Aboriginal children taken into care due to 'misunderstandings'

Aleisha Orr WA Today June 13, 2014

Cultural norms are being mistaken for emotional abuse, according to a spokeswoman for an indigenous child care placement group.

Manager of the foster care agency Yorganop group, Virginia Dingo, is expected to tell a forum on Friday that indigenous children are sometimes taken from their parents because of misunderstandings which can contribute to the over-representation of Aboriginal children in state care.

Miss Dingo will open the Family Matters - Kids Safe in Culture Not In Care Forum, run by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care on Friday morning.

In her opening speech, provided to Fairfax Media ahead of the event, she said the Department for Child and Family Support took shyness and fear as signs of emotional abuse.

“I know a lot of black children like that and it is not because they have been emotionally abused. It is often a result of years of racial discrimination and bullying,” Miss Dingo said.

The event will look at ways to address indigenous children in state care.

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up five per cent of WA's child population, they comprise 49.5 per cent of all children in out-of-home care.

After the Northern Territory, this is the second highest rate in the country.

Miss Dingo described the situation as a “mammoth failure in government policy”.

She said while non-Aboriginal children are more likely to be removed from their families because of sexual and physical abuse, indigenous children are removed mainly because of emotional abuse and neglect.

“The department describes children who have been emotionally abused as presenting as very shy, fearful or afraid of doing something wrong,” she said.

“I know a lot of black children like that and it is not because they have been emotionally abused. It is often a result of years of racial discrimination and bullying.

“The department also describes emotional abuse as children showing extremes in behaviour who are often anxious or distressed, feel worthless about life and themselves and have delayed emotional development."

Miss Dingo said she was not advocating that children in unsafe environments remain in them.

“I am saying that child protection workers need to understand the story and delve deeper before they take our children away,” she said.

“It has been said that children are being reported as neglected because they were playing on the street without shoes, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, sharing a bedroom with other siblings, living in messy homes or because they had head lice.

“This is not neglect and is not reason enough to be reported.”

Miss Dingo said Aboriginal people also need to be more engaged in the developing and the delivery of services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Another major factor contributing to the high notification of neglect within communities is the lack of a cultural context,” she said.

“We have heard stories of children being removed from their families because they were being cared for by relatives or there was no food in their parents’ home.

“These child protection decisions occur outside an indigenous cultural context.

“For example Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have protective mechanisms, such as multiple carers and mutual responsibility within kinship networks.

“So when the child protection or family services worker is looking at that empty cupboard, or being critical about a grandmother caring for a child, she or he is not applying an Aboriginal cultural lens.

“Aunties are also the child’s mother and that grandmothers play an integral role as providers and teachers of culture and law.

“So while there may not be food in the child’s mother’s home there will be down the road at an Auntie’s or Nana’s."

Miss Dingo said a "cultural lens" needed to be applied to all child protection decision-making.

Emma White, acting director general of the Department for Child and Family Support, said that while there may have been issues with procedures in the past, cultural differences and misunderstandings did not lead to Aboriginal children coming into care today.

Ms White said “while the department acknowledged the intergenerational impact of past policies and practices; cultural differences and misunderstandings do not lead to Aboriginal children coming into care”.

“Decisions to bring any children, including Aboriginal children, into care are based on comprehensive assessments undertaken about the child’s needs, and where it is found that the parents have not, or are unable to meet, their children’s safety and wellbeing needs,” she said.

“In every case where there are safety concerns for a child, the department works with the parents and their networks of extended friends and family and professionals to address the underlying issues that have caused the concerns and identify solutions that are in the child’s best interests.

“Child protection workers consult regularly with Aboriginal staff to ensure cultural context is taken into consideration.”

Ms White said that when making decisions about Aboriginal children, child protection workers sought input from Aboriginal staff and placed children within their extended family wherever possible.

“Over two thirds [69 per cent] of Aboriginal children in the Department’s care are placed with family members, other Aboriginal carers or with Aboriginal service providers,” she said.

Ms White strongly refuted Miss Dingo’s assertions that signs of racial discrimination or bullying by others could be mistaken for things like neglect or emotional abuse.

“Children are never taken into care unless they are at risk of significant harm,” she said.

Ms White said all WA department staff were trained to work effectively with Aboriginal families.

She said the department worked in a “preventative way with families who are at risk or in crisis, providing a range of intensive family support services.

“These specialist services aim to prevent the imminent separation of children from their family, and to reunify families where separation has already occurred."