Muriel Bamblett co-authored the 2010 ‘Growing Them Strong Together’ report into the Northern Territory’s Child Protection System.
Whilst giving evidence, Ms Bamblett said when psychologists asked Aboriginal children in the protection system what made them feel safe, 85 per cent drew the Aboriginal flag.
“So I think in the Northern Territory everything has to be embedded and driven by culture, and we have to be able to have programs and services that build on culture, not see culture as a deficit,” Ms Bamblett said.
“I think it’s terribly embarrassing to know that the jurisdiction with one of the biggest Aboriginal child welfare issues doesn’t have an Aboriginal child welfare service.”
She told the Royal Commission child welfare would continue to fail unless systems built on traditional lore and culture.
“We know that you wouldn’t remove a child that was living traditionally on land and thriving and doing well, you simply wouldn’t remove them,” Ms Bamblett told the commission.
“But what is contrary is you wouldn’t also place a child there. And so, why wouldn’t you?
“Because the [families] don’t meet the western construct of ‘you’ve got to have a house and a home and you’ve got to be able to have a front door and a bedroom and all those things.
“But culturally if you’re living on land and thriving and doing really well, and that’s child’s going to have a really good culture, I think you’ve got to have systems that recognise [that].”
Ms Bamblett raised concerns that the current systems in place in the Northern Territory promote the extinction of Aboriginal culture.
“In Victoria where invasion hit the most, coming up here and seeing language, seeing people enjoying the language and talking their language to me was – I was so jealous.
“And every day in Victoria we are trying to give culture back to a lot of children who have been placed in non-Aboriginal care away from it, and the thing they starve most is to know who they are and where they come from.”
She said the Northern Territory needs to “recognise that its Aboriginal people are its greatest asset”, and build on the strong cultural base that has been thriving for thousands of years.
“Every single day I work in child welfare I see the importance and I see the effects of bringing children back to their culture and knowing their language and experiencing their Aboriginality,” she said.
“I think that it would be a wasted opportunity if we keep building a child protection system in the Northern Territory that makes the Aboriginal communities become more non-Aboriginal.”
Professor Bamblett also raised concerns about reported “underspends” in the child protection system, while there were inadequate services.
“It was all put back to not enough money in child welfare, and then all of a sudden you read a report where there’s an underspend. So it just defies understanding, as if you’ve got a system that’s imploding because of resource implications and yet there’s an underspend,” she said.
She stressed the child protection system in the Northern Territory is focused on judging parents and taking their children away, rather than working with them.
"At the moment it seems like child protection only has one response which is to judge parents for not being good parents and take children away and then order that they undertake what the court would," she said.
"Quite often [for] our families, there weren't the services, particularly in remote areas, for them to access.”
The commission also heard that severe overcrowding in houses makes it impossible for Aboriginal people living in remote communities to overcome their disadvantage.
“Imagine being a young parent, having a baby and coming home to a house where there are 20 people living … How would you ensure the safety of the child when everyone’s co-sleeping?”
Professor Bamblett said during her investigation she learned of female victims of family violence locked up in shipping containers with no mattresses ‘for their protection’, and children facing the court system with no legal representation.
“That wouldn’t happen in any other state or territory,” she told the commission.
“It basically says that a lot of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory don’t enjoy the same basic rights as Aboriginal people everywhere else in Australia and, to escape the poverty of neglect and disadvantage, they have to leave the Northern Territory and go elsewhere,” she said.
The number of children placed in out-of-home care increased by 215% in the 10 years to 2010.
Professor Bamblett said the exponential increase in child protection notifications could have been prevented if the Northern Territory government had adopted the recommendations of the 2010 board of inquiry.
“If the NT government had implemented our recommendations around putting in services to the front of house, I think those numbers would absolutely have been reduced.”
The formal hearings of the Royal Commission are set to continue in November.