Indigenous Australians only comprise 2.5 per cent of the population, but they make up 34.6 per cent of children in government care.
Current South Australian law directs child protection services to place children removed from their parents in out-of-home care. Wherever possible, the removed child is placed in the care of relatives. But if this isn't possible, children are placed into either foster or residential care. Presently the option to adopt in this process doesn't exist in SA.
But this week, a proposal to allow the adoption of children removed by child protection was given in-principle support by the South Australian government. The reform was one of 21 recommendations put forward by state coroner Mark Johns, who conducted a formal inquest following the death four-year-old Chloe Valentine at her parent's negligence.
Although Chloe wasn't Indigenous, the proposal has sparked concerns within the Aboriginal community. While the adoption reform aims to serve children at risk, the possibility of Indigenous children being adopted out is contentious among some First Australians. Albert Hartnett, a Wangkumarra man and representative of Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), told VICE that legalised adoption in SA would only worsen the ongoing "cultural genocide" of Indigenous youth.
"When you're looking at adoption practices within an Aboriginal context, it's a genocidal policy which would rid Indigenous people of their culture and traditions," he said. Mr Hartnett highlighted that due to forced adoption during the Stolen Generation, there's now a "generational" detachment from culture, tradition and cultural heritage.
If passed, the adoption reform would most likely imitate similar policy changes made in NSW in 2014. The NSW reform specified that Indigenous children would have special consideration if removed by child protection, where they would be placed in Indigenous kinship before adoption, in accordance to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
However, Mr Hartnett told VICE that regardless of the new laws, Indigenous children were still routinely adopted into non-Iindigenous families. "I myself know two young girls in Sydney who are almost ready to be adopted until they're 18," he said. "That's almost 10 years that they'll be disconnected from their families. That's a long time to erase the mentality of a cultural group".
The concern over adoption worsening Indigenous disengagement is supplemented by damning child protection statistics. Despite first Australians only comprising 2.5 per cent of the overall population, 34.6 per cent of children in government care are Indigenous according to the latest Report on Government Services (ROGS) released by the Productivity Commission in 2015 (PC).
The current number of Indigenous children removed from their families is higher than during the Stolen Generation period, with only 2,785 in care when the 1997 Bringing Them Home inquiry was released. This means that from 2004 to 2013, the rate of removed Indigenous children rose 436 per cent – as shown in the PC's report Overcoming Indigenous Advantage 2014.
But the insistence to place these children with relatives is resulting in a "lower standard of care" than non-Indigenous counterparts, according to child protection expert Dr Jeremey Sammut from The Centre for Independent Studies. In his study The Kinship Conundrum, Jeremy Sammut highlights how Indigenous carers tends to be "low income, older, single women, usually a grandmother or aunt", who often live in poverty and struggle with parenting again.
"Adoption is claimed to be culturally inappropriate for Indigenous people," he told VICE, "but there is a considerable amount of evidence showing that kinship care for some Indigenous kids is sub-optimal – to say the least". Therefore, Jeremey Sammut suggests, the proposed adoption law in SA could be feasible – especially if based on a working model run by government funded aboriginal organisations.
"Indigenous identity is changing, a majority of them live in urban areas with opportunities and education similar to non-Indigenous peers," Dr Sammut said. "Why are we then persisting in the most vulnerable children having this old definition based around culture?"
However Sandy Barber - a Dja Dja Wurung, Yorta Yorta, Wurundjeri woman whose mother was born in the 1930's as part of the Stolen Generation - told VICE she believed Indigenous youth nowadays are "unsettled" due to feeling displaced. She described how adolescents growing up in non-Indigenous environments were then unable to practice culture. "We've got a generation of teenagers sadly taking to drug-taking and petrol-sniffing because they don't know who they are," she said. "They are in a system that doesn't truly recognise them and their culture and values – so they try and numb themselves".
Ms Barber described how their sense of identity wouldn't be "the same" living with a non-Indigenous family. "I believe you are the product of your parents, and they the product of theirs," she said. "They pass on deep-rooted beliefs and values through each generation. Once families are broken, these beliefs and values are cut off. If we deny our identity, we aren't at peace with ourselves."
Simply placing an Indigenous child into the care of another Indigenous person isn't appropriate either, according to Mr Hartnett. "They are placing them into another country, where traditions and values may differ from their own," he said. "While they may still be another caring family, it's not the same as having teachings coming from your own elders".
Alternatively, Mr Hartnett explains how GMAR are pressing for the establishment of an expert consultative committee, who would take responsibility for child relocation. These committees would be established in each local area, working cooperatively with the Department of Child Protection of each state and territory. "We would ensure proper placement is adhered to, to alleviate the dissecting of our children from culture and community."
Before any changes to child protection policy are confirmed, the SA Department of Education and Child Development told VICE they are "awaiting the outcome" of a Royal Commission into Child Protection Systems.
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