In Australia, the Indigenous population is comprised of people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. Indigenous individuals and communities live in urban and rural areas and maintain strong connections to their culture, language and traditional lands. As Australia’s First Peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold distinctive rights under international law. In 2019, Australia conceded its support to the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration provides the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health and education. Despite this, Indigenous Australians still face the devastating impacts of colonisation and disproportionately suffer entrenched social disadvantage and remain one of the most vulnerable groups in society. The intersection of Indigenous children are particularly vulnerable and are subject to widespread social injustice.
History Snapshot – The Stolen Generations
The Stolen Generations marks one of the darkest and brutal periods in Australian history. Between 1910 – 1970, many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families due to various government policies. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the Stolen Generations. The policy of assimilation was central to the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families. Assimilation assumes black inferiority and white superiority and proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or where possible, assimilated into the white community. As part of this, children who were taken from their parents were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed to Anglo-Christian names and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. During this time, some children were taken into foster care by white families, however, a large proportion of the children were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect was highly prevalent. Many children were psychologically, physically, and sexual abused while living in state care or their foster families. They were lied to and told that their parents had died or abandoned them. Children were expected to have limited career prospects as manual labourers and domestic servants, and generally received a low level of education. Many of the children never reconnected with their mothers and families they were forcibly removed from. The policies of child removal left a lasting legacy of trauma that continues to affect Indigenous communities, families and individuals. The implications are significant – alcohol addiction developed as a coping mechanism due to the high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide. For many, generational out-of-home care has resulted from the trauma.
Current landscape of out-of-home care
At present, Indigenous Australian children comprise over 36% of all children living in out-of-home care across Australia and are 10.1 times more likely to be removed than other Australian children. It is predicted failure to depart from continuing patterns will see those figures triple over the next 20 years. Alarmingly, young people in out of home care are twenty-three times as likely as the general population to be in juvenile detention in the same year. Ms June Oscar AO, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, writes, “children deserve to grow up in safe, happy and healthy homes. But we need to support and strengthen families and communities to make sure that happens”. Further, the current out-of-home care system fails to maintain “culturally safe” connections between children to ensure they don’t face challenges to or denials of their cultural identity. Both government and non-government organisations have failed to implement policies and services for Indigenous Australian children that safeguard their cultural connections. The Family Matters report provides prudent recommendations, such as increased investment in evidence based and culturally supportive prevention and early invention services. The United Nations has expressed criticism and concern for the large number of Indigenous Australian children separated from their homes and communities and placed in out of home care. A main concern related to the failure to adequately preserve the child’s cultural and linguistic identity. A strong emphasis must be placed on prevention, rather than the current reactive strategies and procedures. Moreover, children’s connection to their cultural identity must be preserved at every possible measure as this can yield positive impacts on a child’s sense of identity and well being.