Poverty must stop being used as a weapon to justify separating Indigenous families

 Australia ‘has systematically implemented policies that are born of a rhetoric suggesting that the state is somehow protecting Aboriginal children better than their families’. Photograph: John Miles/Getty Images

Photograph: John Miles/Getty Images

Australia ‘has systematically implemented policies that are born of a rhetoric suggesting that the state is somehow protecting Aboriginal children better than their families’.

Twenty years after the Bringing Them Home report was tabled, another report on the lasting ill effects stemming from the forced separation of Indigenous families has been released. The Healing Foundation’s Bringing Them Home 20 years on: an action plan for healing, launched earlier this week, also tells a tale of trauma and distress that continues to ripple across generations of our people, largely due to the government’s failure to act on recommendations made in 1997.

Here we are, 20 years on, having the same bleak conversation again, with the rate of Indigenous children being removed from their families having significantly increased and the government and its supporters still discussing the statistics in the kinds of language that paints a picture far removed from the reality of the situation.

There are, of course, some children who are legitimately at risk, which can be said of all communities. However, the current government – as with every government before it – has systematically implemented policies that are born of a rhetoric suggesting that the state is somehow protecting Aboriginal children better than their families can. This representation demonises Indigenous parents and families as being neglectful and abusive, and is almost routinely based on unfounded, racially charged accounts that astonishingly then contribute – unchecked – to fast-tracked policy, which further disempowers our communities and maintains the status quo of oppression.

The system is broken and always has been, because it is built on racism. How about instead of forced separation and state care, the increasingly limited resources available to all aspects of Indigenous affairs instead be used to provide local community care for those children? Precisely so they don’t sustain additional trauma as a result of being removed. That Indigenous children are separated from family at a rate 11 times higher than non-Indigenous children, yet comprise just 5.5% of all children aged 0-17 in Australia, is a clear indicator that the removal of our children remains racially motivated.

The vast majority of cases where children are removed due to governmentally defined “neglect” is attributable to poverty. This is, of course, a situation that has been directly caused by colonisation, which forced us from our own country and subjected us to a foreign capitalist-driven existence without the ordinary privileges afforded to non-Indigenous people, such as the right to an income. Until only the most recent decades, many of us have continued to be denied such basic rights, like access to our traditional lands. In certain cases, this country is used instead for big mining, for the benefit of even more big multinational corporations, not our local communities.

Rather than acknowledging the root of the problem and implementing simple, community-based solutions, the governmental response is simply more layers of paternalism. Like the continued removal of our children who are then subject to state “care”. This “care” comes at a significant cost to taxpayers too, with an average cost of $7,000 per week, often for the likes of motel rooms and temporary carers: a disrupted environment that can place these children at significant risk of abuse. Impacts that are well-documented in the care system.

A better utilisation of resources could, of course, be the provision of transport to and from schools for children, medical and community support and the simple provision of affordable, nutritious groceries to rural and remote communities.

The rhetoric and dynamic needs to change. We simply should not permit the removal of our children at the current rate. Children should only be removed in circumstances where they are legitimately at risk as opposed to the common pattern of removal in cases of poverty and community disempowerment. We need to protect the family unit where possible and support families who are living in poverty because poverty should not be a political axe to wield in order to enact more oppressive policies that unfairly target Indigenous people.

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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