• Sunrise, 13 March 2018. Prue MacSween and Ben Davis brought on as panelists to discuss adoption of Aboriginal children. (Twitter / Sunrise)
OPINION: "Debates facilitated by the wrong people does little more than stir up emotions and reinforce negative stereotypes rather than focus on solutions," writes Summer May Finlay
By
Summer May Finlay

13 Mar 2018 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 15 Mar 2018 - 3:14 PM

This morning, I woke to the continuation of a national debate about the need to place Indigenous  children with white families because of sexual abuse. Twitter soon became aghast with the all-white panel Sunrise convened to discuss the Federal Assistant Minister for Children and Families David Gillespie’s comments about placing Indigenous children with non-Indigenous families.

Sexual abuse, child protection and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) among children are challenging topics to discuss. They are emotive issues for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. The current debate we are hearing however, is unhealthy and unhelpful.

Gillespie has used the rates of STIs among young Indigenous people to justify his claims that the guidelines that that urge child protection agencies to place Indigenous children with Indigenous families, be relaxed. To discuss the matter: ‘white families should be allowed to adopt Aboriginal children', Channel 7’s popular breakfast program brought together an entire non-Indigenous panel - none of whom had any experience or expertise in child protection matters or in Indigenous affairs.

What the panellists, Prue MacSween and Ben Davis (4GB) failed to mention was some of the most relevant information on the issue - there is a tenuous link between STIs and child abuse. This was pointed out by two experts in the field, Professor James Ward from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and Peter Markey head of disease surveillance at the NT's Centre for Disease Control, who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald on this very subject just last week.

As a nation, is the solution to remove these young people from their families or should we be looking at why they are having sex at a young age, and why (as is evident) they are not protecting themselves?

Most young Indigenous people with STIs are over the age of 14. And most Indigenous people 14 years +  contract STIs from having sex with their peers. As a nation, is the solution to remove these young people from their families or should we be looking at why they are having sex at a young age, and why (as is evident) they are not protecting themselves?

Not only is the justification of removing Indigenous children with STIs questionable, but Sunrise’s panel made sensationalist and frankly incorrect claims that Indigenous children are currently not placed with white families.

Not only is the justification of removing Indigenous children with STIs questionable, but Sunrise’s panel made sensationalist and frankly incorrect claims that Indigenous children are currently not placed with white families.

A quick Google search would have demonstrated the error of this belief. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) figures show that 68 per cent of Indigenous children are placed in the care of Indigenous people, which logic tells you then that the remaining 32 per cent must be with non-Indigenous families. With British and Irish being the most common ancestries in Australia‘s population, this further suggests that Aboriginal children are currently in care with some “white families”.

In the case of adoption of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory (the region of these STI figures), government legislation makes clear that while adoption of Aboriginal children by other Aboriginal persons is given preference (as is placing the child with extended family or family in accordance with Aboriginal law),  it does not rule out adoption by non-Indigenous families. And it’s important as a nation that we recognise that these legal principles have been created on behalf of the devastating affects of the past that separated children from their families, communities and culture – not as Mr Davis puts it, “political correct nonsense”.  

Sunrise would do itself a favour by at least hosting panellists who actually know what they are talking about, unless of course they don’t want facts to get in the way of a good story. Like for instance, someone from the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC). SNAICC understands these issues more so than any person or organisation, or talkback radio presenter.  

Not only are the claims children are only being placed with Indigenous families untrue, but why is The Courier Mail's buzzword ”white families” so important? Is this to suggest that white Australian families are good enough, or can be trusted, to take care of Indigenous children? Adding another level to an already shaky structure, this Anglocentric view is a distraction from the real issues.

Such a publicised debate facilitated by the wrong people does little more than stir up emotions and reinforce negative stereotypes rather than focus on solutions.

So what are the real issues here? There are some Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and other jurisdictions where STIs have reached endemic proportions. This is troubling, and action needs to be taken. However, this is not the case across all Indigenous communities and such a publicised debate facilitated by the wrong people does little more than stir up emotions and reinforce negative stereotypes rather than focus on solutions.

According to the AIHW, 50 per cent of Indigenous children who are removed from their families come from the lowest socio-economic brackets, with the main reason for removal, neglect. Demonstrating what has been widely researched and reported on, that neglect and poverty are linked.

However, even addressing only the symptoms (neglect and abuse), removing Aboriginal children from their families and communities wouldn’t bring the significant change required to assist our young people to lead healthy, happy lives.

To reduce STIs we need to focus on access to health services, diagnosis and treatment of STIs, health literacy, needs-based funding and sexual health education. To reduce Indigenous children in out of home care we need investment in early intervention programs with at risk families and address poverty. A wealthy country like Australia should be focusing on eradicating poverty, not whether enough Indigenous children are being placed with white families.

Media sensationalism does little for Indigenous people and is more about the white saviour mentality. We need politicians to look beyond the surface to the root causes. We need cool heads and community-driven solutions.

Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, academic, writer and a public health consultant. Summer has worked in a number of different areas relating to Aboriginal health and social justice. Follow Summer @OnTopicAus