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November 14th 2011 print

Steve Etherington

Saving the children

God forgive me. God forgive my cowardice. I should have picked them up and run. We should pick them and run now.


First published by the Bennelong Society in 2007. Has anything changed?


Coming Ready or Not! Aborigines are heading for town

Rev. Steve Etherington

If we accept the need to do anything at all about the abused children, we must accept the need to bring remote area people into the workforce. This is not about a forced long march. This is not about stealing wages, land or resources. This is not even about assimilation. It is unashamedly about integration: integration into a set of rights and capacities and opportunities. Integration is the form of assimilation where the individual is given the same range of choices and the same freedom to make those choices as every other citizen.

And don’t back off. It is hard to stick to your guns when people say you’re some sort of monster. Okay, maybe they are simply shooting the messenger, but it still hurts. And to some extent, even talking about this makes me feel like a monster. Shouldn’t I just tiptoe away? But I have to ask myself: What will this kind of workplace engagement do to their mental health? Well, what is happening to their mental health now? That’s a good argument, but I don’t argue much any more. Think of the kids. I think of the kids whose funerals I’ve had to conduct. But I mostly think of living kids.

When I see my granddaughter, nearing the end of primary school, taking part in Eisteddfod, playing organized sport, reading and writing competently, with growing self confidence in grooming and clothing herself, with a range of domestic skills and a relaxed confidence about life, I thank God that she has good parents, parents who have jobs, grandparents who have jobs, uncles, aunties, extended families who have jobs.

But then I visit one of our ‘dry’ communities, with its own language, on its own land, as I did last week, and I see girls the same age as my granddaughter, ten or eleven, with dirty matted hair, sitting with drunken adults in card games hoping to cadge food money, or furtively darting out of a house where the porn videos can be heard, shamefaced, frightened. When I talk to them and find them already hardened and wary about life, when I informally assess them, sparing them any humiliation, and confirm that their literacy skills, their numeracy and their general knowledge are below mainstream infants school standard, when I watch their terribly limited capacity to attempt new relationships, I find it hard to thank God.

I find it appallingly easy to run away mentally, to start hiding my own seared emotions behind the smorgasbord of glib racisms—they have their own profound knowledge; their culture is so rich and so old; they seem such happy children—aren’t they beautiful! How cruel to separate them from their culture! ‘It is best to leave them with their own families.’

God forgive me. God forgive my cowardice.

I should have picked them up and run. We should pick them and run now. Worse. Worse. When I asked the kids, as I often have, what they want to do when they grow up, they all say they want to work—teachers, doctors, in a shop, mechanics…

Source: Steve Etherington, “Coming Ready or Not!" (pdf) here…