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Evelyn Araluen Corr is a Goorie teacher and researcher of Indigenous literatures and culture at the University of Sydney. She is the 2017 winner of the Nakata Brophy prize for young Indigenous writers. She is based in Dharug country, western Sydney.
This Sorry Day hundreds will gather in Sydney’s Victoria Park, 20 years after the federal tabling of the Bringing Them Home report into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
This national date of recognition for the trauma caused to children and families was a recommendation of the report itself and is a time in which Aboriginal elders, activists and organisations mobilise to highlight the increasing rates of removal of Aboriginal children into foster care and juvenile detention.
Preparations for Sorry Day 2017 began months ago in Sydney. The local branch of Grandmothers Against Removal (GMAR), a national network of families fighting the systemic removal of Aboriginal children, have already led several rallies, forums, marches and healing camps this year. In a panel held in the Redfern Community Centre last March, Laura and Bianca Lyons – Wiradjuri mothers who have both had children removed by Family and Community Services – spoke out against the failures of child protection services to provide safe and culturally sensitive environments for these children.
“We [GMAR] hit the ground running. Because we realised it wasn’t just about our children, my children, my grandchildren, it was about everyone’s children. These children, these Aboriginal children that are in care, they need somebody to be their voice,” said Laura Lyons.
Last October GMAR won the Aboriginal Justice Award for its work, which includes the development of guiding principles for strengthening the participation of local Aboriginal community in child protection decision-making. GMAR were joined in this panel by members of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation (KBHAC), an organisation established by and for survivors of the Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Training Home, well-known for its brutal treatment of young boys removed from their families before it finally closed in 1970. Uncles Lester Thomas Maher, Michael Welsh and Richard Campbell shared their stories of abuse, trauma and their struggle for recognition, which can be viewed on the KBHAC website, where they state their creed is to seek “justice, acknowledgement and healing”.
This week KBHAC spoke again at a forum to commemorate the anniversary of Bringing Them Home, along with the family of Dylan Voller, whose abuse while imprisoned in the Don Dale youth detention centre became a source of national outrage and the trigger for the royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory; Cindy Blackstock, director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and Terri Libesman, who co-drafted the chapter on self-determination for the Bringing Them Home Report. This powerful discussion, organised by UTS Jumbunna’s Indigenous Research Synergies seminar series, covered issues of denial, abuse, government neglect, resourcing and ways forward for survivors and their families amid the unprecedented rates of removal we see today.
“What can I do to prevent this from ever happening to our children? It’s still happening,” said Uncle Lester.
“We need to go out of this room and we need to tell this story over and over again,” Elizabeth Jarrett, direct descendant of Kinchela Boys Home survivors and activist working with GMAR, told the audience of around 50 community members. “The Protection Act protects the government only. It does not protect our children, it does not protect our families.”
Libesman’s reflections on the report and its recommendations at this 20-year anniversary reminded us its implications were largely ignored by the government of the time, citing the colonial conditions which have created and exacerbated social and emotional determinants left some Aboriginal parents unable to effectively care for their children for certain periods. It is at this point, Libesman insists, that children should be placed with other family members or with kinship carers whenever possible to retain culture and stability, a key logic of GMAR’s guiding principles. Libesman spoke of her support for initiatives to increase community engagement and resist the push for privatising the care of vulnerable children: “Not a single submission from Bringing Them Home felt that contemporary child welfare policies were helping one bit.”
Community and cultural autonomy was also central to Uncle Michael’s approach to the inextricable issues of trauma for survivors of the stolen generations, and the current crisis of the removal of Aboriginal children. “Let us handle our own pain now,” he said. “We know what it is, we know how to fix it. We need to rebuild our family structures. The government needs to resource that.”
Grandmothers Against Removals, the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation and the Vollers are to speak at a Sorry Day candlelit vigil and march for the survivors of the stolen generations and families currently struggling for the return of children. They are demanding an end to forced child removals, the closure of youth prisons, Indigenous control over Aboriginal child welfare, and reparations and healing for the survivors and families of the stolen generations.
At the conclusion of the seminar, Gitksan professor of social work, Cindy Blackstock, gifted the Kinchela Boys Home uncles a candle to light at a time of hope for the children of the past and future. Uncle Michael will light it at the rally.
This article first appeared in Guardian Australia on 26 May 2017 as part of the IndigenousX edited Opinion section commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report and the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.
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