Australia: Cultural Care For Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Children In Out Of Home Care


Terri Libesman, 2010

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have higher levels of contact with child welfare systems in Australia than any other group. They are placed in out of home care at a rate 9 times higher than all children1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have advocated and responded to the removal of their children at a local level from the time of colonisation. The formation of national Aboriginal organisations in the 1960s and 1970s led to political advocacy for greater cultural control over child welfare. The effects of Aboriginal separations and placement with non-Aboriginal adoptive and foster carers were the focus of the first, second and third Australian Adoption Conferences in 1976, 1978 and 1982 and at the First Aboriginal Child Survival Conference in 1979.2 Further, the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Care Agencies (AICCAs) were established in the 1970s. In NSW the Aboriginal Children’s Service was formed in 1975 whilst delegates at the First Australian Adoption Conference in 1976 encouraged the formation of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency.3

 

With respect to the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, Jackson declared in 1979, The Agency is geared to service delivery and community development. It aims at ultimately providing an autonomous community centred service for children, based on the notion that there already exists within the Aboriginal community, multiple and diverse resources which can be integrated into the Aboriginal Child Care Agency Program … Because it is an Aboriginal community organisation, the Aboriginal Child Care Agency can be easily sensitised to and reflective of the needs of Aboriginal families and children. This is vital as a breakdown between State welfare delivery and the participation of Aboriginal people, suspicious of programs stigmatised by child removal, has paralysed welfare operations. The Aboriginal Child Care Agency then, bridges this gap and operates outside the fear of ‘Welfare.’4

 

These sentiments were reiterated in focus group meetings in 2009 for this research. The importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and cultural recognition has been an ongoing theme with incremental legislative and policy changes being made from the 1970s onwards which have begun to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural rights5. In 1992, Bringing Them Home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, recommended that a negotiated transfer of responsibility for child welfare from government agencies to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations take place in accordance with their capacity and desire to assume this responsibility6. While this recommendation is yet to be fully implemented, some legislative reform has taken place which facilitates greater control by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations over their children’s wellbeing, see discussion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP) below.

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child care agencies provide a range of services, including the provision of advice with respect to child protection matters, preventative and support services, childcare and out of home care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The research for this report, looking at how to provide cultural care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care, has reiterated findings from previous research. This being that the best cultural care is provided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the most effective way to provide cultural care is to support and build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to keep children at home and where this is not possible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies, kin carers and foster carers to look after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

 

The importance of culture to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are placed in out of home care’s well-being is acknowledged with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle (ATSICPP) in all Australian jurisdictions. The relationship between this principle and cultural care is discussed in more detail below. While the ATSICPP is a crucial corner stone for retaining cultural care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care a significant percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are neither looked after by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander out of home care agencies nor placed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers7. The risk of these children being dislocated from family, culture and community is significant.

 

Many of the barriers to cultural care relate to historical injustices and broader social and economic inequities which weigh on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Reparations for past wrongs call for individual but also systemic and structural responses to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s wellbeing. Children live in families and communities and in many instances community development and support is integral to addressing contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s cultural care and more broadly their well-being. The importance of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ rights to support their children is evident in examples of successful cultural care offered through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies which support children in out of home care discussed below.

 

However Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations only service a small proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are in out of home care and there is no systematic or universal program for cultural care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care who are looked after by non- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers. While the aim for best practice cultural care should be to transfer all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to the care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies the reality is that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will continue to be placed in non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care by non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies. Most of these agencies would like to provide the best care, including cultural care, for these children and young people. The challenge is to translate this good will into sustained commitments, processes and resources.

 

Notes

 

1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2010), Child Protection Australia 2008-2009, Child Welfare Series no 47, Canberra, 46.

2 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (NISATSIC) (1997) Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, HREOC, Sydney, Chapter 21.

3 Ibid.

4 Jackson B (1979), The First Aboriginal Child Survival Seminar, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency in association with the Office of Child Care, Melbourne and Canberra, 3; cited in NISATSIC (1997) above n2.

5 Libesman T (2008), ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Contemporary Child Welfare’ in Monahan G & Young L (eds), Children and the Law in Australia, LexisNexis Butterworths, Sydney, 329-351.

6 NISATSIC (1997) above n2, Appendix 9: Recommendation 43c.

 

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