In February 2008 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, issued a public apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia. The apology acknowledged the policies of successive federal and state governments that led to the Stolen Generation—tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcibly removed from their homes and placed in out-of-home care from the late 1800s right up to the 1970s.
But six years after Rudd’s speech, figures show that more Aboriginal children are being removed from their homes now than at any other time in Australian history. Indigenous community leaders are calling it a new stolen generation and will meet in Brisbane this week to coordinate their localised groups to form a national movement.
On National Apology Day, February 13 this year, a group of Aboriginal women from Gunnedah in rural New South Wales held a protest outside their state parliament. Calling themselves Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), they were highlighting the situation in the state of NSW, where the crisis is at its peak.
The 2014 Productivity Commission report outlined that NSW has the highest number of child removals, with 10 percent of Indigenous children in out-of-home care. The removals are being carried out by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).
A founding member of GMAR Hazel Collins said the removals don’t just affect the immediate family but have repercussions throughout the community. “I’ve been affected personally and it is traumatic to have to go through this, but any little Aboriginal baby that's taken, I feel the impact of that as an Aboriginal person” she said. “My grandmother and my auntie were taken many years ago and the impact of that still carries on down through my family.”
According to Hazel, underlying the situation is a lack of understanding of the different parenting methods Indigenous communities have. “We cannot be judged by a non-Aboriginal family. We parent differently. We parent as a community, as a whole family kinship, so that we cannot be judged on everybody else and the way they parent,” she said.
Hazel believes FACS needs to put networks in place that are focused on keeping families together and that more control must be given back to Aboriginal people.
Debra Swan was a FACS senior case worker for 13 years before resigning in January this year, disappointed by the unfair treatment of Aboriginal families. She told VICE that the department does not properly consult with families before children are removed and there is a need for culturally specific services for Aboriginal people.
“The agency doesn't know how to engage appropriately with Aboriginal families,” said Debra. “They don't give reasons to why you are unsuitable, so families don't have a chance to defend themselves. If they’d have consultations and family meetings beforehand, I'm sure things would be able to work much better.”
A spokesperson for FACS stated that the department only removes children when they are assessed to be in significant harm and all others options have first been explored. “Caseworkers undertaking assessments consider the diversity of Aboriginal people and communities, the different perspectives and their socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said. “Caseworkers consult, get to know the family and establish if there are any protective allies in the family and in the local community.”
The spokesperson pointed out that the latest Productivity Commission report showed that in NSW, 63.6 percent of children in out-of-home care are placed with relatives or kin, compared to the national figure of 51.5 percent. He further explained that 81.6 percent of Indigenous children in out-of-home care are placed with an Indigenous caregiver, and that nearly all Indigenous children under 12 in out-of-home care are living in a home-based arrangement.
However Hazel believes removing children from their homes and rehousing them with relatives comes with its own set of problems: “The children cannot see this side of the family or certain members so that in itself creates a wedge between Aboriginal communities because they still can't see these little ones.”
Social justice activist Olivia Nigro, who works with GMAR, said the group has been in consultation with FACS proposing to trial an Aboriginal Community Liaison Committee (ACLC). The proposed committee, which would be an elected body of representatives from Aboriginal controlled services as well as community elders, would take part in decisions over potential removal cases.
The Public Service Association of NSW, a trade union for public service workers, passed a motion at their annual conference on May 30 which expressed support for the GMAR campaign, as well as for the ACLC and its implementation.
Yet, in the meantime, the child removal crisis is continuing all over the country.
Karen Fusi, who lives in Brisbane, Queensland, experienced the removal of her grandchild with tragic consequences. “In 2010, my daughter gave birth to a little girl. She rang me up and said ‘mum come and get the baby, welfare's just walked in.’ So they took her baby and put it in special care. She didn't know how to handle it and lived with postnatal depression after the removal of her child. But it got too much and she committed suicide.”
In the federal court, Karen fought for the custody of her grandchild and won the case. “It's sad because why do we have to fight for our children that belong to us?” she asks.
Karen has since formed the Brisbane Sovereign Grannies Group and, in conjunction with the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign tent embassy, they’ve started a food program. They provide food to over 120 families throughout Brisbane, which has helped slow the rate of removals. She explained that when case workers from the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disabilities Services visit a home the first thing they look for is food and if there’s not enough, children can be removed.
The National Grandparents Against Removals forum is to be held in Brisbane on July 10 and 11 at the tent embassy in Musgrave Park. The meeting, which coincides with NAIDOC week, will be the first chance for anti-removal groups from across Australia to consolidate their position.
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulrgregoire