How many Stolen Generations does Australia have to go through before Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families can trust the system?
This is the exasperated question community network, Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR)— Indigenous families who have been directly affected by child removal —have been spearheading since they formed in 2014.
When these women not only lost their grandchildren to the state, but were subsequently deemed ‘unsuitable’ to step in as their primary carers, they took action against the government. It may be an institution that bigger than their small community alliance, but arguably, not nearly as strong as these matriarch's determination.
Many of these grandmothers relate to the damning statistic that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait children in out-of-home care has doubled since Kevin Rudd’s famous National Apology in 2008. What is more, members of GMAR are further challenged by the fact that the numbers of these children being placed in the care of family members or kin (a principle in Aboriginal child placement), has decreased. With so many Indigenous families separated by the state in modern times, it begs the question: is Australia having a resurgence in the systematic removals of Indigenous children, or did the historical practice never truly end?
Collaborating with acclaimed film producer, Michaela Perske (Black Divaz, 88 and Boxing for Palm Island), the film exposes shocking statistics and policies regarding Indigenous child welfare in modern Australia and questions whether much has improved since 20th Century protection policies, the landmark 1997 Bringing them Home report and Rudd’s powerful olive branch of reconciliation, the National Apology.
Behrendt told NITV that when she first looked into some of the determinations made by the Department of Community Services (DOCs), she saw a pattern that was “quite disturbing”. It was then that she felt that a proper discussion was needed on the issue.
“The trends that we saw that was probably the most disturbing for me was grandparents who were being given primary carers of grandchildren were being deemed as unsuitable from DOCs even though they didn’t have an issue with alcohol, owned their own homes and they had jobs et cetera,” she said.
Behrendt shares the stories of these grandmothers in her documentary, telling a story both, plight and resilience as these older women challenge government policies to bring their grandchildren home. From Suellyn Tighe who became a kind of ‘bush lawyer’ by arguing legislation with bureaucrats, to Deb Swan who left her job at DOCs to fight alongside her sister Jenny who had her grandchildren removed, After the Apology follows four Nannas who have been denied the responsibility of their beloved grandchildren.
“They’ve [grandmothers] had to really fight the department in a David and Goliath battle, and each of them have done it with dignity and with an enormous amount of determination,” Behrendt said.
“But I guess one of the things that you do feel as a filmmaker when you have the privilege of telling these stories is that you want to do them justice.
One of the things that you do feel as a filmmaker when you have the privilege of telling these stories is that you want to do them justice.
“One thing I was quite mindful of was when I was making this film, is that a lot of people assume that if DOCs were involved, that there must have been a reason why they were. And I think one of the things the film shows is that’s actually not the case,” she said.
By exploring several substantiated child protection notifications placed upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, the film brings to light the “incredible” unconscious bias affecting Indigenous families.
“We’d seen cases where children who spent a night at Nan’s, a night at Aunts and a night with Mum and Dad as being deemed neglected, based on a European notion of what a family is. And that’s normal in our community that you would have collective parenting.” she explained.
“The other thing that’s incredibly disturbing is that a lot of our Indigenous families to live off Centrelink payments and statistically are going to be poor.
“We saw a lot of the cases listed as ‘poverty’ and ‘neglect’. So children were loved and cared for, but because the families didn’t have a lot of food or money, these families were being deemed as neglectful,” she said.
After the Apology is a powerful reminder of the devastating realities that so many of Indigenous families are confronted with today, and the documentary is predominantly made to give hope to, and inspire, other Aboriginal and Torres Strait families who are going through similar battles. But Behrendt says she also created the work for non-Indigenous Australians, who come from a place of good, to hear the numbers of Indigenous children in out-of-home-care and see the importance of community-controlled organisations.
After three years from the film’s initial idea to completion, After the Apology was screened for the first time at the Adelaide Film Festival last year. An event which Behrendt reflects on as the most rewarding experience in the whole process.
Knowing what they’ve been through; that they’ve had a quiet battle and they’ve felt really alone, and to have such a big audience hear their stories and respond in admiration at their courage, I have to say it was one of the most rewarding moments of making this film.
“I remember what it felt like to first see the film when it opened in Adelaide and to sit there with the two women in the film beside me and to have the audience give them— the two women, not the filmmakers— a standing ovation,” she said.
“To see how they’d been seen as heroes … I still get teary just thinking about it.
“Knowing what they’ve been through; that they’ve had a quiet battle and they’ve felt really alone, and to have such a big audience hear their stories and respond in admiration at their courage, I have to say it was one of the most rewarding moments of making this film.”
As grandmothers on the ground hold up protest signs stating, “How many Stolen Generations?” in an attempt to bring their grandchildren home, After the Apology, holds up a mirror to the government in an attempt to bring justice into the homes of Indigenous families. Australia-wide. For good.
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