They took away her children because they claimed she was medically negligent, but it was in foster care that the physical injuries started appearing, says single mother Kelly*.
Her story is one of several uncovered by an NITV News investigation which heard from a dozen women in Queensland's South Burnett region who say Indigenous child removals in the area have reached a crisis point, six months into a major government initiative to reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care.
Kelly says she first saw signs of mistreatment during one of her unsupervised visits with her children.
Her youngest boy, aged one, had bruising around his eye, while her two-year-old son complained that his genitals were sore.
"I seen my little boy with the black eye - that was the first thing," Kelly told NITV News.
She says she also noticed a rash and lumps on his back and torso: "he's not allowed around animals like cats, because of his asthma... I was thinking they probably have animals there".
Kelly noticed that her older son also seemed uncomfortable.
"I was saying, 'what bubba, what's wrong?' He was pointing at his front part. I said is that sore? He said 'yeah'."
Kelly removed his nappy and noticed what appeared to be swelling around her son's genitals. She took photos of the affected areas, including her younger son's bruised eye, which have been sighted by NITV News.
The 22-year-old mother says her two-year-old hides at the end of their visits, anytime child safety officers arrive to take him back to his foster carers.
"He was hiding in the cupboard crying, saying 'no, I don't want to go!'," Kelly says.
Kelly, along with her mother, grandmother and an advocate, reported the alleged abuse to staff at the South Burnett office of the Department of Child Safety on November 15, but the family say no formal incident report was filed.
They raised their concerns again at a meeting on December 7, but say they were given no explanation why the injuries occurred. Documents obtained by NITV News show that the child protection order keeping the children in out-of-home care is ongoing, with a review scheduled for May 2018.
'We want these babies home before Christmas, before something bad happens.'
"It's appalling... they don't wanna listen, they don't wanna look," says Kelly's advocate, Aunty Cephia Williams, who co-founded Brisbane advocacy group Sovereign Grannies.
"They never had those bruises or stuff beforehand. When it was addressed with one of the workers in child safety, they didn’t want to hear it.
"We want these babies home before Christmas; before something bad happens."
A spokesperson for the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women said the department takes allegations of abuse of children by foster carers very seriously.
"All allegations of this nature are fully investigated and an outcome is provided to the biological family," they said in a statement to NITV News.
"Information is also sought from relevant sources including schools, day care providers and other people who are close to the child/children."
The spokesperson said foster carers can have their approval to care revoked if they are found to be neglecting children.
The Department of Child Safety removed the two boys from Kelly and her then-partner Dean* seven months ago.
"The Department is aware in the past that [Kelly] and [Dean] did not get medical treatment for their children... when they were sick," reads the children's case plan.
"When they did not take the children to doctor appointments or follow the doctor's advice, this meant that things which could be treated quickly got worse and then needed a lot more treatment."
Kelly claims she'd taken the boys to the hospital several times to be treated for their respective asthma and eczema. She says she was at the hospital with her youngest son when police arrived with child safety officers to take him away. It was then she learnt that her older son, who was staying with her mother, had already been removed.
"I was upset, crying. Couldn't stop crying, couldn't sleep," Kelly says.
She believes her children were taken because she "kept on taking them to [the] hospital".
Kelly says the boys have had three different foster carers over seven months. She now sees her kids three times a week, from 10am - 3pm. She says her children seemed to be "getting treated right" at their first two placements, always bringing food to visits, and wearing "good clothes", but she saw signs of neglect when they were moved to a third placement in October.
"They wasn't putting [on] any food or drinks... and they was coming with old clothes, like second-hand clothes," she says.
Kelly has since separated from her partner. According to her mother and grandmother, Kelly is a "good mother" who rarely drinks, never takes drugs and has a stable home. Kelly has just completed an eight-week parenting course at the department's request.
"I just want my babies back, just praying to get my babies back," she says.
Kids losing identity and culture, says family advocate
Aunty Cephia Williams says Kelly's case isn't unique. She's currently working with five families in the region who are also trying to regain custody of their children.
"It's just terrible what they're doing to our families up here," says Aunty Cephia.
"Under our cultural protocol, [the kids] should be home.
"They lose their identity, they lose their culture, they don't know who they are once they take them away."
NITV News has heard reports of at least one recent case where police and child safety workers removed children from a local school, in front of other students. In another instance, a mother (who was, herself, abused in care as a child) says her son in foster care had asked for a weapon during an unsupervised visit. Another mother says her child was taken from hospital immediately after birth while still "on the breast". Others say they've witnessed police "practically dragging" children from their mother's arms, or chasing them down "like a dog".
It's not standard practice for the department to use police when investigating allegations of abuse and neglect, a Department of Child Safety spokesperson told NITV News.
"A decision like this is only taken in circumstances where the department suspects a criminal offence has been committed against the child, or where a risk to Child Safety staff has been identified."
Aunty Cephia says Aboriginal families in the South Burnett region are often working with young, non-Indigenous caseworkers.
"They're trying to tell us how to parent a child when they've never had children themselves," Aunty Cephia says.
"They're trying to sit across the table and tell us about our Aboriginal children - it's not on."
Another Aboriginal mother living in Murgon whose four children were removed a year ago, says mothers are being set up to fail.
'It just breaks you. They're crying when they're going, when they know their visit's over, [saying] 'mum I love you, I want to come home'.
"There's a lot of young ladies here going through a lot of things, but the thing is when they do ask for help, they turn it all back around on us... and we're the 'bad parent'," she says.
"You just feel helpless. There's nothing you can do, because they're putting up all these barriers for you, even though you're trying your hardest and doing everything that you're asked.
"It traumatises me as well as my children because then it just breaks you. They're crying when they're going, when they know their visit's over, [saying] 'mum I love you, I want to come home'. And I say to them all the time 'I know, I'm gonna fight for yas all the way'."
Wakka Wakka Traditional Owner Cynthia Button says there's a lack of cultural understanding within the Department of Child Safety and the foster care system.
"My concern here is that to me it's like the Stolen Generation happening again," she says.
"You gotta have the heart of a blackfella's heart to rear blackfella kids up. You've gotta really know not just those children, you've gotta know their kinship. They've got a lot of aunties - they don't call them aunties, they call them their mothers. All their uncles, that's all their fathers... white man don't understand that kinship to the family."
'Nothing got better' after launch of 20-year government strategy
The complaints come six months after the Queensland Government committed $160 million to an ambitious 20-year-plan to eliminate the disproportionate rates of Indigenous children in care.
In Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 8.5 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous kids. Over 40 per cent of Indigenous children aren't placed with kin or Indigenous carers.
In May, the government unveiled its plan to eliminate those disparities by 2037. The first three years of the 'Our Way' strategy included the following actions:
- Establish a Queensland First Children and Families Board, with representation from Family Matters, the state government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, to oversee the plan;
- Invest in community-controlled organisations to implement Indigenous family-led decision making;
- Advocate for a national Close the Gap target to eliminate the disproportionate amount of Indigenous kids in care.
Six months on, Aunty Cephia Williams says she's seen no improvements.
"Nothing got better for us and nothing went forward since that plan got put into law," she told NITV News.
South Burnett Child Safety staff will undertake training and workshops as part of the Our Way strategy in February 2018, said a Department of Child Safety spokesperson.
The South Burnett Child Safety Service Centre will also implement a Disproportionate Strategy next year, to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous children in protection.
The spokesperson said staff have been holding Aboriginal-led Yarning Circles with local families for the past two years "to provide opportunities for family-led decision-making at critical points in the child protection process".
"This has helped identify solutions to a number of issues including placement of children in care – with identification of potential kin to care for children," they said.
Calls for Indigenous advisory group to guide child placement process
Aunty Cephia is calling for the establishment of an Indigenous advisory group for the South Burnett area. She says the group should be comprised of local elders, who could advise child safety workers on placement options for Indigenous kids.
"When child safety come in, they know there's an issue there with a family, address it with the elders first - don't go in with police to remove the children," Aunty Cephia suggests.
"If it's like for drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, there's ways around that. You place the children, and the parents - refer them to go and get help.
"But it's all about the children, placing them on country. There's a lot of good families there... and then you've got better communication with child safety."
Cherbourg Traditional Owner Cynthia Button agrees that children should remain with family wherever possible.
"We’ve got a lot of deadly families here, who can raise our children. We might have families or young mothers that’s unable to look after their children – they’ve got other family members around them that can look after them, instead of removing them off the community," she says.
A Department of Child Safety spokesperson said a working party had already begun conversations with local elders to establish such a cultural advisory panel, which will form part of the South Burnett Disproportionate Strategy to reduce the number of Indigenous kids in care.
NITV News approached the Minister for Child Safety Dianne Farmer for comment on this story, but the Minister referred the questions back to the Department of Child Safety.
*Names have been changed for legal reasons.
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