Making the national apology count for Indigenous children

Fiona Arney The Conversation 13 February 2012

(Photo: AAP - Kym Smith)

Five years ago, Kevin Rudd made an apology to the Stolen Generations of this country for the wholesale practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families and the identity-shattering impacts this policy had on those children, their families and their communities.

Can we now as a nation say that we have provided Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children the promised future, "a future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again"? Unfortunately, the past is reflected in our current care and protection systems for children and young people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in these systems at a rate eight to ten times that of non-Aboriginal children.

In some jurisdictions it has been projected that 80% of Aboriginal 16 year olds or under will have been the subject of a notification to a child protection service. Nationwide, only 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from the care of their parents are placed with extended family members.

Western academics are only now realising what has been known in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for millennia - the connection of mind, body, spirit and heart. Science is now establishing strong links between physical and emotional harms to children and poor outcomes in the areas of adult health, mental health, criminal justice and education.

The mantra seems simple - prevent children from getting hurt and you will prevent adult pain; prevent adult pain and you will prevent children from getting hurt. Breaking this cycle is, however, where our greatest challenge lies.

In many jurisdictions, there has been a crisis-driven response to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection. Often presaged by sophisticated and highly regarded public inquiries into the issue, the responses on the other hand have featured short-term thinking, but large amounts of funding, a lack of sustainability or evidence in strategy planning, a sense that we need to "do to" communities rather than "do with", and a need to contain the problem, rather than adequately conceptualise it and build capacity for response.

Rarely has there been a focus on enabling families and communities to enact their responsibilities towards children, even less a focus on adult healing and recovery as a means of providing children with a better future. As former Northern Territory Coordinator-General for Remote Service Delivery Olga Havnen has noted; in crisis mode, we have focused on removing children from risk rather than removing risk from children.

Part of the difficulty in posing an alternative to crisis-driven, individualistic responses is the lack of evidence for an alternative. My research involves working with other national leaders to build this alternative evidence base.

Working together with community controlled organisations, and organisations with a dedication to righting the wrongs of the past, we must harness our collective cultural, social and academic expertise to develop evidence-based approaches.

In the words of Kevin Rudd's National Apology to the Stolen Generations, collectively we must work towards:

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Otherwise we risk the shame of having to apologise to another generation of Aboriginal children taken from their families.

Professor Fiona Arney is the Chair of Child Protection and Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia. Fiona was Deputy Director of the Centre until she moved to the Menzies School of Health Research in early 2010 to establish and lead their Child Protection Research Program. With 16 years' research experience in research with children, parents, families and practitioners, she has a strong body of research, especially in relation to Aboriginal children and families.