Isaiah Dawe doesn’t remember the first time he was removed from his family.
He was taken into the child protection system when he was two months old and came out when he turned 18.
In that time, Mr Dawe was abused, lost contact with his extended family and lived in more than a dozen different foster homes in country towns across NSW.
“I’d be locked out with no food, no water and I had to repeat Year Four. I couldn’t read or write and so I felt completely lost,” he said.
“I was told by my carers, just inches away from my face, 'oh Isaiah you are a nobody, that's why you are in foster care because your family abandoned you and you belong in jail, just like your parents. That's where you are going to end up’."
He was the fourth generation of his family to be forcibly removed.
Life is now very different for the 25 year-old Butchulla and Gawara man.
Earlier this year, he launched ID Know Yourself, a mentoring program for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
“Once I got out of the system, after those 18 years of that struggle daily, I wanted to make sure that no other kid had to have the same story as myself,” Mr Dawe said.
‘It's an emerging crisis’
A landmark study released in Canberra today shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are now 10.2 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children. In 2006, they were 5.7 times more likely to be placed into out-of-home care.
The new figures are alarming, said Richard Weston, chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, which prepared the Family Matters report.
“It's an emerging crisis and we are projecting in this report that in ten years if we don't do anything now to address the rates of removal we are going to double the amount of Aboriginal and Torre Strait islander kids in the system,” he said.
Mr Weston said that removing Indigenous children from their family typically also meant removing the child from their culture and their Country.
“It happened in the Stolen Generations and it is happening with kids today, that they will come away struggling to know who they are and where they fit, he said.
“That leads to things like, they lack confidence, it leads to mental health issues. It leads to a whole raft of mental health issues.”
The report also said that the trauma associated with child removal is inter-generational.
It said: "Children living in a household with members of the Stolen Generations, when compared with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, were 4.5 times as likely to have missed school without permission, 1.8 times as likely to have poor self-assessed health, and 1.6 times as likely to live in household with cash-flow problems."
‘Not just statistics’
Michelle Landry, the federal assistant minister for children and families, said she is aware the system needs to undergo changes to help care for Indigenous children.
“The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 recognises that Indigenous children in child protection systems require culturally appropriate care and support,” she said.
“We are committed to working with all levels of government and the community to improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children and young people.”
Mr Dawe hopes that the trauma experienced by Indigenous children taken into foster care ends in this generation.
"These kids are not just statistics, they've got feelings," he said.
"There are four things that kids need to succeed, especially for Aboriginal kids in care, and that is love, empathy, consistency and culture - because culture gives you that sense of belonging."