Child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities

Exploring child sexual abuse in Western Australia
Report – May 2002


Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2002)

Child protection is the responsibility of the community services department in each State and Territory. Children who come into contact with community services departments include those: who have been or are being abused or neglected; or whose parents cannot provide adequate care or protection. The AIHW reports on national data on children who come into contact with the community services departments for protective reasons. The three areas of the child protection system for which national data are reported are: child protection notifications, investigations and substantiations; children on care and protection orders; and children in supported overnight out-of-home care.

Bolger (1991)

This study is concerned with violence against Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory.  Eight communities were included in the study, four in Central Australia and four in the Top End, and each was visited for a period of approximately two weeks.  An attempt was made to sample a variety of different types of communities on the basis of a number of factors including: population size and homogeneity/heterogeneity; language and culture; distance from and/or ease of reaching a major town; presence or absence of a police station, a health centre, or alcohol.  In addition research was carried out in Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. The report is arranged under the following chapters: Women and violence; Facts and figures; Violent experiences; Causes of violence against women; Dealing with violent situations; Public sector response; Future action. 

Ferrante,  Morgan, Indermaur, Harding (1996)

The focus of this analysis is on quantitative indicators of domestic violence in Western Australia.  The data sources for estimating the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence analysed are: data related to crimes recorded by police; the results of the Community Safety Survey conducted by the Crime Research Centre in Perth in November 1994, involving a random sampling of 3061 households; applications for restraining orders lodged at magistrates’ courts in Western Australia; and data made available by hospitals and non-government organisations involved in victim support.  The final chapter of the book discusses the implications of the combined measures for the estimation of the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence. A range of estimates is discussed, from the largest to the smallest, together with an appraisal of the measurement difficulties.  Included in this discussion is a consideration of the adequacy of the estimates and their relevance to policy development.  The book also discusses the extent of domestic violence against men and particular attention is also paid to the position of Aborigines and rural Western Australian inhabitants.

Memmott, Stacy, Chambers, Keys (2001)

An important focus of the National Crime Prevention program of the Commonwealth government is to identify priorities for violence prevention in Indigenous communities, where statistics show it is occurring at higher rates than for the rest of the Australian population.  This publication is the result of a research consultancy, the aims of which were to: identify priorities concerning the prevention of violence in Indigenous communities through a literature review and consultations with key stakeholders across disciplines and sectors; develop a strategic framework to incorporate policy recommendations designed to address the prevention of violence, and proposals on how to implement policy recommendations; and produce recommendations designed to inform the development of at least one demonstration project that would centre on the prevention of violence in Indigenous communities.

Robertson (2000)

Established in December 1998, the objectives of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence were to identify the factors behind the escalation of violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities in Queensland and to provide advice on community-based strategies for prevention and intervention. The Task Force called for public submissions through regional and local newspapers on 30 January 1999.  A literature review was also conducted.  This report presents the findings and recommendations of the Task Force.  Section 1 covers forms of violence, transgenerational trauma as cause and effect, and case studies; section 2 focuses on causes and contributing factors; section 3 is titled Rhetoric or reality? The extent of violence; and section 4 is titled Working for change.  Discussion includes theoretical perspectives on violence and its causes; abuse of alcohol and other addictive substances; cultural and spiritual violence; socioeconomic disadvantage; neglect, abuse and violence against children; suicides, self-harm and other self-inflicted injuries; reporting rape and sexual assault; policies and services; education as empowerment; Indigenous health and well-being; families and security; the Indigenous experience of justice; land - spirit culture - identity.

Causal Factors of Family Violence and Child Abuse

Atkinson (1994)

WE AL-LI is a self help community group located in Rockhampton, Queensland which has developed over the past eighteen months a whole healing approach to issues of violence in families and communities. A case study of an extended indigenous family or community is likely to show multiple, intergenerational layers of pain and trauma.  This trauma may result from ungrieved family deaths, injury from introduced diseases, physical and sexual brutality and the forced removal of people to reserves and the separation of children from their parents.  For the cycle of pain to be broken, the WE AL-LI group saw the need to create safe places, healing circles where people could start to break the denial, talk together and share stories.  This article explains the contents of the WE AL-LI workshops and how participants have benefited from them.  The workshops cover issues such as child abuse, juvenile offending, adult violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.  Workshops are also being run for indigenous prisoners.

Blagg (1999b) 

This is a report prepared for the National Crime Prevention (formerly known as the National Campaign Against Violence and Crime) and the National Anti-Crime Strategy which covers the second phase of a project aimed at developing strategies to prevent domestic violence by intervention with adolescents. The first phase was undertaken in Northam, WA (Working with adolescents to prevent domestic violence: rural town model), while this report focuses on Derby in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. In this report emphasis was placed on a careful analysis and mapping of the institutional and cultural context of the locality, and on consultations with stakeholders and communities. It was widely accepted that negotiating with indigenous communities must preface any policy initiative and that respect for indigenous culture requires that due weight be accorded to the unique qualities of specific indigenous peoples and places. The report sets out the framework for a domestic violence prevention initiative specifically targeted towards indigenous adolescents, their families and communities. 

Read (1999)

Coming from a background of writing about and working with the Aboriginal stolen generations including co-founder of Link-Up, an organisation which reunites separated Aborigines with their communities and their Aboriginality, Peter Read in this book examines who the stolen generation are, revealing through interviews, written and oral evidence the experiences of Aboriginal people who were taken away from their families.  The establishment of Link-Up is described and its work with Aboriginal clients is outlined.  The Bringing Them Home Report; the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights; and the issue of reparation in the courts are examined.  The refusal of the government to apologise is addressed and common objections to the Bringing Them Home Report are identified.

Hunter (1990b)

Author discusses the way in which violent incidents involving Aborigines are presented in the media.  Goes on to discuss the current level of violence in Aboriginal communities and analyse whether the incidence of violence has risen recently, or whether more attention is now being paid to it, making it appear to have increased. Reviews the position of men and alcohol in today’s Aboriginal society.

Hazelhurst (1994)

This book addresses the problems of alcohol addiction, family violence, and community breakdown which are destroying the spirit and lives of indigenous people. The author gives an account of the current problems and programs in preventative action taking place amongst Aboriginal leaders in Australia and Canada.

Lynch (2001)

The author acknowledges that Australian Aboriginal children and Indigenous Canadian (First Nations) children have been removed from their communities from the time of European invasion, firstly in order to ‘merge’, ‘absorb’ or ‘assimilate’ those children into the non-Indigenous population and more recently in the name of the best interests of the child. He calls for reform of child welfare law, policy and practice which currently places a disproportionate number of Aboriginal and First Nations children in care, secluding them from their cultural identity and heritage. Although he believes that ultimately self-determination for Indigenous people should transfer responsibility for the welfare of their children back to them, in the meantime the prevailing best interests principle needs to be adapted and applied by the courts and decision makers to acknowledge the unique nature of Indigenous culture, identity and child care practices. Decisions about where the child’s best interests lie should be informed by the best interests of the community as long as this approach does not mean that a child is left in an abusive situation.

Aboriginal beliefs about gender and sexuality

Atkinson (1996a)

Are Aboriginal people being asked to turn to a legal system for protection from violent assaults which are, in part, its product? The author looks at the issue of violence in Aboriginal families and communities by drawing on a number of case studies.  She argues that there has been very little progress for Aboriginal women and their children despite all the myriad reports, Commissions of Inquiry and bureaucratic activity in Australia.  Violence is increasing and taking on a new, uglier dimension.  The legal system fails to meet the needs of Aboriginal women at all levels, nor does it serve most Aboriginal men, and in fact may contribute to the complexity of behaviours we call anti-social and/or violent, the author argues. Her conclusion is that she is ‘yet to be convinced that the legal profession and the government have the will and commitment for real justice reform that will restore to Indigenous individuals, our families and communities the ability to rebuild our lives from the multiple intergenerational traumatisations that comprise the colonising impacts’.  She does, however, have implicit faith that her people will to do the work of healing and rebuilding, of regenerating and restoring, and she requests that governments and legal institutions give them support.

Greer (1992)

Rape is placed in the context of the particular difficulties faced by Aboriginal communities, beginning with the impact of colonisation. The extent of sexual violence in Aboriginal communities is discussed, and obstacles to intervention are outlined.  Author highlights the fear and mistrust felt by Aboriginal people toward outside intervention into Aboriginal issues.  She believes ‘Many communities are torn apart by the secrecy that is inherent in this attitude which protects offenders and allows the cycle of sexual violence to continue’.  She notes that Aboriginal women have begun speaking out against sexual violence, and have taken steps to organise at a national level, and concludes by suggesting other developments such as changes in service provision.

Lucashenko & Best (1995)

The idea that Aboriginal people suffer high levels of violence is one  readily accepted in most of mainstream Australia.  The widespread violence experienced by Aboriginal women by their partners has received little attention, however, assert the authors.  What are the causes of this violence against Aboriginal women?  If large-scale violence in the Aboriginal family is not traditionally sanctioned behaviour, the obvious place to locate its cause becomes the process of invasion, dispersal and dispossession following colonisation.  The authors present three ideas for change.  Firstly, the bashing of Aboriginal women, children and men must become totally unacceptable to Aboriginal people.  Secondly, Aboriginal people must identify, challenge and change sexist behaviour and rebuild the status black women enjoyed before white settlement.  Finally, there is a critical need for highly skilled Murri violence workers in urban areas.

Tatz (2001) 

Aboriginal suicide has unique social and political contexts, and must be seen as a distinct phenomenon, states the author.  To understand Aboriginal suicide one has to understand Aboriginal history: their way of life has been destroyed, resulting in a loss of structure, cohesion and meaning.  The legacy for the present generation is a loss of basic communal values.  The continuing effects of that history on today’s Aborigines are more important to the understanding of Aboriginal suicide than any psychological, sociological or medical theories.  To ignore, or worse, to deny that history is to obfuscate the origins, causes and nature of a current problem and to forestall any possible alleviation.  The author’s report on Aboriginal youth suicide is presented in the following chapters: The social and political contexts; The origins of the ‘new violence’; An anthropology of suicide; The prevalence of Aboriginal suicide - definitional problems; The prevalence of Aboriginal suicide - the data; The nature of Aboriginal suicide; Social factors - community values; Contributing factors - societal values; Lessons from abroad (including South Africa, Canada and the United States, the Pacific Islands, and New Zealand); Towards alleviation.

Mandatory Reporting

Goddard (1994)

With the phasing-in of mandatory reporting of some forms of child abuse in Victoria during 1993 and 1994, only Western Australia retains a system of voluntary reporting. This article places mandatory reporting in context, presenting discussion of, What is child abuse? ; The arguments for and against mandatory reporting; and the implications of such reporting laws.

Cunneen & Libesman (2000) 

The removal of Indigenous children from their families within contemporary Australia is considered by way of both child protection and juvenile justice  interventions and within the context of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. In particular, the article considers the findings and recommendations of the Inquiry in relation to contemporary removals and Government responses to those recommendations. (Journal abstract)

Quinton (1991) 

This paper, produced as an issues paper for the ACT Community Law Reform Committee, sets out arguments for and against mandatory reporting of child abuse in the ACT and discusses the degree to which people are obliged to report circumstances of child abuse in the ACT.

Solutions to Aboriginal Family Violence and Child Abuse

Ah Kee & Tilbury (1999) 

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle has been the policy guiding the placement of indigenous children in most Australian child protection jurisdictions for around fifteen years. The Principle requires the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community representatives in decision making concerning indigenous children, and ensuring that alternative care placements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care providers. Most jurisdictions still have a significant number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed with non-indigenous care providers, and community based Aboriginal and Islander child care agencies continue to express dissatisfaction about the nature and level of consultation which occurs when welfare departments are taking action to protect indigenous children. This paper examines why there has been such limited improvement in Child Placement Principle outcomes. Work undertaken in Queensland to address the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system is outlined from both a departmental and community perspective. The paper argues that if strategies for addressing these issues are not located within a framework of self determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, then they will not work. (Journal abstract)

Sweeney (1995) 

This article refers to an apology made by New South Wales Premier Bob Carr for past government policies which resulted in the breaking up of Aboriginal families and calls for reform of Aboriginal child welfare policies and practices.  The historical background and legal basis of policies leading to the removal of Aboriginal children from their families is discussed.  The terms of reference of the Wilson Inquiry into the separation of indigenous children and their families are outlined.  The report ‘Learning from The Past’ by the NSW Department of Community Services is analysed and the author questions whether its recommendations would lead to a real transfer of control of Aboriginal child welfare to Aboriginal communities.  Experiences in Canada, New Zealand and the United States involving the transfer of indigenous child welfare services to community control is discussed.  The author questions the ability of government agencies such as the Department of Community Services to adequately change and he advocates a holistic approach to the care and upbringing of Aboriginal children rather than the present fragmented approach to child welfare, child protection, adoption and juvenile justice.

Litwin  (1997)

In recent times, child welfare bureaucracies have been required to re-define their relationship with indigenous communities, particularly in view of the impacts associated with their past interventions within these communities. This process of readjustment has been grounded in the apparent endorsement by child welfare bureaucracies of the principle of indigenous self determination and their declared acknowledgment of the desirability of devolving greater responsibility for decision making about child welfare matters to indigenous communities. This paper suggests that, despite statements to the contrary, the processes and mechanisms employed by child welfare agencies to promote indigenous autonomy have not adequately acknowledged the saliency of indigenous social domains nor have they seriously challenged the precepts of the existing administrative domains that govern child protection interventions. Consequently the processes employed by child protection agencies to develop culturally appropriate services have seldom matched the rhetoric associated with them. It is still the case that indigenous Australians are expected to fit within the current structure of child welfare agencies, and that their expectations should conform with the accepted orthodoxies that govern child protection interventions. This paper seeks to examine the processes by which child welfare bureaucracies have, on the one hand, attempted to re-cast their relationship with indigenous communities, while, on the other hand, maintaining the primacy of their administrative domains. (Journal abstract) 

Pellatt (1991)

The purpose of this paper is to examine ways in which child welfare services are provided to aboriginal communities in the following countries: Canada, United States, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Finland.  The paper identifies and describes varying approaches to the delivery of child welfare services to aboriginal communities; identifies problems and issues (constitutional, structural and practical) associated with the varying methodologies; and develops a typology of the child welfare models identified.  The focus is on describing programs and initiatives developed at the band, tribal, and community level.  The paper also examines issues aboriginal people are dealing with in the process of re-establishing the primacy of community-based networks of caring and decision making.

Dudgeon, Garvey & Pickett (2000)

This handbook begins to show the ways of working in culturally sensitive and culturally affirmative ways.  It is intended to help psychologists working in a cross cultural context, particularly with Indigenous clients and co-workers.  The focus is on social justice, inclusion, ethics, and reconciliation.  The handbook is divided into the following five sections: Conceptualising psychology and Indigenous Australians, subdivided into history, Indigenous mental health and contemporary Aboriginal life; cultural difference and cross cultural communication; psychology and Indigenous people, subdivided into history and psychology, and cross cultural practice; alternative models and community initiatives; and the last word. Concluding papers by Richard Wilkes and Joan Winch are presented along with personal insights into locally driven programs and issues from Andre D’antoine, Esther Bevan, Cheryl Osies, and Nik Wevers. All remaining papers are individually indexed and can be retrieved by title of the book.