“Our Kids Belong With Family”: a look into institutional child removal

16 Feb 2022

In Australia, the earliest form of child protection began within weeks of the first white settlements being established (Gandevia 178). The earliest institution established to remove children from families was set up less than a decade after colonisation, The Norfolk Island Orphan School opened in 1795 and was the precursor to institutional child removal within Australia.

Today, there is an extremely unreported crisis occurring affecting children and families. First Nations children are 11 times more likely to be removed by child protection services than non-Indigenous children. The Family Matters report found more than 20 thousand First Nations children were in out-of-home care as of June 30 2020, with numbers continuously rising. The report also found 79 percent – approximately 17,000 children – live permanently away from their birth parents, with less than 15 per cent being reunited. The Family Matters report further explains that children on permanent care orders have been excluded by governments from the definition of out-of-home care, reducing transparency and the visibility of First Nations children who have been permanently removed from families and communities. A Permanent Care order is an order made by the Childrens Court that gives parenting responsibility for parenting a child to a person other than the child’s parents.  

Credit: Clothing The Gaps

Colonisation, affecting First Nations Peoples all over the world, aims to dispossess us of our traditional lands, cultures, values and beliefs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is the oldest continuing culture in the world, one that holds over 500 clan groups and over 250 languages. Caring for country and community ensured the sustainability of cultures, families and diverse countries. My people were thriving – and so was country, the land, its waterways and all that lived here.

Early Colonisation and the Foundations for Child Removal

In order to fully understand the present crisis, we must delve into the unspoken history of strangers claiming to protect our children.

In 1804, British coloniser Matthew Flinders proposed the names Terra Australis or Australia for the entire continent. British colonisers also claimed that Australia was terra nullius, denying First Nations peoples’ occupation of, and connection to our land. Terra Nullius is a Latin term meaning ‘land belonging to no one’. This conceited mindset of claiming something other than your own is important to keep in mind when considering the foundations upon which systems such as child protection are built upon in this country.

Not only did this arrogant mindset find its way onto our country, but these settlers also brought with them values, beliefs and ways of existing contrary to First Nations culture and traditions. Colonisers and many western cultures value individualism over collectivism, whereas First Nations cultures are heavily rooted in family and connection with others.

In Australia, the earliest form of child protection began within weeks of the first white settlements being established (Gandevia 178). The earliest institution established to remove children from families was set up less than a decade after coloniation, The Norfolk Island Orphan School opened in 1795 and was the precursor to institutional child removal within Australia. Following this establishment, other institutions across the country were opened by self-proclaimed explorers and priests of various churches, including the Ballarat District Orphan Asylum in 1865. It is evident that the service of ‘child protection’ is one that of the coloniser and yet another ideology that forced itself onto an already functioning, thriving culture and society. 

A research paper titled ‘A History of Child Protection’ published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies states that ‘concerns for abandoned and neglected children resulted in the formation of the first ‘child rescue” or child protection societies’, and led to the enactment of the first legislation designed to protect children”. These ‘abandoned’ and ‘neglected’ children were ironically children of the colonisers during the early days of child rescue practices. Many of these children belonged to the families who were mining our land, particularly here in Victoria with the gold rush. The gold rush is glorified in the way it’s taught in schools: with a sense of pride woven through the narratives of those tearing through stolen land. The key to this narrative is understanding the children that were presumed by authorities to have been neglected and abandoned in the process.

The Emergence of Child Rescue Movements

Around the 1890s most states across Australia experienced the establishment of a Children’s Court and with that came the development of legislation to ‘protect’ children. This was quickly followed by the formation of a number of voluntary “child rescue” non-government organisations. While such establishments occurred, it is imperative to keep in mind that around 20 years prior to the above, The Aborigines Protection Act (1869) was put in place. In 1869 The Aborigines Protection Act was enacted in Victoria. This act involved the establishment of the ‘Aborigines Protection Board’ to ‘manage the interests of Aboriginal People’ which gave the governor the power to remove Aboriginal children from families, based purely on the fact that they were Aboriginal children. The “child rescue” movement was prominent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, leaving a self-proclaimed mark on Melbourne’s child welfare services. This movement argued that society’s future depended on children being removed from what they deemed as unsafe environments;  pushed ideas that the First Nations parent is the enemy of the child and sought control by reconstructing rescued children as “honest workers”.These institutionalised ways of thinking have underpinned the systemic oppression and stereotypes of First Nations parents, with society often framing them as incapable and unfit to care for their own children.     

The White Australia Agenda and the Child Rescue Movements had a devastating impact on First Nations communities, families, and culture. The Child Rescue Movement led to the development of interventionist policies designed to support the states’ regulation of Aboriginal people. In 1910 the ‘Aborigines Protection Board’ was “given a mandate to ‘deal with’ Aboriginal children, beginning a pattern of massive intervention and interference with Aboriginal culture” (Liddell, 1993). 


Accountability and Calls for Change 

Uncle Archie Roach shared the pain of Aboriginal people with  the world in 1990, when he wrote and released the song ‘Took the Children Away’. Uncle Archie was forcibly removed from his family at Framlingham Aboriginal Mission in South-Western Victoria at three years old and placed in a Salvation Army orphanage. Uncle Archie’s song was then followed by the telling of the stories of three young Aboriginal girls stolen from their family and community from the Western Australian town Jigalong. The book, Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, further highlighted to the world the acts of white Australians and the destruction they were causing to First Nations children and families. 

On 26th May 1997, the landmark Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. The report was the result of a national inquiry that investigated the forced removal of First Nations children from their families, marking a pivotal moment in the healing journey of many Stolen Generation members. The inquiry was established because of the efforts of First Nations communities. Many members of the Stolen Generations shared their pain and trauma, with around 1000 individuals taking part. Almost three decades on and the Bringing Them Home report remains just as relevant, with many of the recommendations still outstanding.

The western child rescue ideology was already broken when it forced itself onto our continent with the First Fleet of colonisers, forcing us to question why are we repeatedly placing band-aids on an historically hemorrhaging system. 

I also question why the same system has renamed itself repeatedly? Since the mid 1800s, the government’s child protection agency for the area now called Victoria has cycled through 12 titles: 

  • Chief Secretary’s Department, (1855-1979)  
  • (I)Department of Reformatory Schools (1866-1887)
    Administered industrial schools for neglected children and reformatory schools for convicted juveniles.
  • (ii)Department for Neglected Children 1887-1924
    Responsibility for neglected children
  • (iii) Children’s Welfare Department (1924-1961)
  • (iv) Social Welfare Branch (1961-1971)
  • (v)Dept of Community Welfare Services (1979-1985)
  • Community Services Victoria (1986-1992)
  • Department of Health and Community Services (1992-1996)
  • Department of Human Services (1996-2010)
  • Department of Human Services II (2010-2014)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (2015- 2021)
  • Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (2021 – current)

What could be next? Maybe they will change their name to a First Nations language word and call themselves culturally safe?

An Ongoing Crisis

There have been many initiatives over the last 30 years that have attempted to tackle this crisis, unfortunately the majority of these initiatives are ones that are built upon the already existing foundation of Child Rescue.

We see multiple roles and teams within our Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) that are funded by the Department and are all mandated under the colonial system to report to Child Protection. It is a brutal cycle that is stealing Aboriginal children and throwing them out of the system when they become of age, traumatised and lost.

One example is the current  roll-out in Victoria of newly established legislation, referred to as both Section 18 and  ‘Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care’.

Section 18 enables the Secretary of the Victorian Department of Families, Fairness and Housing to authorise the principal officer of an Aboriginal agency to undertake specified functions and powers in relation to a Children’s Court protection order for an Aboriginal child, meaning that “once a protection order for an Aboriginal child or young person has been made by the Children’s Court, an approved ACCO is responsible for the child’s case management and case plan”.

The key facts here are that ACCOs are not making the life altering decisions for our families, the Children’s Court is. The children are not mandated to be in Aboriginal Care, they’re being case managed by an ACCO, where they might not even get an Aboriginal worker and this case management must be in-line with what has already been ordered by the courts. Essentially with Section 18, we still have illegal colonial systems making decisions for our families, do we accept the rations of false hope they are dishing out?

Kinship carers are the most undervalued individuals caught in the violent system, without kinship carers the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, Section 18, and any other similar program or project simply cannot function nor can those in such roles justify themselves. Kinship carers are family members or friends who take on caring for children in our families. There are definitions and brochures about kinship care, but as a kinship carer for seven years I can provide testament to the contrasting narratives of textbook vs reality. Aboriginal Kinship care means taking on the care of our babies so they’re not lost in the system, it means keeping our babies connected to culture, community, and family: it is advocating daily against a system that just does not understand the role we play in our families. 

When imagining the layers upon which the current child protection system is built, we must understand that these systems were built by colonisers, it is a colonial system doing exactly what it was built to do. When you cut down a tree, the roots of that tree remain deeply planted in the earth; similarly, it doesn’t matter how many times you try to add or change a system, its roots will forever bleed into its practice. The Victorian Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing is not just haunted by the ghosts of the past, they are guided by them. 

Grandmothers Against Removal (GMARS) formed in Gunnedah NSW as a group of Aboriginal Grandmothers who advocate against the removals of Aboriginal children. The grassroots collective inspired the formation of other GMAR groups across Australia. GMARS are the shining light our communities so desperately need – fighting for our babies and our families free of the invisible chains wrapped around government funded services claiming to protect our children. GMARS provide culturally safe guidance and support and advocate fearlessly for our future. GMARS fight like it is nothing less than a crisis, because it is.

It is a gut-wrenching reality, that despite the blood, sweat and tears our community members are putting into this crisis, we are going to continue to see the number of our kids in out-of-home care rise. We are seeing another Stolen Generation, with our Stolen Generation victims/survivors bearing witness to this tragedy. At the time of the national apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, there were 9,070 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. The most recent data from The Family Matters report 2021 highlights that figure has now grown to 21,523. 

Building on a system that was never meant to be here is not working, it never will work. The child protection system must be abolished. Since colonisation, First Nations children and families have been chained to a child protection system that does not belong here. These chains have rusted but will not be removed until the system is completely dismantled. Only then will First Nations families on this continent thrive on our country, rather than survive the day-to-day struggle. Our children are our future, our children are key to the continuation of the oldest culture in the world.

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