Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

Policy and practice considerations
CFCA Paper No. 34 – August 2015

Background

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle ("the Principle") was developed 30 years ago from an understanding of the devastating effect of the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities, which created the legacy of what is now known as the Stolen Generations. The Principle upholds the rights of the child's family and community to have some control and influence over decisions about their children. It also prioritises options that should be explored when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is placed in care so that familial, cultural and community ties can remain strong.

Culture, land and spirit are tied together so closely that you can't have one without the other, but it's not a complete story without family - it's like building a house without mortar, it makes it the right shape but there's nothing to hold it together. (Williams in SNAICC, 2012, p. 8)

The Stolen Generations refer to the practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by Australian federal and state government agencies and missions, under acts of their respective parliaments (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997). In 1997 the Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families revealed the extent of forced removal policies, a practice which went on for 150 years up to the early 1970s (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997).

The report revealed the devastating effects of the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and their experiences of physical, psychological and sexual abuse once removed, in terms of spiritual, emotional and physical trauma, as a direct result of the broken connection to traditional land, culture and language and the separation of families, and the effect of these on the ability to provide nurturing consistent care to children (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997; Litwin, 1997).

These effects continue into present times, and are now considered trans-generational as they have spanned many generations (Department of Education and Child Development, 2014; Dudgeon, Wright, Paradies, Garvey, & Walker, 2010; Haebich, 2000).

Societal, environmental and poverty-related risk factors for children exist across all of society. However, when looking at risk factors impacting on Aboriginal children in child welfare the impacts of intergenerational experiences of dispossession, cultural erosion and policies of child removal must be considered. These issues not only impact on families, but also on the ability of families to seek or accept help from a system perceived to have caused or contributed to problems in the first place. (Northern Territory Government, 2010, p. 116)

There are still grave concerns about the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities, the absence of connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to culture, country, language and family and the effect on future generations (Ah Kee & Tilbury, 1999; Libesman, 2011). Connection to family, community and culture is essential for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in their social and emotional development, identity formation, and physical safety (Lewis & Burton, 2014; Lohoar, Butera, & Kennedy, 2014). These connections provide a large support network for both children and parents where responsibility is shared and builds security, trust and confidence that the community is there for support whenever it is needed. Having a community with "many eyes" watching over each other's children allows the children to explore, grow and develop both through independent experience, safe in the knowledge that they are being looked out for, and adopting positive behaviours modelled by their family and community members. A strong sense of community connection enables children to develop a positive self-identity, as well as strengthening their resilience and emotional strength (Lewis & Burton, 2014).

However, in some jurisdictions in Australia, the rate of Indigenous children in foster, kinship and residential care on any one night has reached almost one in ten (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2014). This rate is almost 11 times higher than non-Indigenous children and has steadily increased over the past decade (see Figure 1; AIHW, 2014). Contrast this with rates of non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care, which have stabilised in most jurisdictions.

Figure 1: Rate per 1,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care at June 30, by year

Figure 1: Rate per 1,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care at June 30, by year. Described in accompanying text.

Source: AIHW, 2014.

There are clear imperatives to redress the wrongs of the past by acknowledging the impact of past policies and the abuse and traumatisation of generations of Indigenous Australians, to provide healing for those who have suffered as a result of these policies, to find solutions within culture and community and to take clear steps to prevent children being disconnected from family, community, identity and language and from suffering further abuse and trauma. These imperatives are recognised through human rights mechanisms including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.