Child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities
- Executive Summary
- The prevalence of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities
- Causal factors of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities
- Aboriginal beliefs about gender and sexuality
- Research findings regarding mandatory reporting of child abuse and sexually transmitted infections
- Best practice in government agency responses to sexual abuse of Aboriginal children and solutions to Aboriginal family violence
Causal factors of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities
This section outlines what the literature says about causal factors of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities. While the broader literature on the causes of family violence outside Aboriginal families is not reviewed in detail here, it should be noted that there are strong parallels between the two bodies of literature. For example, Tomison (2000) reports on research which has found that adults (particularly males) who were physically abused while an adolescent and/or who witnessed domestic violence, were more likely to be involved in marital aggression themselves (Straus et al. 1980, Rodgers 1994). Aboriginal writers and commentators also make this link (for example Hazelhurst 1994).
It should be noted that a comparison between the two bodies of literature (mainstream and Indigenous) reveals a marked difference in the ‘ways of knowing’. Mainstream knowledge is generally only reported after (and only if) it has been acquired by a highly structured and defined process of knowledge gathering - via the ‘research method’. In contrast, much of the knowledge coming from the Indigenous community is based on personal and first-hand experience, rather than a structured form of data collection. This knowledge is commonly repeated and confirmed by many people, thus providing the information with some validity. Very little research in the violence area has been done by, or with, Indigenous communities, it is important that the knowledge generated by Indigenous peoples is incorporated into any future attempt to develop solutions to violence.
The causes of child abuse - an overview of ‘mainstream’ knowledge
In the decades since Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegemueller and Silver (1962) published their description of the ‘battered child syndrome’, a large body of research has been produced on the causes of child maltreatment. Initially, most of the approaches focused on identification of single factors (Browne 1988). These factors, derived from retrospective studies included: adult psychopathology; sociological factors which took into account the external factors that may promote abuse (social isolation, overcrowding and poor housing, unemployment); and abuse-provoking child characteristics (Browne 1988, National Research Council 1993).
However, in the 1970s the limitations of focusing on single factors was recognised. In particular, it became clear that no single factor could account for child maltreatment. Researchers then began to investigate the interactions of parent, child and environmental factors. The increased recognition of the role of ecological or situational factors gradually led to the development of ‘interactive models, which emphasise the importance of the sociocultural context of child maltreatment’ (National Research Council 1993: 107).
These social interactionist models emphasise the importance of viewing child abuse and neglect within the context of the child, family, their local community and society. Thus theories of the causes of child maltreatment have shifted from explanations based on individual pathology to explanations where abuse is a symptom of significant childrearing problems, often occurring in families with other significant family problems (e.g. unemployment, substance abuse) (Browne 1988, National Research Council 1993). Under this perspective, child abuse may result from complex constellations of factors whose influence may increase or decrease over different developmental and historical periods (Holden, Willis & Corcoran 1992, National Research Council 1993).
The causes of child abuse in Indigenous communities
While there exists a number of different theories on the causes of family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities, it is commonly believed that child abuse is caused by a multitude of factors. ‘The overwhelming evidence supports the position that the various forms of Indigenous violence have multiple originating causes’ (Memmott et al. 2001: 11). This view is supported by the majority of commentators from the 1980s onwards. The researchers/commentators also identify a remarkably similar range of factors which they say causes family violence.
For example, the National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party (1989) reported that domestic violence4, which the noted was frequently associated with alcohol consumption, could not be attributed to any one cause. ‘Domestic violence has its roots in institutionalisation, incarceration, loss of role, loss of parental and role models, low self esteem, and alienation’ (1989: 8.17.2). Atkinson (1996b), an important Indigenous commentator, lists some of the contributing factors to family violence in Indigenous communities as being: poverty; unemployment; substandard or inadequate housing; limited access to societal resources and services; loss of identity and self esteem; abusive styles of conflict resolution; sexual jealousy; imbalance and inequity within male and female roles, responsibilities, status and contribution to family life; neglect of family responsibilities; lack of respect within families; emotionally damaged family members; neglect or abuse of children; suicide; and alcohol abuse.
Mow (1992) took a more social/political perspective and identified the causes of the problem of violence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as oppression and dispossession, the enforcement of protection and assimilationist policies up until the 1970s that fragmented many Indigenous families, as well as poverty and alcohol. Mow also noted that cultural factors relating to ‘shame’ interferes with the recognition of the problem itself, and help seeking behaviour.
Blagg (1999a: 5-6) undertook a meta-analysis of the literature on violence in Indigenous communities. He listed the following multi-causal factors for high rates of violence:
- marginalisation and dispossession;
- loss of land and traditional culture;
- breakdown of community kinship systems and Aboriginal law;
- entrenched poverty;
- alcohol and drug abuse;
- the effects of institutionalisation and removal policies; and
- the ‘redundancy’ of the traditional Aboriginal male role and status, compensated for by an aggressive assertion of male rights over women and children. One factor contributing to this is the forced westernisation of marriage relationships in Aboriginal communities around the concept of adolescence, where previously girls were married at the onset of puberty.
Memmott and colleagues suggested that the causes of violence are often, and probably best, considered in three contributing categories. These are:
- precipitating causes (one or more events triggering a violent episode);
- situational factors (such as combinations of alcohol abuse, unemployment, and welfare dependency); and,
- underlying factors (historical circumstances) (Memmott et al. 2001).
The literature provides some details in relation to a number of causal factors. This information is now reviewed, using Memmott and colleague’s categories of ‘underlying factors’ and ‘situational factors’. It should be noted that various causal factors may be given different emphasis by different authors and commentators, similar factors may be described in a number of varying ways, and the factors are not discrete but are inter-related, often with multi-directional causes and effects.
Underlying factors which cause family violence
Intergenerational layers of trauma
A number of prominent Indigenous spokespersons believe that present dysfunctional behaviour that occurs within Indigenous communities, including violence in general and the sexual assault of Indigenous children, is grounded in unresolved grief associated with multiple layers of trauma which has spanned many generations (for example, Atkinson 1994, Pearson 2000, Robertson 2000). Indeed, ‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ (Robertson 2000) states that many Indigenous people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. To survive over the years, many Aboriginal people have had to suppress and/or deny their feelings of distress and despair. This pain has become internalised within the family, expressing itself in destructive behaviours such as family violence, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide (Atkinson 1994: 10). This enacting of trauma is a form of ‘coping mechanism’ (Robertson 2000: 31).
Pearson draws attention to the fact that this trauma is not just seen as an issue for individuals and families - it is seen in the context of communities, as ‘the community is traumatised’ (Pearson 2000: 33). While variously described, these traumas almost exclusively relate to the impact on Indigenous communities of their interface with the dominant white communities throughout the history of white settlement of Australia, including contemporary Australian society. Pearson (2000: 33) sums up the traumas as relating to ‘the process of dispossession and the operation of racism throughout history’.
‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ states that this trauma relates to Indigenous people suffering from ‘genocide, enslavement, cultural violence and racism’ (Robertson 2000: 25). The report talks about the fact that many Indigenous people have suffered ‘profound violations in their childhood’ (Robertson 2000: 31). ‘Indigenous people have endured decades of oppression and neglect. The massacres and inhumane treatment of their families remain fresh in their minds. Many members of contemporary Indigenous Communities can still remember the policies that isolated them from the broader community, that exempted them from associating with family and kin, that forcibly removed them as children and subjected them to treatment that breached even the most basic human rights’ (Robertson 2000: xiii).
Atkinson (1994) believes that the traumas relate to:
- a failure to adequately grieve for family deaths and injury from introduced diseases;
- starvation because of economic (land) dispossession;
- the experience of physical and sexual brutality; and,
- covert structural violence including forced removal of people to reserves, institutions, stations and homes as ‘domestics’ .
Cunneen and Libesman (2000) relate present disadvantage back to the historical experience of previous government policy of assimilation, as well as the dispossession and marginalisation experienced by Indigenous people. There are suggestions in the literature that the sexual assault of Indigenous children and young people has a long history, the early assaults being perpetrated by white colonists. For example, the recent Queensland Fitzgerald report (2001) states that the 1901 Amendment Act (of the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of Opium Act) addressed continuing sexual abuse of girls and women, including the practice of taking women from place to place like chattels and tying them up to prevent escape. The amendment required that permits be obtained for all employment of females and decreed that sexual assault was now an offence ‘if medical proof showed the girl to be pre-puberty’ (2001: 11). This, by implication, permitted the sexual abuse of girls who had reached puberty.
There is general agreement in the literature that trauma experienced by Indigenous people is not only historic but new traumas are being created in the present. The contemporary social problems experienced by individuals and families (for example, alcohol, drug addiction and family violence), while related to stress in the past, are in turn creating present stresses for many Indigenous people.
The intergenerational transmission of violence5
There is some suggestion, particularly by Atkinson (1990-1996) and supported by Hazelhurst (1994), that Aboriginal family violence is a learned behaviour.
‘It was learned by Aboriginal people from the initial aggression of white occupation, and has since been transferred through the fabric of Aboriginal society over several generations of exposure to male dominated colonial and paternalistic administrations’ (Hazelhurst 1994: 21-22).
Hazelhurst (1994) also reports of Aboriginal women being increasingly concerned about the ‘plight of children who are exposed to lifestyles of alcoholism, binge drinking, and violence’ (1994: 25). She explains that ‘children who learn self abusive and family abusive behaviours from their parents’ generation will apply it quite early in their own lives’ (1994: 25). Evidence consistent with this pattern is readily available in many Indigenous communities throughout Australia.
The Stolen Generations
Particular mention needs to be made of the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their families as a major contributor to the experience of trauma. The release of the ‘Bringing them Home’ report in 1997 (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) and more recently the work of Read (1999) have focused attention on the multiple layers of trauma experienced by the ‘stolen generations’ (as well as the mothers and other family members) and how this then impacts on the parenting skills of those stolen children as adults.
Read (1999) notes that whilst there exist some positive stories of the stolen children becoming leaders and role models for their Indigenous communities, the majority of the stories reveal stolen children growing into traumatised adults. These are adults who have died prematurely, who have beaten their spouses or children, who may have abandoned their own children and who have been unable to maintain constructive lives. Expert testimony to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families argues that the ‘early loss of a mother or prolonged separation from her before the age of 11 is conducive to subsequent depression, choice of an inappropriate partner, and difficulties in parenting the next generation. Antisocial activity, violence, depression and suicide have also been suggested as likely results of the severe disruption to affectional bonds’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997: 181). The removal of children is thus presented as a direct contributing factor for the increased levels of violence within Indigenous families.
Research undertaken by Vinson, Baldry and Hargreaves (1996) is of interest here. They have shown that communities facing similar issues and with similar levels of social problems (communities were matched on a number of different variables, such as size, social disadvantage) may produce varying prevalences of child abuse. The variation appears to be due to differences in the quality of the occupants’ social relationships or ‘connectedness’. Vinson and colleagues found that those communities identified as having less social connectedness (fewer and weaker social relationships with others) were those having higher levels of child abuse (reported by Tomison & Wise 1999). Thus, the break-up of families and loss of extended family and support networks (kinship groups) as has occurred to many Aboriginal families, would appear to directly contribute to child abuse in the present communities.
Social disadvantage - the present
Poverty and unemployment, economic, health and social disadvantage
Tomison and Wise (1999) draw attention to the fact that considerable research has shown the association between stressful, negative community conditions, and maladaptive coping behaviour and social dysfunction. What have been labelled as ‘toxic environments’, comprise communities ‘plagued by various social ills’ such as high unemployment, high crime rates, poor transport facilities and poor access to professional services (Tomison & Wise 1999: 5).
Memmott and colleagues (2001) describe this pattern in communities as ‘dysfunctional community syndrome’. It would appear from the descriptions available of many Indigenous communities that they suffer from a ‘toxic’ environment which together with geographical and social isolation, is associated with the break-up of families (Garbarino & Abramowitz 1992).
Using data obtained as part of the 1996 Census, Edwards and Madden (2001) have recently published a report on the health and welfare of Indigenous people.6 The authors reveal that Indigenous people are disadvantaged across a range of socioeconomic factors (see also the ‘Introduction’ section of this Brief). These included ‘lower incomes than the non-Indigenous population, higher rates of unemployment, poorer educational outcomes and lower rates of home ownership’ (Edwards & Madden 2001: 2). Indigenous people were more likely to be in improvised dwellings (sheds, humpies, tents and park benches), be in overcrowded living conditions and live in houses in high need of repair, than non-Indigenous people (Edwards & Madden 2001: 2). The report states that inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure, particularly water and sewerage systems, are major issues and ‘potentially major causes of ill health’ for Indigenous communities, particularly those in remote and rural areas of Australia (Edwards & Madden 2001: 24, 29).
Robertson (2000) reports that there is an association between violence in Indigenous communities and high unemployment, poor health, low educational attainment and poverty. However, a more detailed understanding of this association is needed. It would appear that there may often be intervening variables. For example, the presence of domestic violence may cause children to roam the streets which makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, especially in areas with high alcohol consumption. Further, female heads of households often care for large numbers of children (which may in itself be due to family violence) and are forced to live in derelict houses that cannot be adequately locked to prevent external intruders entering the house and assaulting residents (children or adults).
The high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and ill health found in Indigenous communities can make some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families more susceptible to becoming involved with both child protection and juvenile justice services (Cunneen & Libesman 2000), due to the greater levels of surveillance which will be present. However, surveillance is less likely to occur in the more remote areas of Australia, where the service system is less developed and there is a lack of contact with government authorities.
It should be noted that while this section concentrates on the problems of Indigenous communities, Indigenous communities can also have strengths, many of which may not be immediately obvious to non-Aboriginals. Culturally-based strengths may be present and available to be built upon, through increased autonomy, respect and resources.
The mental health of Indigenous Australians
Developing an understanding of the mental health of Indigenous people has been hampered by a range of issues. These include the failure to adequately measure Indigenous mental health and the confusion between behaviour suggestive of mental illness and cultural practices (Edwards & Madden 2001).
Edwards and Madden (2001) point out that The National Inquiry into the Human Rights of People with Mental Illness (Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission [HREOC] 1993) reported that the recognised definitions of mental health do not fully apply to Indigenous people because of the way they incorporate physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Thus, environmental and social factors (perhaps more than in white Australian culture) can have a ‘lasting and significant impact’ on Aboriginal psychological wellbeing and are linked to the development of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour (HREOC 1993: 695).
Within Indigenous communities disturbed behaviour is often not identified as mental illness but instead often leads people to the criminal justice system (HREOC 1993, reported by Edwards & Madden 2001). Again, this highlights the importance of viewing the mental health of Indigenous people within the context of the impact of ‘colonisation, loss of traditional lands, loss of culture, separation of children from their families, racism, social inequity, trauma, loss and grief’ (Swan & Raphael 1995, reported by Edwards and Madden 2001:143).
The literature commonly draws an association between alcohol consumption and drug abuse, and violence in Indigenous communities. In a survey of alcohol consumption in Australia, fewer adult Indigenous people reported using alcohol in the previous week, than did non-Indigenous Australians (Edwards & Madden 2001, reporting ABS data for 1995). Unfortunately this survey excluded people living in remote areas, so may not be entirely accurate. Of those who reported drinking, twice as many Indigenous Australian males were drinking at what was judged to be a high-risk level, than non-Indigenous males.
‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ found that the ‘women spoke strongly about alcohol as a major cause of violence. It was seen as influencing all aspects of their lives and creating chaos even for those who didn’t drink’ (Robertson 2000: xxiii). The report quotes Noel Pearson: '(O)urs is one of the most dysfunctional societies on the planet today; surely the fact that the per capita consumption of alcohol in Cape York is the highest in the world says something about our dysfunction' (Robertson 2000: 71). Atkinson (1991) believes that family violence is compounded and sometimes precipitated by alcohol misuse. Bolger (1991) reports that ‘excessive consumption of alcohol is often seen as the cause of many social problems in Aboriginal communities today’, although she notes that there are conflicting views about the part played by alcohol in the incidence of violence. Fitzgerald (2001) draws attention to the problem of foetal alcohol syndrome in Indigenous communities.
The Cape York Justice Study (Fitzgerald 2001: 13) notes that ‘the available evidence indicates clear links between alcohol consumption, violence and injury, although the relationship is complex and not necessarily one of simple causality. Injury patterns are clearly related to the cycle of Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) and Social Security payments, with high rates on paydays and the day following, and marked declines when canteens7 are closed.’
The complexities of the association between violence and alcohol consumption are noted by other writers. Hunter (1990b) and Atkinson (1991) say it is not acceptable to only blame alcohol as the reason for the violence in Indigenous communities. Bolger (1991) believes that a considerable amount of violence is not connected with alcohol, particularly in the case of Indigenous women. He also outlines some of the links between family violence and alcohol abuse. For example, Bolger notes that it is not known how many men who drink do not assault their wives and it is believed by some that men drink so that they will have an excuse for beating their wives. This perspective is supported by Robertson (2000) who says that in some situations alcohol may facilitate or incite violence by providing a socially acceptable excuse for the negative behaviour. Alcohol is sometimes seen as a disinhibitor, allowing people to do things they would not normally do when sober (Bolger 1991). Alcohol may boost the morale of a man with low self-esteem and give him a sense of power. Finally, Bolger (1991: 45) states that ‘some people argue that there are cultural expectations as to the behaviour of a person under the influence of alcohol and that in some cases aggression is the expected mode of behaviour’.
The use of alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with past traumas of colonisation and dispossession is a point made by virtually all commentators. However, substance abuse is, in turn, creating its own trauma in communities, such that there is now a link between substance abuse, growing violence, and the current ‘dysfunction and despair’ in Indigenous communities (Robertson 2000: 30).
The literature refers to a number of compounding factors which relate to the use of alcohol in Indigenous communities and the association between substance abuse and family violence. Some of these are referred to below.
The historical establishment and facilitation of the use of alcohol by Aborigines
Robertson (2000) provides a historical perspective on how ‘during the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, large numbers of Indigenous peoples, some of them in chains, were taken against their will to government-owned or controlled reserves’ which were often operated in conjunction with the Christian churches (Robertson 2000: 26, 27). These people ‘lost contact with their ancestral lands, their family, their customs and traditions, often being punished for practising their traditional culture’ (Robertson 2000: 28). They were often provided with inferior food, being not allowed to hunt for traditional food.
Alcohol was introduced as a reward - ‘it facilitated the breakdown of Indigenous culture and deterioration into violence and abuse’ (Robertson 2000: 28). In addition, alcohol was used in the past as a currency in lieu of wages by some employers (Robertson 2000). This alcohol was often of low quality and very potent.
Further, Kahn and colleagues (1990) draw attention to the use of alcohol as a means of exploiting Aborigines: as a bribe for sex and entertainment (Hunt 1986); and through intoxication and subsequently impaired personal faculties, used as a means of manipulating Aboriginals into less than ideal outcomes (Kahn 1986).
Recent publicity has been given to the practice of publicans holding bank saving cards owned by Aborigines, a practice that is said to be widespread in the West Australian Goldfields (Martin 2002). This practice not only prevents the card being used for other needs but leads to the high accessibility of alcohol. It is reported as being associated with an increase in alcohol-related incidents including domestic violence and assaults on young girls (Le Grand 2002).
Government policy in relation to alcohol consumption by Indigenous communities
There has been a contradictory and confusing attitude by government to Indigenous alcohol consumption (Robertson 2000). As noted above, in the past the government allowed payment of wages in alcohol. In the 1950s alcohol consumption was banned except where an Indigenous person obtained an Exemption Certificate and had proven the ability to assimilate with the non-Indigenous community (Hunter 1990a).
Permission was granted to drink alcohol on reserves in the 1960s. In the 1970s canteens were erected to serve alcohol on reserves. Alcohol became openly available after the 1967 referendum, which granted Indigenous citizenship (Robertson 2000). In some communities, the local council has become dependent on the revenue raised from the sale of alcohol. For example, the Sunday program (Channel 9, Victoria, 28th April 2002) reported that on Palm Island, with an unemployment rate of 95%, the ambulance service and most of the community services are funded by the sale of alcohol. There has also been a failure by governments to adequately police the ‘sly grog trade’ and a failure of authorities to prosecute breaches of the regulations (by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people), exacerbating the alcohol problem, and thus, violence in the community (Robertson 2000).
Hunter (1990a) makes the connection between the greater access to alcohol in the 1970s and an increase in Indigenous violence, particularly increases in female homicide, suicide, parasuicide and self-mutilation in the 1980s. He notes that the children and young people who currently engage in self-destructive behaviour are the children of that generation who were young adults at the time of rapid change in the 1970s. They are the first generation to have grown up in environments with normative heavy drinking. As Robertson notes, ‘having been socialised into a culture of alcohol, substance abuse, violence and anarchy, the crimes committed by some offenders reflect those witnessed or experienced as a child’ (Robertson 2000: 31).
Alcohol use and traditional culture
Pearson (2000) identifies alcohol as corrupting some of the most basic laws and customs in Aboriginal communities, in particular the traditional obligations of sharing resources. For example the traditional obligation to share food obtained from a hunting trip has been turned into an obligation to share alcohol. Fellow drinkers will challenge Aboriginal identity in order to establish obligation to contribute money to buy grog: ‘Come on, don’t be flash! We not white fellas! You-me black people’ (2000: 17).
Pearson (2000: 17) explains that there exists a drinking circle in which ‘social and cultural relationships between the drinkers are expressed, reinforced and reiterated whilst people are engaged in drinking’. Everyone is obliged to share the money and the alcohol. Outside of the drinking circle are the women, children and non-drinkers who are required to provide the most basic resources (food) for all within the community, including the drinkers. However, when women and children are the least powerful, and where the drinker is the head of the household, all the money that comes in to the house goes into the buying of alcohol. It then becomes the responsibility of the old people (mainly women) to keep the community fed. Other obligations and relationships are ignored or abused by those addicted to alcohol. Pearson (2000: 18-19) then queries why the obligations to children are given lower priority than the ‘so called obligations’ to cousins and uncles for drinking.
Substance abuse by children who have been abused
In some communities Indigenous children are using alcohol at a very early age (Robertson 2000). ‘Abused children may use altered states of consciousness to escape from untenable situations. In later life, young adults may seek altered states of consciousness through the use of alcohol and drugs’ (Robertson 2000: 35). ‘In altered states, the ordinary relations between body and mind, reality and imagination, knowledge and memory no longer hold’ (Robertson 2000: 35).
More recently, it appears that the inhaling of solvents (paints, petroleum) has become widespread in some Aboriginal communities. However, there is little information available on drug use within the Aboriginal community. A recent study by the National Drug Research Institute and the Nyoongar Alcohol and Substance Abuse Service in WA, has found that drug injecting in Aboriginal communities has doubled since 1994, although no actual rates are given in the reporting of this by Watts (2002). This problem was largely found to be associated with young, urban-based Aborigines who also often used cannabis and alcohol.
Disturbed behaviour and loss of skills
Robertson states that anger ‘is a natural feeling that results from boundary violation, frustration, fear and loss’ (2000: 32). Often this anger is not expressed against the person or group causing the original trauma but against someone close to the offender who becomes the substituted object of the violence’ (Robertson 2000: 33).
‘Cycles of violence can occur when people who have been hurt are unable to express the pain of that hurt safely to themselves and others . . . . Children who have been victims may run the risk of being re-victimised, or they may begin to victimise others’ (Robertson 2000: 34).
Robertson also describes how young people who have matured early may look for love and move into precocious sexual activity at an early age. ‘They may then become young parents, sometimes falling into unstable relationship that flounder, and the children of the next generation may become the next victims and potential victimisers' (Robertson 2000: 35). Robertson (2000: 35) believes that this pattern is the basis of the cycle of violence being witnessed in Indigenous Communities.’ The report, ‘Bringing them Home’ found that the past forced separation of Indigenous children from their families and communities has resulted in a loss of parenting skills and abilities (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997), thus increasing the likelihood of the involvement of child protection services in Aboriginal families (Cunneen & Libesman 2000).
Spiritual oppression and destruction of traditional values and culture
The loss and destruction of culture has contributed to the current crisis in which many Indigenous people find themselves (Robertson 2000). Robertson notes that ‘Indigenous people generally have been profoundly affected by the erosion of their cultural and spiritual identity and the disintegration of family and Community that has traditionally sustained relationships and obligations and maintained social order and control’ (Robertson 2000: xii). The breakdown of culture and values is a common thread behind many other causal factors of family violence in Indigenous communities. Atkinson (1991: 4) believes that ‘the level of Aboriginal male violence towards Aboriginal women reflects a breakdown in Aboriginal social order’.
In the past three years, a number of people, most notably Noel Pearson, have focused attention on the issue of ‘passive welfare’ as a cause of many of the problems affecting Indigenous communities. Pearson (2000) believes that passive welfare has undermined Aboriginal law, traditional values and relationships. He describes passive welfare as being the ‘assistance to needy citizens who may never repay via their taxes what they have received, and of whom nothing further will be required or expected’ (2000: 11). He says ‘passive welfare is an irrational, “gammon” economic relationship, where transactions between the provider and the recipient are not based on reciprocity (a respected cultural value). The principle in this relationship is “money for nothing” or “help for nothing”. Essentially it is charity’ (2000: 21).
Pearson argues that ‘our dispossession is the ultimate cause of our passive welfare dependency. Upon our dispossession the traditional economy of our ancestors was ruptured and we were engulfed by the new economic order, in which our official and actual place until 1967 was in the underclass: quasi-slaves, workers in fact but not in status’ (2000: 13). He believes that welfare is a mentality that is ‘internalised and perpetuated by recipients who see themselves as victimised or incapable and in need of assistance without reciprocation’ (Pearson 2000: 21).
Welfare dependency is also viewed as a problem in ‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ which states that because of a breakdown of traditional social support and the lack of infrastructure and real employment, people, particularly in rural and remote communities have become almost totally reliant on welfare (Robertson 2000). Compounding the problem, health, family and welfare agencies are not able to meet the increasing demands for these services (Robertson 2000).
The link between racism and family violence is mentioned in the literature, but the association is not usually clarified. It is likely that the experience of racism and discrimination attacks self-esteem and personal well-being, thus contributing to a break-down in social order and a community’s sense of worth and therefore a contributing factor leading to family violence. Pearson (2000) argues: ‘(M)ake no mistake, racism is a terrible burden. It attacks the spirit. It attacks self esteem and the soul in ways that those who are not subjected to it would have not an inkling of understanding about. Racism is a major handicap - it results in Aboriginal people not recognising opportunities when they arise, in not being able to seize opportunities when they arise, in not being able to hold on to opportunities when they have them . . . Australians concerned about the position of Aboriginal people in this country should not underestimate the decisive role that racism plays in the wellbeing of Aboriginal individuals and society’ (2000: 34).
Community silence and denial
Silence and denial within the Indigenous community would appear to impact on why many children get abused by the one perpetrator and why the abuse is allowed to continue. Melva Kennedy, an Aboriginal woman working on educating the Indigenous community on issues of child sexual assault and the effects of domestic violence on children, states that ‘(A)s long as the veil of silence and denial remains over this area, the opportunities for children to suffer without help remain as well as services available to the rest of Australian society will not be adapted and made accessible for Aboriginal communities’ (Kennedy 1991: 16).
Mow (1992) identifies community silence as a barrier to overcoming the problem itself. Mow quotes Tonkinson (1985: 299) who says that ‘discussing family matters with an outsider, even one wishing to help, might be almost impossible because of shame. Also, approaching someone of the opposite sex on matters that are thought to be the business of one’s own sex can be too shameful to contemplate . . . . Shame is compounded in Aboriginal-white relations by expectations of rejection, by unfamiliarity with procedures and personnel, and by loyalty to one’s own vis-a-vis the dominant society. Put in a nutshell, given Aboriginal experience of white institutions and authority agents, it is scarcely surprising that, ultimately, some women appear to find a violent spouse less threatening than the agencies from which they might seek relief’ (1985: 299).
There has been little research on the impact on children of viewing sexual material – both normal and pornographic, and the research is still indeterminate about the impact on children of viewing of violent material (Stanley 2001). Even less is known on the impact of viewing this material by young people living in isolated and depressed circumstances in remote Australia (Atkinson 1990). However, first hand experience reported by a couple of commentators suggests that the viewing of offensive material in the Indigenous community is a factor contributing to sexual violence. This issue is likely to be more problematical with the increase in use of the internet in outback Australia.
Hazelhurst (1994) states that ‘over a 15-20 year period community workers have observed changing patterns of physical behaviour and sexual offending among Aboriginal men and boys which, they are convinced, have been induced by exposure to violent images in the media. This ‘new scourge’ in remote communities has been attributed by local people to the introduction of a diet of macho and violent television programs and, more recently, of violent and pornographic videos available through local distributors and inter-state mail order outlets’ (1994: 26-27). Atkinson (1990) reports that Aboriginal women say violence and sexual abuse has increased since pornography entered communities. Sometimes offensive videos, brought in by white men as forms of entertainment, are the only understanding young men have of mainstream culture (Atkinson 1990). Hazelhurst (1994) further reports that women complain that they have been asked to participate in viewings of offensive material and to imitate sexual acts which are offensive and distressing to them. ‘Assaults on young children, infants, and animals by young males, sometimes roving in gangs, escalate after shipments of pornographic videos’ (Hazelhurst 1994: 27).
Hazelhurst (1994: 28) makes the comment (which also has some resonance with the trading of sly grog in many remote Aboriginal communities) that ‘to unscrupulous interests, Aboriginal society is "a sitting duck".' She goes on to say that ‘(in) one northern Queensland community I visited it was the non-Aboriginal owner of the community garage who ordered in this material from Canberra, and rehired these to Aboriginal men at a considerable profit. It was the Aboriginal women who were asked to perform the acts that were seen on these videos, or the young children who were assaulted by highly excited teenagers after a viewing. Without proper authority to set up their own controls these communities are a vulnerable and ready made market for the worst of what western society has to offer’ (1994: 28). Cripps notes (personal communication) this latter comment is particularly pertinent to the capacity of Indigenous people to implement such controls to stop pornography within their communities if they do not have sovereignty and the power to determine, implement and control local public policy. Even if it were possible for the Indigenous community to ban their members from owning or renting such material, they are likely to have greater difficulty in enforcing this within the non-Indigenous population in their area who are responsible for 'pushing' some of the material.
Cripps (personal communication) also comments that the portrayal of Indigenous family violence in the media also serves to silence the community as it stereotypes violence in Indigenous communities as being ‘normal’ and/or part of the ‘culture’. Many Indigenous people will choose not to report on the grounds that they’re protecting their ‘own’ from the wider society. This is supported by a comment made by Daphne Naden reported in ABC News Online during the debates on family violence in June and July 2001. ‘To suggest, as some people have, that Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men, do not care about the protection of women and children is deeply hurtful and blatantly false.’ (ABC News Online 2001).
Indigenous communities - the overseas experience
Available literature suggests that the experience of white colonisation on Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States has many characteristics similar to the experience of Australian Aborigines. North American communities also suffered a policy of removal of the Indigenous population’s children from their homes in order to assimilate the children into the non-Indigenous population (Hill 2000, Lynch 2001). Similarly, the consequences of this policy are now viewed in terms of being ‘tragic’, ‘devastating’ and ‘destructive of American Indian life today’ (Lynch 2001: 504).
Loss of identity and identity confusion have also been a problem for many other Indigenous peoples (Lynch 2001). For example, a child may identify with white culture, but that same culture may subject the child to racial discrimination due to the child’s Aboriginal background. Further, Hill (2000) states that there continues to be high rates of removal of Indigenous children in North America on child protection grounds (four times higher than the wider community).
Finally, despite anecdotal evidence of some Aboriginal (First Nation) communities in Canada overcoming significant social dysfunction and enhancing the health and wellbeing of children and families, this has not yet become the dominant pattern (Hill (2000).
4 The term ‘domestic violence’ has now largely been replaced with the term ‘family violence’ in the Indigenous literature
5 For a detailed analysis of the intergenerational transmission of violence, see Tomison (1996c, 2000).
6 A Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey has been undertaken by the Institute for Child Health Research in WA. However, these findings will not be available until early 2003 (Howell, personal communication).
7 Canteens serve a similar function as hotels in Indigenous communities - a place to buy and drink alcohol