Aboriginal Child Abuse the Royal Commission Cannot Avoid

Child abuse and mistreatment in Aboriginal communities are endemic and worsening by the year. Here’s a few snapshots:

  • Rates of hospitalisation for neglect and abandonment among indigenous children have been put at thirty to eighty times higher than for the non-indigenous population.[1]
  • More than 12,000 Aboriginal children have been removed and are in care, making up a third of all Australian children in care.[2]
  • One in nineteen Aboriginal children is in care, ten times the non-indigenous rate.[3]
  • In Queensland, one in every 2.2 Aboriginal children is known to Child Safety, and this is expected to increase to every second child being known to Child Safety this fiscal year. In 2007–08, only one in 4.6 Aboriginal children was known to Child Safety.[4]
  • Yet under-reporting of the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children may be nearly 90 per cent.[5]

Kevin Rudd began the current Labor era with his apology to the Stolen Generations at the opening of the forty-second Parliament on February 13, 2008. The apology was made and received with the best of intentions.[6] Rudd made the powerful pledge that “the injustices of the past must never, never happen again”. One assumes he was referring to the forced removal of indigenous children from their parents, and placement with white families or institutions.

In May 1999, Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie had initiated an apology from the state parliament “for the past policies under which indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families”, which “[expressed] deep sorrow and regret at the hurt and distress that this caused”. This was also heartfelt, but odd. From 1908 to 1971, the state government’s own figures show that a total of only 249 Aboriginal children were removed from their families and sent to reserves, missions and institutions. That’s four per year on average, and the reasons included parents’ death, neglect, the need for better education, and the need to accompany their parents.[7] To put that number in perspective, Queensland now has about 3000 Aboriginal children in care after forced removal from their families.

For Australia as a whole, the number of Aboriginal children living in care in 2010–11 was a spectacular 12,385, up 16 per cent in the previous two years alone.[8] This compares with only 8250 Aboriginal children in total taken into care in all states for all reasons in about the first seventy years of the twentieth century.[9] Moreover, of the current group in care nationally, about 30 per cent have been placed with non-indigenous carers. The rates of placement into non-indigenous care are Northern Territory, 66 per cent; New South Wales, 18 per cent; Queensland, 47 per cent; Victoria, 42 per cent; South Australia, 25 per cent; Tasmania, 57 per cent; Western Australia, 29 per cent.


Many of the children are from remote communities, and because of distant separations and loss of contact, they do not have a good chance of re-uniting with their families.

Perhaps it was politically astute that the Labor government, in selecting its “Closing the Gap” targets, did not target child abuse notifications. The targets chosen were all worthwhile but some were secondary. Ironically, the target to halve the gap in the mortality rates of children under five might be progressing partly through child removals. Prime Minister Gillard’s sentences, “Babies will live who might have died. Infants will thrive who once would not,” could have various interpretations.

Callum Clayton-Dixon, of the Queensland Anaywan Nation, can hardly be criticised for headlining the in-care figures in Brisbane Blacks Monthly as “The New Stolen Generations”.[11] (The story was illustrated with a photo of a trooper dragging an infant from its mother’s arms into a truck, a still from the fictionalised movie Rabbit Proof Fence.)

One in nineteen Aboriginal children today is in care as a result of neglectful or abusive living conditions. In the worst state, New South Wales, one in twelve Aboriginal children is in care, and in Victoria, one in 17.5.


Last June the federal government reported that in 2010–11, Aboriginal children nationally were 7.7 times more likely to be the subject of a protection order than non-Aboriginal children. The worst ratio was, surprisingly, in the ACT, where one in eighteen Aboriginal children was mistreated, thirteen times the non-Aboriginal rate. In Victoria, New South Wales and Northern Territory, the abuse involved close to one in twenty children, in Queensland one in forty, and in South Australia one in twenty-eight. Western Australia was anomalous, with a one-in-fifty-eight abuse figure, but near-equal highest ratio (thirteen times) relative to non-Aboriginal child abuse. Girls are the main victims but inquiries in the Northern Territory and New South Wales found widespread abuse of boys as well.

The federal government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies has noted a multitude of factors that could cause the Aboriginal-child abuse data—appalling as it is—to be seriously understated.


For example,

  • Aboriginal families fear the police and government agencies;
  • They fear the child may be “taken”;
  • A culture of silence and denial;
  • Pressure from abusers and their clans not to “betray” culture and community;
  • Fear that an abuser might suicide in jail;
  • Fear of retaliatory violence;
  • Shame, guilt and fear in cultural terms;
  • Lack of understanding about child abuse and neglect;
  • Language, legal and communication barriers;
  • Distance and isolation from welfare contacts.

Official inquiries in Western Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory concluded that child sexual abuse was common, widespread and grossly under-reported, possibly by 88 per cent.

Noongar author and lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade wrote last year that sexual abuse happens to one in four Aboriginal girls and one in nine Aboriginal boys under eighteen. (Those figures were published in 2002.) She notes growing concern that high rates of suicide among the young are linked to earlier child sexual abuse.


In the foreword to this book, Professor Emerita Judy Atkinson writes,

Recently a senior male political figure admonished those in a meeting who wanted to discuss the [child abuse] issue: “When you talk about child sexual assault you traumatise Aboriginal people,” he said. What should have been said was: “Recently in your community a two-year-old child was removed because there was evidence she had been sexually penetrated, and she had a sexually transmitted infection. Would the child not be traumatised by what had happened to her? Who speaks for her?”


McGlade dedicates the book, “To all the Aboriginal children who cried out in the night but who were not heard. In special memory of Susan Ann Taylor (1984–99).”

Susan Taylor lived at the Swan Valley Nyungah Community near Perth. McGlade initially supported the Swan Valley patriarch, Aboriginal elder Robert Bropho, who campaigned for Perth land rights and respect for Aboriginal heritage and culture. She then learned he was terribly abusing girls and children. Judicially described as a bully, liar and child abuser, he was sentenced in 2008 to six years and died in 2011.


One report noted that a boy had witnessed the rape of a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler at the camp in April 2000, and the same perpetrators had sexually abused him; there were ten other children currently being abused. The police did not follow up until August 2001. The Department of Community Development tried to re-interview the child in February 2003 after removing him from school, but the child declined as he was living with a perpetrator and was not safe.


Susan Taylor was found hanged in 1999 only two weeks after filing a complaint to police of violence and sexual abuse. The coroner suspected suicide but said the police investigation was faulty and the true circumstances would never be known. The coroner said:

It was apparent from the evidence received at the Inquest hearing that there is widespread rape and sexual abuse generally committed against young Aboriginal persons like Susan throughout Western Australia. It is also very clear that few of those cases are reported.


The Swan Valley Nyungah Community was closed by the state Labor government in 2003.

Louis Nowra, in his 2007 non-fiction monograph Bad Dreaming, said that Aboriginal children face as much risk as some of the world’s most impoverished communities, according to the international aid agency Save the Children.[19] Nowra writes:

Back in 1990, Dr Ernest Hunter reported that heavy drinking had been so destructive of family life that there were fewer Aboriginal children in Western Australia being raised by their biological parents than in the days of forced assimilation.

The situation is not publicly recognized partly because of the fear that these children be seen as another stolen generation … Despite the high figures of Aboriginal children being removed from their communities and families, many other at-risk children are not being removed because, as Sue Gordon, National Indigenous Council chairwoman, has remarked, “Government agencies across the states and territories charged with the statutory responsibility for children’s issues have, I believe, taken the softly-softly approach to child abuse, [whether it be] emotional, physical, neglect or sexual, because they have been frightened of creating another stolen generation.”

According to the Australian journalist Tony Koch:

If the laws that apply to the rest of the nation were applied to Aboriginal and some island communities, children would be taken from their parents and put into care by the truckload. The most serious abuse that occurs is not sexual or physical violence— although they are certainly occurring in horrendous numbers—but sheer physical neglect.

Yet argument bogs down on whether it is “culturally appropriate” for indigenous children to be placed in the care of human beings who have lighter skin … Ask a starving child whether he or she cares who gives them a sandwich, or a safe house, or who cleans up their clogged ears and weeping skin diseases, and see what the answer is … The “culture” can come later, if the child lives long enough.


In Queensland at least, the policy is kids first, political correctness last. The Child Protection Commissioner Tim Carmody says that although the Child Safety Taskforce is working on flexible styles of help, it has also established “a clear position that, in creating a balanced approach, no child should be deprived of a statutory response when this is needed to keep them safe from harm”.


Nowra quotes the indigenous welfare worker Pam Greer who says:

Men are having sex with children, young girls, young boys … It’s a tragic, tragic situation because the children lie awake at night, waiting for it to happen to them, just lie there, waiting. They know it’s coming for them, because it’s happened to everybody. And who are they getting abused by? People who are in positions of power … And what happens? The children get stoned, get drunk, hang themselves, and we all know why.


Apart from alcohol and violence, pornography has become a factor in Aboriginal child abuse. Adults have used access to pornography to barter for sex from children and teenagers. Sexual attacks have escalated after the arrival of a shipment of pornography, which has inappropriately sexualised whole communities.[23]

In February Tim Carmody issued a discussion paper:

Queensland’s current approach to child protection is clearly failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander [ATSI] children and their families on many fronts. Rates of substantiated harm against children remain high, increasing numbers of families face intrusive interventions, and the system is struggling to provide stable and suitable placements for children in need of protection.

Numbers of ATSI children in out-of-home care in Queensland have climbed since 2008. These children are entering care younger and staying longer. Nearly 40 per cent of all children in out-of-home care are ATSI, while less than 7 per cent of [all] Queensland’s children are ATSI.


He told the press that Aboriginal children are on track to comprise half the Queensland children in care by 2015. The current 40 per cent figure compares with 25 per cent in 2004, a near-doubling in eight years.

Welfare officers use the terms “notification” and “substantiation”. “Notification” means the child appears to need protection from serious harm and does not have a parent able and willing to protect them from the harm. Further investigation can result in “substantiation” involving either remedial in-home measures or placement away from the child’s home.

Carmody says the imbalance of indigenous children in the Queensland child protection system has grown strongly in the past eight years. They are now five times more likely than non-indigenous children to be “notified” for abuse or neglect, six times more likely to be “substantiated” for abuse or neglect, and nine times more likely to be living in out-of-home care.

In Queensland’s discrete indigenous communities, where 10 per cent of the state’s Aborigines live, the child abuse and neglect are far worse and worsening. The communities of Hope Vale, Mapoon and Wujal Wujal had rates of serious harm to children more than twelve times the state average. These appalling rates, Carmody says, had been occurring alongside “extreme poverty” (even with welfare payments?), community and family violence, drunkenness and drugs, non-employment, over-crowding, poor dental and general health, and poor education. Since 2008 state and federal governments have spent $100 million on the Aurukun, Coen, Mossman Gorge and Hope Vale communities, equal to $30,000 per resident. Results in school attendance and violence reduction have been positive, but only half the residents surveyed felt parenting was improving and only a third felt there was less fighting between families.


In the Queensland population aged under eighteen, 82.0 in 1000 indigenous children were subject to a notification in 2011–12, compared with 16.1 in 1000 non-indigenous children. While the number of non-indigenous children subject to a notification has decreased by 10.8 per cent since 2007–08, the number of indigenous children subject to a notification has increased by 35.5 per cent.


The raw numbers for “substantiated” indigenous children were 1622 in 2007–08, rising to 2002 in 2011–12. Of those, 386 involved physical harm, 98 sexual harm, 533 emotional harm, and in 985 cases, “neglect”.

Carmody blames factors including mass relocations of communities, past forced removals of children, poor parenting that magnifies through the generations, distrust of mainstream agencies, and everyday violence including spousal assaults, homicides, self-harm, rapes and inter-group fighting.


He says solutions can’t involve child safety alone, but require improvement to the community living conditions, including poverty and housing. There is a “National Framework” for child protection, which is full of worthy goals, but he says the reality with Aboriginal children is quite different. Many at-risk families get aid only when things reach a crisis. Community-driven aid and schemes for parental education are virtually absent.

In 2010 Queensland set up eleven family early-support services, but in Townsville, for example, less than 10 per cent of referrals could even remotely be called “early” intervention, much less prevention. Most of the other 90 per cent of families have long histories with child safety authorities of up to twenty years.


Services are fragmented, including both white and Aboriginal bureaucracies, reducing effective help. Only four districts are now providing holistic service.

Carmody believes the worsening situation is because state government bureaucracies have interfered with successful community-driven services. The various local bureaucracies are hampered by lack of trained Aboriginal staff, inexperienced directors, missing skills, poor procedures, and the inability to marshal data convincingly for grants.

The department has funded “recognised entities”, meaning both individuals and groups, to provide input into child safety case decisions. These entities are hamstrung or marginalised by departmental bureaucrats, and are sometimes reprimanded for disagreeing with departmental decisions or initiating referrals.


In a shocking coda last August to the child abuse litany, the former CEO of Hunter Aboriginal Children’s Services, Steven Andrew Larkins, aged forty-six, pleaded guilty to nine offences including producing and possessing child pornography, fraud and the aggravated indecent assault of two boys aged eleven and twelve. He was sentenced to a minimum of nineteen months in jail.

Larkins had worked in advisory roles on child protection for both the New South Wales and federal governments. He was so revered in New South Wales he was on the expert panel for the government’s “Keep Them Safe” reforms.


The Hunter Aboriginal Children’s Services organise foster care and family support. Their website says:

When children or young people cannot live with their family, we try to restore them with their natural (or birth) family and only when this is not possible, we place children and young people in culturally aware, trained and loving Aboriginal foster families.[31]

Tony Thomas, a retired journalist, is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online.


[3] ibid

[5] Op cit see 2

[6] But if, as Rudd claimed, there had been “tens of thousands” or “up to 50,000” stolen children, it is odd that the judiciary in court has verified only one stolen child, Bruce Trevorrow, who was taken in 1958 as an ill baby by a well-meaning but misguided white couple. That taking was in defiance of, rather than conformity with, policies of the SA State government against removal of Aboriginal children from their parents. Trevorrow in August 2007 won $535,000 damages plus $250,000 interest.

            [7] Windschuttle, Keith, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Vol 111, Macleay Press, `            Sydney 2009. P603

[8] Op cit see 2

[9] Windschuttle, op cit p617.




[13] ibid

[14] McGlade, Hannah, Our Greatest Challenge – Aboriginal children and human rights. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 2012, p8-9

[15] ibid, pvi

[16] ibid, p87

[17] ibid p84-85

[18] ibid p119

[19] Nowra, Louis, Bad Dreaming – Aboriginal men’s violence against women and children. Pluto Press, Victoria, 2007, p81-2

[20] Weekend Australian 24/7/10

[21]Op cit 10, p173

[22] Op cit Nowra, p55

[23] Op cit 8 AIFS


[26] ibid

[27] ibid p169

[28] ibid p172

[29] ibid p177



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