My Nan, Jessie (Nevin) Hunter was born on Coranderrk Mission, just outside Naarm (Melbourne) in 1921. She was a refugee on her own ancestral lands, born into a family living with constant fear: fear of a government that was intent on eradicating Aboriginal cultures and people. So before government officials came calling, her family went into hiding. My Nan was brought up to believe she was white, to protect her from the reality that she could be torn from her family, for being Aboriginal.
The stated intent of genocide may have gone but the fear of removal remains. This fear is something all my people have inherited, passed down across the generations since European colonisation. And the reality remains – our families are continuing to be ripped apart and our ways of living eradicated and assimilated. In the past year, 20,077 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living away from their families. Many are unlikely to return to their families. This is a saddening record for Australia to be setting in 2020.
Caring for kids has always been a critical part of our cultural ways. But these ways aren’t often supported or even recognised in Australia’s current child and family services or child protection systems.
I joined the Family Matters campaign because of my commitment to my community, to bring our kids home and keep them there, in culture and in family. I’ve worked with our children in out-of-home care for over 20 years. Over that time, I have seen the trauma and battles they are up against when they can’t see their families; the systems that are meant to be protecting and supporting our children are preventing them from growing up whole. I’ve seen the price our children pay because of overburdened, poorly-designed child protection systems. They are all too often completely disconnected from their Mob, Country and culture. And adding further avenues for removal, such as adoption and permanency, to try and fix a broken system is adding to the cost that our children and our families bear.
In recent years, there has been a concerning momentum towards so-called permanent care, a policy with the well-intentioned aim of creating stability in living arrangements for children. In our eyes, these developments carry the direst of threats: they remove our children further from their identity and their culture. In some states and territories over the past year, this policy shift has been coupled with the adoption of our children out to non-Aboriginal carers. Without continual, meaningful relationships with family and community, there is nothing to anchor our kids to their culture and to their life meaning. Our children are denied a crucial part of their developing identity, connection and belonging, all things that contribute to long-term resilience and sense of self. For us our children belong to community and this bond must never be taken away.
The current data also tells us that our kids are less likely to be reunified with their families than non-Indigenous children, another growing trend, that results in our children being lost to their cultural connection and their human right to their cultural inheritance. We worry that there is a clear lack of understanding of cultural difference within the statutory systems. Reunifying our children with their family should be the end goal, but this is not the case and the structures work against us. In these systems and in these figures, we see the continuation of past injustices and racism into the present.
As a community we need to be empowered and heard, we need true self-determination. We need to be involved in the decision-making that affects our kids and their future. The data clearly show that it is better for everyone when we are.
We can already see self-determination happening through the delegation of statutory powers in states such as Victoria and Queensland. Yet merely transferring responsibility does not solve the problem. Adequate support and resourcing must follow for effective outcomes for our children and families.
Despite these challenges, we have seen Aboriginal community-controlled organisations across Australia respond as we know best. While governments are grappling with a child protection system steeped in bureaucracy and process-driven mechanisms, Aboriginal-led solutions are showing the way in providing genuine care for our kids, in the ways of culture.
Aboriginal family-led decision-making in Queensland and Victoria is proven to help children and in 2018-19, kept significant numbers of our children with their families. Kinship programs, such as those in the Northern Territory and South Australia, have ensured that substantial efforts are made for our children to keep connected to family, community and culture.
The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap commits to reducing the over-representation of our children in out-of-home care by 45% by 2031. This is a staging-point on the way to the Family Matters campaign’s aim of ending over-representation of our children in child protection by 2040.
Family Matters continues to call for a dedicated national strategy as a blueprint for states and territories to implement national standards of practice for our children. This would be further strengthened by a national commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people with the power to enable real change and ensure accountability on policy reforms.
Just like my Nan, and her ancestors before her, we just want our children to grow up safe, connected to culture, with a sense of belonging to their families and communities. Isn’t that what all children deserve?
Sue-Anne Hunter is a proud Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum wurrung woman and is committed to self-determination and advocating for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families. She is the chair for the Family Matters campaign.
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