April 5 is the anniversary of the release of the 1997 Bringing them Home Report, the summation of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.
The report made 54 recommendations and found that almost every Indigenous family was affected by the governmental policies of child removal based on Indigeneity and whilst the findings are self-evident and the facts widely known, it is the 535 personal accounts that make the atrocities relatable and real. It is one thing to hear that children were being removed and that it is traumatic, but another thing entirely to hear Millicent’s story for example, who at the age of four was ripped from her family and placed in a home – Sister Kate’s home in Western Australia – where she was told her family didn’t want her and subjected to daily lessons of religious indoctrination until she was in her first year of high school and then sent out to farms to work as a domestic. She gave evidence at the Inquiry and recounted her brutal – but not unique experience:
“The first time I was sent to the farm for only a few weeks and then back to school. In the next holidays I had to go back. This time it was a terrifying experience, the man of the house used to come into my room at night and force me to have sex. I tried to fight him off but he was too strong.
When I returned to the home I was feeling so used and unwanted. I went to the Matron and told her what happened. She washed my mouth out with soap and boxed my ears and told me that awful things would happen to me if I told any of the other kids. I was so scared and wanted to die. When the next school holidays came I begged not to be sent to that farm again. But they would not listen and said I had to.
I ran away from the home, I was going to try to find my family. It was impossible, I didn’t even know where to go. The only thing was to go back. I got a good belting and had to kneel at the altar everyday after school for two weeks. Then I had to go back to that farm to work. The anguish and humiliation of being sent back was bad enough but the worse was yet to come.
This time I was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor blade on both of my arms and legs because I would not stop struggling and screaming. The farmer and one of his workers raped me several times. I wanted to die, I wanted my mother to take me home where I would be safe and wanted. Because I was bruised and in a state of shock I didn’t have to do any work but wasn’t allowed to leave the property.
When they returned me to the home I once again went to the Matron. I got a belting with a wet ironing cord, my mouth washed out with soap and put in a cottage by myself away from everyone so I couldn’t talk to the other girls. They constantly told me that I was bad and a disgrace and if anyone knew it would bring shame to Sister Kate’s Home. They showed me no comfort which I desperately needed. I became more and more distant from everyone and tried to block everything out of my mind but couldn’t. I ate rat poison to try and kill myself but became very sick and vomited. This meant another belting.”
There were another 534 accounts throughout the Inquiry in person and in writing that were just as harrowing and heart breaking and countless others who weren’t part of the Inquiry.
Of the 54 recommendations set out in the report including key recommendations such as the formation and funding of a national compensation fund, including modules in school curriculum on historical and continuing child removals and recommendations for models for self-determination, few have been implemented and although the overt policies of yesteryear are no more – paternalistic policies continued which resulted in a continuation of child removals, loss of culture and instances of abuse (both physical and sexual) while in ‘care’.
Since The Apology, delivered by Kevin Rudd in 2008, the government has enacted policies that propagate the root cause of the majority of the social issues facing Indigenous communities – poverty and lack of opportunity. We have seen the expansion of the Northern Territory Intervention, multiple (predominantly Indigenous) communities being forced upon cashless welfare cards and working for below minimum wage in CDEP programs. We have seen rates of Indigenous imprisonment at levels not seen since South African apartheid and child removals at rates that gave rise to the Inquiry that informed the Bringing them Home Report.
Why are we continuing to see such appalling statistics and ill-considered policies?
Many reasons but all reasoning does lead back to the undercurrents of ethnocentrism and paternalism which ebb and flow from overt to covert and back again depending upon who is in governmental power at the time.
It is difficult to enunciate a loss as profound as identity and culture and to lose both is an insurmountable loss which embeds upon your DNA. This loss is a direct consequence of policies enacted by governments since federation
Despite the Bringing them Home Report– we find ourselves over twenty years later having the same conversations.
The fact that Indigenous children are removed at 11 times more than non-Indigenous children yet comprise just 5.5% of children aged 0-17 in Australia is a glaring indicator that the removal of children is racially motivated. The staggering statistics of children in detention tells the same story and yet the government continues to impose oppressive policies that maintain the narrative of ‘problem’ and providing two solutions (assimilate or segregate) which demonstrate that on the most elemental level – that this government and in fact society at large – fail to understand Indigenous people, the nature of our identity, our families and our trauma.
The root cause of the problems are never addressed beyond symbolism because we – as a country – live in a state of denial and all of the most basic teachings of early childhood that are aimed at informing emotional intelligence are abandoned when politics becomes involved – particularly at the right wing of the political spectrum.
Sorry is not enough we are taught as toddlers – you need to adjust your behaviour to not repeat the action that prompted the sorry. A lesson that has not been learnt in 230 years in this country. Between our institutional penchant for removing children from families and communities to our retributory need to place our youths in custody – Australia is demonstrating that there is a different application of policy depending upon whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous.
We currently have over 15,000 Indigenous children in care across the country and a significant portion will find themselves in detention. There are many researchers and academics that affirm that there are more children being removed than ever before but it is difficult to pinpoint the accuracy of this statement given so many of the records before the 1980’s were largely destroyed but the fact that is has increased from just under 2,500 in the early 1990’s tends to suggest they may be right.
Of course children’s interests should always be paramount and there are instances, in all communities, giving rise to a need for the child to be taken from harmful environments but for the vast majority of removals being attributed to poverty (cited as neglect) it is essential that the government starts engaging with communities who need assistance in becoming self-determining – not being stripped of their familial rights and being punished for their poverty.
In instances where there is proven abuse of the child where physical removal is required, the governmental authority has a duty to ensure the highest standard of care for the child. This means that the child cannot have their identity undermined by being removed from culture, country and community. The child’s mental and spiritual health is as important as their physical health and kinship care is the most appropriate means of care for Indigenous children who are already dealing with the trauma of circumstances giving rise to removal.
While kinship care is a policy of the government, not enough is being done to ensure this is adequately explored as the first opinion with the majority of children being placed into foster care where the risk of abuse continues to be significant and out of home care which is again an abuse risk particularly given that many of the out of home care facilities are understaffed and are the modern day equivalent of the homes of yesteryear given many are run by the church or other religious non-government organisations.
History tells us that religious ‘homes’ and ‘care’ are neither and that governmental removal is a fracturing event for families. It is time that the narrative pertaining to Indigenous families changes and we need to ensure that we are holding the pens this time.
On the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report – we say no more to paternalistic policies that undermine our families and communities.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.