• Monak Morris travelled from the NSW Central Coast to research her family history at AIATSIS in Canberra. (NITV)Source: NITV
Indigenous kids are almost 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care, but now, a group of young people who've left the care system are trying to rediscover their culture and community.
Ella Archibald-Binge

3 Aug 2016 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2016 - 3:07 PM

Growing up, 21-year-old Monak Morris knew little about her extended family. 

The Biripi woman was seven when she and her 11 siblings went into foster care, eventually finding a loving home with non-Indigenous carers. 

Monak was able to stay in contact with her parents, but her family connections weren't always clear. 

"In the Aboriginal system, we usually count our first cousins as brothers and sisters, so I didn't exactly know who I was calling Aunty and Uncle out of respect or out of family," she says. 

The Biripi woman, along with four other young Indigenous people who've left out-of-home care, travelled to Canberra to piece together her family history at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, (AIATSIS).

After two days of searching, Monak unearthed a wealth of information - from family photos to booklets documenting the lives of her ancestors who lived on Aboriginal missions. 

'It was sort of amazing knowing that my grandmother was standing in that exact spot and I can see exactly what she was seeing.'

Flicking through black-and-white photos, she struggles to describe her emotions.

"I feel excited, I feel relieved... it just feels so good. I can't stop researching".

Notably, she discovered that her grandmother, who passed away when she was three, was a land rights activist who helped found the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (set up on the lawns of what was then Parliament House in 1972 to protest the government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights).

"She was actually an inspiration to a lot of people as just a strong, black woman," Monak says. 

During her Canberra visit, Monak was able to retrace her grandmother's steps, visiting the current site of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at Old Parliament House.

"It was sort of amazing knowing that my grandmother was standing in that exact spot and I can see exactly what she was seeing."

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Regaining a sense of belonging

The first of its kind, the AIATSIS trip was organised by the NSW Uniting Aftercare service, set up last year to support young Indigenous people leaving the care system. 

Aftercare project officer Sheena Olsen says a large proportion of young people placed with non-Indigenous carers have lost their sense of identity.

'We have these young people here not even knowing their parents' last names.'

"The young people that we have here all identified that they've lost connection to their community, to their culture - they've lost who they are and where they come from."

"We have these young people here not even knowing their parents' last names."

Ms Olsen says the family research aims to give young people "a sense of belonging" and a "sense of identity," she says. 

Identity the 'most important thing we have'

Nearly every day, someone visits AIATSIS to research their own family history, says the institute's Family History Unit manager, Narelle Rivers.

She says visitors have often been disconnected from their community, with many affected by the stolen generations.

Ms Rivers believes a sense of identity is particularly important for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

"It's incredibly important for our young people in care, and our young care leavers, to know who they are and where they come from," she says. 

"Identity is, I believe, the most important thing we have as an individual... our communities know what trauma looks like and what it looks like where (identity) has been disrupted, so anything we can do to maintain that is incredibly important."

Aftercare project officer Sheena Olsen hopes to hold the trip twice a year, but says it'll be difficult without further funding. 

The Aftercare service currently employs two project officers to work with 155 young Indigenous people across New South Wales, which Ms Olsen says is just "the tip of the iceberg".

The program is funded by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services.

Want to research your family history?

Use the AIATSIS website to start searching.