Writing in the Guardian in March, 2014, the Australian film-maker and activist John Pilger accused Australian child protection authorities of perpetrating a repeat of the “infamous Stolen Generation of the last century”. Drawing attention to the fact that the number of indigenous children in “out-of-home” care today is five times what it was in the mid-1990s, Pilger argued that “assimilation remains Australian government policy in all but name”, based on an “official attitude” in Australia that regarded indigenous people as “morally deficient”.
The growth in the number of indigenous children taken into care across Australia has led to claims of a “new Stolen Generation” becoming commonplace. But the parallels drawn with the Stolen Generations are inappropriate: the removal of children is hardly based on race, but on demonstrable family and community dysfunction in some indigenous communities. The escalating child welfare crisis in these communities in recent years is measured by, and is the root cause of, the increasing number of indigenous children who have been removed from their families and communities.
The politically charged assertion that race is the issue overlooks the well-founded child safety concerns that drive decisions to remove children. It also overlooks the shortages of suitable carers due to high levels of social and personal dysfunction in indigenous communities, which prevents placing removed children in accordance with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (ACPP). This accounts for the inability to place all indigenous children in “culturally appropriate” kinship care placements with relatives or other local community members to maintain connections to indigenous culture.
Focusing on race also misses the bigger issue: the real concern is not too much child removal but too little, and not too few kinship placements, but too many inappropriate ones. The activists and indigenous community representatives and organisations that make heated claims about a repeat of the Stolen Generations need to be held to account for the results of the separatist child protection policies they endorse, which threaten to further encourage child protection authorities to keep abused and neglected children in unsafe and damaging situations with their parents, or to place children in unsuitable kinship placements.
There have been long-standing concerns about how part of the national response to the Stolen Generations has compromised the care and protection of indigenous children. The use of kinship care as the preferred placement option may have mitigated concerns about repeating past practices. But in the worst cases, the determination to keep indigenous children with kin in low-quality placements in dysfunctional communities for the sake of preserving culture and identity have been catastrophic, and have allowed abusers, particularly the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, to continue to abuse children.
The common belief that it is right to place indigenous children with kin has been powerfully and emotionally fostered by the annual commemoration of National Sorry Day on May 26. This date is the anniversary of the 1997 tabling in federal parliament of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home report on the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children (“the Stolen Generations Report”), the release of which generated a wave of sympathy and the demand for a national parliamentary apology.
The attention that Bringing Them Home drew to the stories of victims belonging to the Stolen Generations and the harmful impact of past child removal practices on indigenous individuals, families and communities intensified the commitment to practising the ACPP. In effect, the ACPP has been reinvented as a national commitment to avoiding a repeat of the perceived errors of the past, which denied Aboriginal children contact with kin and culture.
However, worthy sentiments to right the wrongs of past mistakes make a bad situation worse when children are left in harmful environments. The association with the Stolen Generations, and the attendant sensitivities and political challenges it poses, have allowed the ACPP to become something of a last bastion for indigenous separatism: the last, unquestioned area of indigenous policy still decisively informed by the ideas and objectives of the movement for Aboriginal self-determination.
In reality, the ACPP and other forms of “culturally appropriate” child protection practices were developed before the national discussion of past indigenous child removal practices sparked by Bringing Them Home. The ACPP needs to be understood as a product of a wider political campaign for Aboriginal rights that emerged in the 1970s, which was preoccupied with the pursuit of the goal of self-determination—political, legal, social and cultural—in all areas of indigenous policy, including child protection. The real subject for discussion regarding indigenous child protection should be how political considerations, as distinct from child welfare considerations, account for how the child protection system treats indigenous children.
The ACPP was first proposed by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the late 1970s, and its implementation as national policy embedded in child welfare legislation was agreed to by all states and territories in 1986. The intention was to address the legacy of decades of assimilationist child removal policies. However, the development of the ACPP, and the decision to mandate its application through Australian child welfare laws and officially deal with Aboriginal children under a separatist approach, was also a result of the politicisation of the Stolen Generations issue, which was taken up as an important part of the political agenda of the campaign for Aboriginal rights.
Aboriginal self-determination was based on the idea that Aboriginal advancement required the separate development of Aboriginal people on their traditional lands, under their own political, legal and social organisations, and according to their own cultural and spiritual values. The doctrine was inspired by the national liberation movements that sprang up after the Second World War in Asia, South America and Africa, which won colonised peoples the right to govern themselves.
A new age of Aboriginal political consciousness that began in the late 1960s essentially cast aside the principle that underpinned the successful 1967 constitutional referendum—that Aboriginal Australians should have the same rights as other Australian citizens. This principle of equality was superseded by the goal of self-determination and the principle that Aborigines should have separate rights and separate political, legal and social-service regimes, including the special right to recover and retain traditional culture and identity.
As in other post-colonial nationalist movements, indigenous Australians were thought to require their own political, legal and social institutions to protect and promote their distinctive culture. The institutional structure that developed chiefly took the form of “Aboriginal-controlled” organisations which were responsible for delivery of culturally appropriate, taxpayer-funded health, education and other services to Aboriginal communities.
The granting of land rights (communal ownership of traditional lands) to Aboriginal people created miniature “states” over which Aboriginal organisations exercised quasi-sovereignty. This homeland movement began with the Aboriginal land councils responsible for the local government of Aboriginal communities in the 1200 homeland settlements across Australia which, in theory, allowed Aboriginal people to live traditional hunter-and-gatherer lifestyles and maintain their cultural and spiritual connection to their ancestral lands.
Under this model, it was assumed that for Aboriginal self-determination to have full political and cultural coherence, Aboriginal people, in the homelands at least, not only needed separate local government and property rights, but also needed to live under separate, culture-based laws and have separate, culture-based schooling. The common denominator of indigenous policy then became the attaining of political, legal and social institutional autonomy as a means of recovering, maintaining and preserving traditional culture.
The belief that indigenous children required culturally appropriate care that came into vogue in the 1970s was an international phenomenon among the “First Nations” in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Under the Aboriginal mission system that operated from the middle of the nineteenth century until the late 1960s, Aborigines had been subjected to a range of paternalistic controls that sought to suppress traditional culture. Repudiating past child removal practices became a rallying point for political awareness. For when cast in post-colonial terms these practices were presented as the leading edge of policies that had aimed to destroy traditional culture by assimilating Aboriginal populations into the white mainstream, as Aboriginal children who were removed from their families had been encouraged to reject their Aboriginality and cultural heritage.
How strong the influence of the doctrine of Aboriginal self-determination was over the formation of indigenous policy is exemplified by indigenous child protection policy. The formulation of the ACPP was as much a matter of ending cultural domination and validating the principles that inspired the separatist agenda as of child welfare and avoiding and addressing past mistreatment. For indigenous political movements in post-colonial countries, including the Aboriginal self-determination movement in Australia, the restoration of traditional culture by all means possible, including the care of children, became the definitive political objective. The goal was to reverse the subordinate position and inferior status that colonial invasion and its concomitant oppression of indigenous society had entailed.
The way child protection policy was taken up as part of a much wider agenda of Aboriginal self-determination is evident in what can be considered the founding text of the Stolen Generations issue, Peter Read’s 1981 report, The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969, published by the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The politicisation of the Stolen Generations was typified by Read’s claim that past child removal practices had sought to “breed out” the Aboriginal race, and that it was a “story of attempted genocide” by “White Australia”, which sought to assimilate Aboriginal people and eradicate all traces of an Aboriginal culture assumed to be inferior. The theme of “cultural genocide”—which would perpetually feature in advocacy surrounding the Stolen Generations—was a powerful means of raising Aboriginal political awareness and a powerful argument for separatism.
By these means, the memory of assimilationist policies and practices reinforced the centrality of the recovery of lost culture to Aboriginal political consciousness and directly informed the logic of the ACPP. It followed that Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal identity were held to be synonymous. And because child removal practices were one of the ways traditional culture had been suppressed and Aborigines had been assimilated into the mainstream, it was decreed that in the name of self-determination, Aboriginal children must have continuous contact with their culture to maintain their unique cultural identity. Thus, in the lexicon of indigenous affairs, the use of the term “culture” across a range of policy areas has a politicised meaning and is virtually interchangeable with the term “self-determination”.
By the early 1980s, the right of Aboriginal people to look after Aboriginal children and sustain Aboriginal culture had become a highly symbolic and crucially important means by which the cause of Aboriginal self-determination was advanced. Recognition of the Aboriginal right to self-determination came to be expressed, in part, by official recognition of this communal right. The political goal and principle of the movement for self-determination—that the advancement of Aboriginal culture required a separate institutional structure—was accepted and authenticated when the states and territories agreed to practise the ACPP in the mid-1980s. State legislation giving effect to the ACPP also gave official recognition and privileged status to Aboriginal organisations granted the right to formal “community consultation” and participation in placement decisions concerning Aboriginal children. Hence, the New South Wales Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act, for example, includes “Aboriginal specific principles” that incorporate the language and intent of Aboriginal separatism. The act (in the words of the 2007 Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in New South Wales) declares:
Aboriginal people are to participate in the care and protection of their children and young persons “with as much self-determination as is possible” and the Minister may negotiate and agree with Aboriginal people to the implementation of programs and strategies that promote self-determination.
Picking up the major political themes of Peter Read’s report, the Bringing Them Home report controversially argued that racism had motivated the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and formed part of a genocidal policy of forced assimilation of so-called “half-caste” children into the white community.
In the wake of the divisive debate and controversies generated by the High Court’s Mabo decision and the subsequent native title legislation, Bringing Them Home upped the political stakes in indigenous affairs. Its claims about genocide renewed the moral force of the separatist agenda. This reflected the politics of the report’s co-author, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Dodson, who had been a leading figure in Aboriginal politics since the 1970s and a prominent activist for Aboriginal self-determination. The intensely political nature and purpose of the report stemmed from the way that drawing national attention to the Stolen Generations provided a powerful means of re-politicising the issue and advancing the cause of Aboriginal self-determination through discussion of indigenous child protection policy.
An important feature of Bringing Them Home, therefore, was the policy recommendations it made regarding the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and the need to reduce the number of Aboriginal child removals to prevent a repeat of the policies that had led to the Stolen Generations. The essence of these recommendations was that current child protection practices were as abhorrent as past practices, because it was claimed that decisions to remove Aboriginal children were based on an inherently racist view of Aboriginal culture. Bringing Them Home concluded that while the laws and language of child protection had changed, the attitude towards Aboriginal children and families remained “overwhelmingly one of cultural domination and inappropriate and ineffective servicing”.
At the heart of these attitudes as described by the report, which were paternalistic at best and racist at worst, was a conflict between Western (that is mainstream Australian) and Aboriginal cultural values regarding children and families. Child protection caseworkers were accused of failing to understand and respect Aboriginal family practices such as lax parental supervision, encouraging children to be independent and self-reliant, and the involvement of extended kin networks in rearing children. Because these practices differed from the Western view of the “normal” nuclear family, “abnormal” Aboriginal customs were incorrectly labelled as neglectful and seen as pathological, dysfunctional and indicative of problems with the family.
Even at the time, this analysis of “cultural bias” accounting for the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the care system glossed over the reality of social and family dysfunction in some Aboriginal communities. The sort of culturally determined parenting practices described above may have been suitable to the social conditions of the past, but the conditions that gave rise to them no longer exist; these practices no longer function well in the present. The defence of traditional culture, which downplayed its impact on child well-being, minimised the raft of genuine child protection concerns that accounted for the over-representation of Aboriginal children in care, especially the fact that the most common form of maltreatment experienced by Aboriginal children is chronic parental neglect of basic needs, including “adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene or medical attention”.
Bringing Them Home was significant in applying principles of Aboriginal self-determination, in relation to child protection, in a culturally relativist manner. It suggested that a different, culturally appropriate, standard should apply in decision-making on behalf of Aboriginal children. The emphasis placed on cultural respect and awareness, and the use of culture to explain the uniqueness of family life in Aboriginal communities, encouraged the use of cultural practices and differences to explain away problems in Aboriginal families, so caseworkers could avoid being accused of making culturally insensitive or racist judgments. This essentially demanded that the reality of dysfunction be overlooked, and gave culture precedence over child welfare.
The Bringing Them Home analysis has lasting implications for indigenous child protection—the question of “culture” remains pivotal to what is and isn’t done to protect indigenous children. Distilling the findings of the body of research into culturally appropriate policy that has grown out of Bringing Them Home, the 2007 Wood Report asserted:
It could be difficult for caseworkers and others, with an understanding that values the nuclear family above other conceptualisations of the “family”, to have any insight into the different kind of information that may be required for them to assess the safety of an Aboriginal child, or the appropriateness of the potential options available within the family and community to meet the care and protection needs of the child … Caseworkers raised in Anglo-Celtic society may find it difficult to understand and reflect in casework … the complexity of Aboriginal family and kinship relationship that are important for a child, and for making decisions about where the child should live, if he or she cannot live with parents.
The Wood Report quoted with approval a 2004 Victorian Department of Human Services report, Protecting Children, which listed as one of ten “priorities for children’s well-being and safety in Victoria” the need to ensure that “the system as a whole is inclusive of Indigenous cultures and values”. The stress placed on creating an “inclusive” system explicitly made culture (and the underlying politics of Aboriginal self-determination, since Aboriginal control of services was the chief means of achieving inclusiveness) the priority, not child welfare. This priority, along with the separatist rationale for culturally appropriate child protection policy, was explicitly set out in another report cited by Wood and commissioned by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care and the Victorian Department of Human Services, which boldly stated:
An individualistic approach that focuses on the child’s needs without proper consideration of their parent/s’ and communities’ circumstances has been criticised by Indigenous groups in Canada, New Zealand and Australia as failing to take into account Indigenous understandings of family and children. [Emphasis added]
When this “culturally appropriate” rationale is added to concerns about “stealing” Aboriginal children, “culture” becomes a powerful justification for lack of action by child protection authorities in Aboriginal child welfare cases. It encourages under-responding to the protective needs of Aboriginal children out of fear of being judgmental or culturally insensitive at best, and racist at worst, and can lead to Aboriginal children being left in circumstances from which non-Aboriginal children would be removed.
The policy and practice advice in the standard literature on indigenous child protection amounts, then, to subjecting indigenous children to double standards and racism in the name of respecting culture. It is also calculated to raise fears about a new Stolen Generation, to make child protection authorities reluctant to intervene in dysfunctional and dangerous indigenous families. This is a very powerful deterrent for child protection authorities because of the role that (white) social workers played in past child removal practices. The desire to apologise and make amends for social workers’ involvement in the Stolen Generations is a key factor that explains why the profession was so quick to endorse the ACPP and continues to support its practice today.
Culturally appropriate indigenous child protection policies mean that we are practising a form of 1970s-style separatism that in other areas of indigenous policy is now widely acknowledged to be the chief cause of the gap between the social and economic outcomes for disadvantaged indigenous people and other Australians. Nevertheless, the ACPP, or rather the indigenous policy thinking of the 1970s, continues to be applied to drive processes and evaluate outcomes in indigenous child protection policy, even though it advances the outdated political objective of Aboriginal self-determination at the expense of child welfare. The same sort of policy advice contained in Bringing Them Home is being redeployed to explain the worsening over-representation of indigenous children in care and to promote non-intervention in indigenous family and community dysfunction.
The findings and recommendations of recent official inquiries into child protection in Victoria and Queensland demonstrate how the politics of indigenous child protection distorts perceptions and debate. This includes the cultural relativism that evidently dominates the standard literature informing indigenous child protection practice. This literature encourages caseworkers to respect cultural differences between mainstream and indigenous family practices, such as lack of proper parental care and inadequate parental supervision in indigenous families. Such respect comes at the price of underestimating the threat to child welfare when children are left in unsafe environments or placed in substandard kinship care.
The 2012 report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins Report), lamented that despite recognition of the traumatic experiences of the Stolen Generations, the number of Aboriginal children in care remained “unacceptably high”. While it was accepted that over-representation in care reflected the entrenched disadvantage and dysfunction in many Aboriginal families, the Cummins Report endorsed taking a “holistic view” of the needs of Aboriginal communities and concluded that “outcomes for vulnerable Aboriginal children and families will only improve once practical gains in Aboriginal self-determination about children and families are achieved”.
The Cummins Report’s recommendations included advising that “culturally competent approaches to family and statutory child protection services for Aboriginal children and young people should be expanded”. It also recommended delegating full responsibility for the provision of out-of-home care for Aboriginal children to Aboriginal communities, on the basis that “such a plan will enhance self-determination and provide a practical means for strengthening the cultural links for vulnerable Aboriginal children”.
Prioritising culture and self-determination satisfied the political principle of Aboriginal self-determination—and the interests of Aboriginal-controlled organisations that stood to benefit by way of taxpayer funding for “culturally appropriate” services. It also alleviated community anxieties about the potential for current child removal practices to repeat the history of the Stolen Generations. But the Cummins Report paid only passing attention to the best interests of Aboriginal children, and was silent about the impact on child welfare of “culturally appropriate” child protection practices. This flew in the face of the major reservations about kinship care that had been flagged by no less than the peak Aboriginal out-of-home care body, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA):
it was never the intent of the ACPP to place children with members of their family or community who presented a danger to them. If we do not protect Aboriginal children from abuse, the legacy will be a new generation of adults/parents who view abuse as normative rather than unacceptable and harmful.
The 2013 Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry (the Carmody Report) appears at a glance to have taken a different approach. The Carmody Report implicitly acknowledged that “culturally appropriate” policy and practice were compromising child welfare when it stated:
efforts to reduce over-representation should not result in a different standard of protection being afforded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children than that afforded non-Indigenous children.
Yet rather than take this insight through to its logical conclusion—that different standards should not apply to indigenous children—the Carmody Report emulated the Cummins Report by focusing on the alleged need for an even more culturally appropriate child protection regime.
The Carmody Report began with endorsing the view that, even given the social dysfunction in indigenous communities, the over-representation of indigenous children was attributable to “misperceptions about child-rearing practices in Aboriginal families … lead[ing] to incorrect assumptions about children’s protective needs in some circumstances”. This analysis of the supposed problem led directly to the major recommendation: because “keeping children out of the system is made more difficult by departmental officers having a poor understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and family practices”, Carmody recommended that Aboriginal-controlled organisations have a “more meaningful role in the delivery of statutory child protection practice”, as per the self-determination principles of the Child Protection Act. The report envisaged not just greater consultation about the care and protection of indigenous children, but also a delegation of “responsibility for statutory practice over time” to Aboriginal-controlled agencies that were “familiar with local circumstances and have the requisite cultural competence”.
The Carmody Report noted that the proportion of indigenous children in care who were placed in accordance with the ACPP was just over 50 per cent, down from 64 per cent in 2006. It also noted competing views on kinship care, where some stakeholders felt the ACPP was not given due importance in making decisions about placements for indigenous children, while others felt it was given too much weight.
At face value, the Carmody Report endorsed the principle that “the child’s overall best interests should always be paramount”. Yet the message it sent on the key issue—whether child welfare or culture should take precedence in making decisions about kinship placements—was mixed at best. The Carmody Report not only recommended that Aboriginal-controlled organisations have input into identification and assessment of potential care, but it also stressed that “all reasonable efforts should be made to exhaust potential kinship carers for children”.
“Reasonable efforts” amounted to recommending a “culturally appropriate” approach that gave priority to compliance with the ACPP above considerations of child welfare. Carmody recommended the use of a special assessment tool for indigenous carers that employed
a conversational “yarning” style to assess key areas of carer competency, and visual cards to identify competency in each of the core areas … enabling potential kinship carers to participate fully in the assessment process.
The justification for employing a simplified, less rigorous form of assessment was not just to overcome the evident illiteracy of potential kinship carers. There was also the need to “make the process less confronting” because:
some adults can be reluctant to seek approval as kinship carers because they find the assessment process intimidating. Many have reported feeling that their own ability to care for their children has been put under the spotlight during the process.
The emphasis the Carmody Report appeared to place on children’s best interests was dubious; its highly questionable recommendations can be read as an official warrant to afford indigenous children separate and unequal treatment and a lesser standard of protection.
Indigenous politics, in combination with concerns about preventing a repeat of the Stolen Generations, distorts indigenous child protection policy. This political distortion of priorities means that instead of accepting and dealing with the increasing difficulty of reconciling the commitment to maintaining contact with kin and culture with child welfare, in the context of the worsening child welfare crisis in indigenous communities, the debate is dominated by restatements of the political positions assumed in the 1970s and 1990s. This is evident not only in official literature such as recent public inquiries, but also in other opinion-shaping commentary and analysis produced by the likes of Pilger and his fellow activists.
The explosive claims that racist policy and genocidal intent are behind the over-representation of indigenous children in care also feature in commentary on indigenous child protection by Paddy Gibson, a senior researcher at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. Based on the fact that the number of indigenous children currently in care is greater than at any time during the Stolen Generations period, Gibson endorses the view that this represents a “new Stolen Generation”, driven by a return to what is essentially the assimilation policy of earlier eras.
Gibson has acknowledged that child removals are a consequence of the reality that many Aboriginal communities “suffer developing world living conditions”. But his analysis could be viewed as updating the Bringing Them Home account of “paternalistic attitudes” framing Aboriginal culture itself as a child welfare problem, while (contradictorily) calling for greater government investment in “community development”—code for Aboriginal-controlled social services, and a call to repeat and extend the failed policies of Aboriginal self-determination.
According to Gibson, “the triumphant politics of assimilation have exacerbated the drive to remove Aboriginal children”. This appears to claim that growth in indigenous child removals is a result of the policy shift in recent times away from the separatist agenda and towards mainstreaming of health, education and other services for indigenous communities. Politicised claims about racism driving removals overlook the reality that today, child protection policy is principally driven by the opposite of assimilation, due to the commitment to the ACPP. Moreover, it aggravates the way that Aboriginal politics, in the guise of respecting culture, downplays the genuine child welfare concerns that exist in indigenous communities.
Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. This is an edited extract from his book The Madness of Australian Child Protection: Why Adoption Will Rescue Australia’s Underclass Children, published by Connor Court last month.