven effective in dealing with complex social issues, from substance abuse to offender rehabilitation. There is no reason why this cannot be applied to supporting children at risk.
History tells us removing children from their families and communities causes widespread trauma which can impact on multiple generations. When it comes to the safety of children, Australia certainly shouldn't be looking to repeat history.