Professor Muriel Bamblett is a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman who has devoted her life to advocating for the rights of Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal children.
Since 1999, she has been CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, one of the oldest Aboriginal community-run organisations in Victoria. As CEO of VACCA, Muriel has lobbied successfully for major changes to the Victorian State child and family welfare law, so that it now recognises the connection to culture and community as critical for the best interests of Aboriginal children.
Bamblett was also Chairperson of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, the peak agency representing Indigenous Child and Family Services nationally.
NITV: Are there any statistics that point to child abuse being on the rise?
MB: In Victoria, there are currently some 1500 children in care. In the Bringing Them Home report from 20 years ago, there were mentions of 329 children in care. Mick Gooda warned then that if nothing was done, the numbers would double. Now the numbers are 5 times higher than it was 20 years ago. The rates clearly show that there is a struggle.
NITV: Is the situation worse for children, or are cases of child abuse just being reported more often?
MB: I think many issues such as drugs, alcohol, mental health and family violence link right back to poverty. If we don’t have a real response to poverty and don’t help people get into work, thereby allowing us to break the poverty cycle, then things aren’t going to get a lot better. We will find children still needing to go into care.
NITV: There have been instances of children being killed or injured, even though warning reports on individuals have been issued. Is the system ultimately flawed? Is the system effectively protecting children?
MB: When a child dies, we need to take a look at the individual circumstances of the case. In the last 12 months, two very young kids were lost in Victoria.
Could those deaths have been prevented? Probably not, as they happened outside of family circles. Those deaths affect not just family members and friends. They also affect and frustrate the entire community, especially when it’s a baby.
We need to work together with young mothers, especially regarding problems that sometimes come with young babies. There are often significant pre and post natal issues. We need to discuss drug and alcohol problems, not to mention family violence. If these problems are not talked about, the numbers of children going into care could rise.
NITV: What is the best course of action to help a child in an Indigenous community who is at risk? Is removal an option? How would you deal with this?
MB: The best response is - strong aunts and uncles should step in and help their family. We also need help services that target more specifically the issues of drug and alcohol abuse, and we need strong people to help those families get stronger. By helping families get stronger, and combating the issues that lead to family violence, we can then prevent the need to remove children and have them placed into care.
NITV: Are we at risk of another Stolen Generation? How can we find a balance in helping Indigenous children that could be at risk of abuse?
MB: It is possible, given that the number of children going into care is rising, especially as many are going into non-indigenous care. We have many people that are non-indigenous putting their hands up to be carers, which is great, but the problem is that it keeps indigenous children away from cultural areas.
The problem is that we have a very young population. We don’t have enough aunts and uncles around, partially due to our life expectancy. The number of people that could offer care is also down, due to family members being in prison or because of drug and alcohol problems. So these are areas where we can’t do much to help our own children, which ultimately puts pressure on families.
Indigenous children in care also face problems related to access to culture. We see many children want to go back home to country as soon as they are out of care. It’s important that while they are in care, they have access to culture. Every person has a right to heritage, to culture, and the right to return to community. We want these kids to be able to go back home as survivors of violence, and feeling like they can still be warriors.
It’s important to remember that it is Child Protection week this week, and this year’s tag line for it is: ‘Play Your Part – Stronger Families, Safer Children.’ We want to get the message out there to people, to be a strong part of your family for the kids’ wellbeing.