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
A number of clear messages have come from this review of the literature. The extent of family violence and child abuse associated with Indigenous people in Western Australia and in Australia generally, is extraordinary. It would appear that the problem is so extensive that it is highly likely that another generation of Indigenous people will be scarred by this present trauma. While it is hard to get a clear picture of the extent of present disadvantage of Aboriginal people, certainly some communities appear to exist in a ‘toxic’ environment (Garbarino 1995). The levels of violence, disadvantage and despair are such that it would appear that this has become normalised and self-perpetuating. Any improvement in this situation is going to require a large-scale response, encompassing courage to address the problem, funding and resources, and large-scale attitude and philosophical changes.
It would seem that while there are a number of exceptions, the response to this problem, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, has largely been a failure to act decisively. The reasons for this appear to be multifaceted. They include a reluctance to face the full magnitude of the problem, shame and a fear of racial stereotyping by Indigenous people, a fear of white authority, (for example that their children will be removed), an inability to understand what to do about the problem, a lack of resources, racism, apathy and indifference, ignorance and incompetence. In some areas, services are simply not being offered (for example, basic infra-structure services and substance abuse responses, such as in relation to children and chroming). In other areas, the services that are available are providing a less than adequate service to Aboriginal people.
While there is an increasing recognition of the need for Indigenous people to be empowered and participate in decision-making, many of the changes to facilitate this take the form of minor adjustments to the present systems, which remain within the dominant mainstream culture. What appears to be needed is a paradigm change where Indigenous people take responsibility for preventing violence and protecting their children. In the words of Ah Kit, the Northern Territory Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Indigenous Affairs in the NT,
‘the government, in partnership with Aboriginal people, must allow the development of forms of governance that allow Aborigines the power to control their lives and communities’ (2002: 15).
However, this will only be successfully achieved with support and training provided by statutory child protection services and the provision of funding and resources which are generous and long-term to the communities.
Prevention and crisis intervention programs
A search of the literature suggests that there are very few programs presently operating which address Indigenous family violence. Information from other sources, such as the media, provides some information about programs. However, the fact that information about these programs is difficult to obtain suggests that measures to address family violence tend to be ‘ad hoc’, uncoordinated, short term, not evaluated for effectiveness and there is limited knowledge growth and development. There is an urgent need for significant resources to be made available to reverse the trends which suggest that violence is increasing, and to repair associated traumas. There appear to be few counselling services available for children who have been sexually assaulted, and it is reported that those available have long waiting-lists. Unless significant steps are taken to repair the trauma experienced by Indigenous children who have experienced and witnessed violence and abuse, then it is likely that significant problems will occur, and compound, in the next generation.
There appear to be significant knowledge gaps about Indigenous family violence. The need for program evaluations has been noted. This includes documentation about the process of program development by the Indigenous community, details of the programs and information about the success of the programs. Research is needed in a number of other areas. For example, the literature does not provide any sense of whether family violence occurs across all communities or whether it is concentrated in particular communities or is more common in urban, rural or isolated Indigenous communities. Similarly, information is not available on the distribution of substance abuse within Indigenous populations. Few studies appear to examine family violence within Indigenous communities in urban areas. Of particular relevance to this Inquiry, is the lack of information on the association between sexual assault and the suicide of children and youth. The literature provides no voice from the Indigenous youth and children about the issues in relation to family violence.
There have been many reports into aspects of family violence in Indigenous communities. Many of these cover the same ground, such as the Robertson Report, followed by the Fitzgerald Report, in Queensland. Many of the causal factors, barriers to change, and steps needed to address the violence and prevent further violence, are known in broad terms, similar findings being repeated in the many reports. Many of the recommendations of these reports have not been responded to. It would seem that action to address the issues, rather than further reports, is needed.
Finally, the authors of this brief support the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse in WA and the mandatory reporting of sexually transmitted diseases throughout Australia. The child protection system must be governed by the needs of children, not the level of resources allocated to child protection on some other basis.