Comment: We're not looking after the kids

Aboriginal activist Professor Marcia Langton. Source: AAP

Leading Indigenous scholar Professor Marcia Langton weighs in on the debate about Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

Far too many Indigenous kids are not being looked after — at least by their parents and kin.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, as of June 2014 about one third of Aboriginal kids in care across the country were not placed with Aboriginal carers (with even higher rates in the Northern Territory and Tasmania). The national rate of Indigenous children in Out-of-Home Care was almost 10 times the rate of other children.

At 30 June 2014, there were 14,991 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care — a rate of 51.4 per 1,000 Indigenous children

Nationally, the number of children living in out-of-home care has risen each year between 2010 and 2014. There were 43,009 children in out-of-home care on 30 June 2014, which equates to a rate of 8.1 per 1,000 Australian children. This represents an increase of 20% since 30 June 2010.

On Insight this week, five Indigenous youths, who were removed from their families for their safety and wellbeing, are asked whether or not they would have been better off if they had been placed with ‘kinship carers’ — that is, Indigenous family members — or with non-Indigenous carers.

One young woman, Chloe, declares her pride in remaining with members of her Indigenous family. Yet while community expectations, laws and policy hold this to be the ideal, what emerges from the mouths of the other four youths — Ruby, brothers Sean and Cameron, and Serena —is typical of the evidence that case-workers consider in these cases.

Ruby was about four years old, she recollects, when a TV thrown across the room by her ‘aggressive’ father at her mother landed on her. She has not seen her father since and rarely saw her mother, who is now deceased. Alcohol seems to have been the main contributor to the family dysfunction that led to her and her siblings being removed. Ruby explained that despite disagreements during her teenage years, she is ‘grateful’ to the family who took her in and cared for her for 13 years.

Interjected among other stories of tragic childhoods, some try and fail, to compare their situations to that of the Stolen Generations under the assimilation regime of the 20th century.

Ruby made it clear that making Aboriginal people look blameless in this political attempt to score points about the stolen generation was perpetuating violence in families. She said, ‘If you want your children to come and live with you, you need to step up your game and you need to start taking responsibility’.

Stop the violence, she said. From the mouths of babes, the line between political theatre and life-threatening violence could not have been drawn more sharply.

What was not addressed is that many Aboriginal family members who would qualify as “kinship carers” choose not to,to avoid having the violence brought into their own homes. Also, the obvious reason for many is that they cannot afford to take in more family members because their houses and budgets are already overstretched. Pretending these problems don’t exist is not helpful. Turning our attention to the root causes, which on present trends relate to alcohol, drug abuse and family violence would be helpful.

The line between political theatre and life-threatening violence could not have been drawn more sharply.

The future of hundreds of thousands of young people depends on having safe home environments and, so far, there are almost 15,000 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care because of this violence. The numbers are growing fast, while political vanity remains the default position of people who sweep these issues under the carpet to secure a false identity and a false culture.

So what is in the best interest of Aboriginal kids at risk? If we listen to these young people carefully, we hear their deepest desires and regrets. They wanted to be with their parents and siblings, and live a normal life. Because they are not, they carry a burden of sadness. Yet they are resigned to the lives that they have, and are working hard to be good, successful people despite separation from their families. Nor have they lost their connection to Aboriginal society. While they had the predictable identity troubles when they were younger, they are strong people — strong enough to speak on national television about the most taboo of topics in the Aboriginal world: sexual assault of children, alcohol and drug fuelled violence that destroys families, and failed parents.

They want to stop the violence in our families and communities. They want a better society in which to have children and raise them in a safe, happy family.


Marcia Langton is Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies and is at the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.


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