Before the Intervention, before all the work stopped in our community, I used to work as a nutritionist at the Family Centre. But there’s nothing here now any more.
We used to provide food and I would encourage all the young mothers. How to look after their kids, how to make sure [the children] were fed healthy food. But now it’s gone, we never got an explanation why.
It’s hard for the young mothers now. If their little babies don’t put on weight for two or three weeks, they’ll be taken away from their mother’s arms by welfare.
I’ve seen it. It’s really sad for me because when I was working here I used to encourage them. Now they get no encouragement. There’s just a report typed into the computer for welfare.
For Aboriginal people, this thing is coming back for us. Stolen Generation. Taking kids away from own mother.
And that’s really sad. It’s really no good. It’s not just happening here, it’s happening everywhere in our communities.
This testimony is from a strong Aboriginal woman in a remote community in the Northern Territory. It was given in the spring of 2011 when her people were preparing for a festival and protest. She had worked as a nutritionist, a vital service in a poverty-stricken community where raising children is a daily struggle. Cuts to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program closed the service down. The cuts began with the Northern Territory Intervention.
The nutritionist told the story of a raid on a local house by child protection workers. Five children were taken without warning, put on a plane and flown hundreds of kilometres to Darwin. They were separated and placed with different foster carers who did not speak their language. The nutritionist had been supporting the children to stay healthy before she had been sacked.
Last month I was contacted again by friends from the same community, traumatised after another raid. The police had accompanied child protection staff to forcibly remove a toddler while the family was eating breakfast. The grandmother wailed and threw rocks at the car as it sped away. There had been a report from the clinic that the child, who had chronic health issues, was losing weight. Legislation mandates that staff report any ‘failure to thrive’. When the outcome is removal, such reporting can have a terrible impact on the relationship with the community. In this case, clinic staff came under pressure to leave rather than participate in the ‘new Stolen Generation’.
The people to whom I spoke were desperately worrying about the terrible impact the experience would have on the child. Why couldn’t there have been an attempt to work with the family about the issues? Why couldn’t the broader kinship network have been consulted first about the child’s wellbeing and living arrangements? Why had the family been singled out?
‘We’ve lost everything, there’s nothing for us here now,’ one of them said. ‘And now they’re taking our children away again.’
Taking the children away again
The Bringing Them Home report, released in 1997 after two years of inquiry and hundreds of submissions, provides a comprehensive account of the history of Aboriginal child removal and its role in the colonisation of Australia.
In one of its many recommendations, the report argued for a national apology to the Stolen Generations. The apology was finally delivered by Prime Minister Rudd in 2008, in what he says was the proudest moment of his career. During his speech, Rudd said of the testimony recorded in Bringing Them Home:
The pain is searing; it screams from the pages.
The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.
Up to 50 000 children were forcibly taken from their families and this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute.Fthef
Let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s.
If Rudd read Bringing Them Home, he must have stopped halfway through. The report’s final chapters warn that the operations of contemporary child protection agencies were replicating many of the discriminatory and destructive dynamics of the Stolen Generations era. It outlined the ‘unacceptable’ level of Indigenous over-representation within the child protection system. At the time of the report, 20 per cent of children in out-of-home care were Indigenous, despite Indigenous children representing only 2.7 per cent of the population.
Bringing Them Home expressed concerns for the safety and development of Aboriginal children growing up with their families in conditions of severe poverty and oppression. But the report provided comprehensive evidence that child protection agencies could not solve these problems – and, in fact, were exacerbating them in many cases. The agencies continued to harbour paternalistic attitudes and often viewed Aboriginal cultural practice itself as a source of risk to children:
Not a single submission from any Aboriginal organisation saw intervention from welfare departments as an effective way of dealing with Indigenous child protection needs … We have seen that Indigenous families were historically categorised by their Aboriginality as morally deficient. There is evidence that this attitude persists … A focus on child-saving facilitates blaming the family and viewing ‘the problem’ as a product of ‘pathology’ or ‘dysfunction’ among members, rather than a product of structural circumstances which are part of a wider historical and social context … The primary reason for welfare intervention in Indigenous communities is neglect. Social inequality is the most direct cause of neglect … problems which result in removals need to be addressed in terms of community development.
Bringing Them Home offered a framework for ending the cycle of forced removal and despair: responsibility for Indigenous child protection needed to be given to Aboriginal-controlled agencies. A major transfer of resources to Indigenous communities – a ‘social justice’ investment package – was required for real community development to alleviate grinding poverty. Bringing Them Home argued for self-determination at the core of all initiatives in Indigenous affairs – nothing would be effective if not led by Aboriginal people.
Bringing Them Home was released under the Howard government, which was hostile to the very idea that the Stolen Generations existed, and so the report suffered the same fate as the 1987–91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody before it and the 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report after it, as well as many other reports in between. Hundreds of talented Aboriginal people and organisations working on the issue carefully crafted submissions or testimony in good faith, only to be completely ignored.
The result has been an explosion in the numbers of Aboriginal children removed by child protection agencies across Australia.
Figures from the Productivity Commission show that at 30 June 1997, the year of Bringing Them Home, 2785 Aboriginal children were in out-of-home care. At 30 June 2012, there were 13 299 – almost a five-fold increase. For each of the last five years, approximately a thousand Aboriginal children have been coming into the ‘out-of-home care’ system long-term. This is a higher number than were removed during any time in the twentieth century. Half of the children have not been placed with kin or relatives.
We are fast approaching the Stolen Generations removal rate cited by Rudd: between 10 and 30 per cent of all Indigenous children. A 2011 annual report from the Department of Family and Community Services found that 9.6 per cent of Aboriginal children in NSW were in out-of-home care. Across Australia, nearly 6 per cent of Indigenous children are in out-of-home care. If current trends continue, the figure will exceed 10 per cent by the end of the decade.
A wealth of evidence presented at the current Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry illustrates the brutality of the contemporary removal process. According to a report in the Australian, the inquiry heard that up to 197 babies were taken from their parents just hours after birth in north Queensland hospitals between July 2009 and June 2012. Aboriginal legal services submitted that child protection agencies refused to engage with families before babies were removed and consistently favoured non-Indigenous carers over kin. Many women who had their babies taken from them were unrepresented through their initial appearances in court, or simply didn’t challenge orders because they didn’t know that they could.
The testimony could have come straight from Bringing Them Home.
The NT Intervention and Stronger Futures
Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have historically played a crucial role in the national movement to recognise the destructive practices of the Stolen Generations, from the fight against discriminatory laws from the 1960s through to pioneering efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to establish Aboriginal-controlled services for struggling families. Territorian Stolen Generations members fought a number of high-profile civil court cases in the 1990s that helped build momentum for Bringing Them Home.
From the late 1960s, as a national movement for Aboriginal rights gathered pace, the dictatorial control exercised over Aboriginal lives by the Welfare Branch in the Northern Territory began to break up and in 1972 the incoming Whitlam government formally abandoned a policy of ‘assimilation’. From 1978, the newly empowered Northern Territory government took over, implementing a policy of placing Aboriginal children with extended family networks. The result was a dramatic drop in the rate at which children were removed.
In 1983, the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction in Australia to enshrine the ‘Aboriginal child placement principle’ in law. Bringing Them Home reported that in 1997 the territory had both the lowest numbers of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and the lowest level of Indigenous over-representation of any Australian jurisdiction.
But the ‘social inequality’ that Bringing Them Home identified as the key driver of child neglect has been nowhere more acute than in the Northern Territory. Many NT Aboriginal communities suffer developing-world living conditions. Absence of basic municipal infrastructure and social services, chronic overcrowding and homelessness, and a lack of serious investments in community development all contribute to extremely difficult conditions in which to raise children.
Such conditions breed debilitating health issues like otitis media, malnutrition, rheumatic heart disease and trachoma, a condition eradicated across the developed world but still endemic in many remote communities. The conditions also drive depression and despair, violence and substance abuse.
Bringing Them Home was published at the beginning of Howard’s eleven-year term as prime minister. Throughout this period, Howard fought assiduously for a politics that blamed Aboriginal culture – and the ‘failings’ of Indigenous people and their communities – for the shocking conditions in which they found themselves. He promoted the conservative historians who, in the so-called history wars, argued that pre-colonial Aboriginal culture was violent and degenerate, and denied the brutality of the colonisation of Australia and the existence of the Stolen Generations.
This provided justification for attacks on native title and land rights. Under Howard, Aboriginal services were massively defunded, including by terminal cuts to hundreds of Aboriginal women’s centres. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was also dismantled in 2005.
A number of submissions to the current Queensland inquiry have argued that the huge spike in child removal over the last decade, and the falling rates of placement with Aboriginal families, are directly attributable to the disempowerment of community-based Aboriginal organisations through the Howard period.
Social worker Julie Bray, who has worked in the Queensland child protection system for thirty-five years, provided a detailed account of the operations of very poorly funded – but dedicated and effective – Aboriginal and Islander child-care agencies (AICCAs). These were marginalised from the late 1990s:
The deterioration in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families is a direct result of departmental intervention and forced changes to a successful community-driven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service model.
The AICCAs worked alongside families to provide a wide range of services including general family support and practical help, intensive family support for families and children in contact with the statutory system (including support in the court process), placement services including recruitment and support of kinship and other carers … it was a holistic service model which provided what the family needed at each stage while also ensuring the child’s wellbeing.
The Intervention, announced by Howard in June 2007 during his final federal election campaign, was the most extreme expression of the ‘mainstreaming’ and assimilation agenda building momentum through his entire prime-ministerial term.
‘Emergency’ legislation suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, marking Aboriginal people as second-class citizens and bringing communities under Commonwealth control. Huge amounts of money flowed into the construction of new punitive bureaucracies to micromanage Aboriginal people. Income management, Government Business Managers, invasive police powers: surveillance and control on a scale not experienced since the old Welfare Board.
Part of the process was a big cash injection for a massive expansion of the NT child protection system.
According to a 2012 report by Olga Havnen, then coordinator-general for remote Indigenous services, in 2010–11 the NT Department of Families and Community Services spent $47.8 million on keeping children in out-of-home care and $31 million on child protection workers: three times its pre-Intervention budget. In a revealing exposition of the priorities of the department, over the same period it spent just half a million dollars on intensive family-support services.
From June 2007 to June 2012, the number of Aboriginal children living in out-of-home care more than doubled.
Despite the department’s nominal support for the Aboriginal child placement principle, only 135 of the 573 Aboriginal children in care at 30 June 2012 had been placed with relatives or kin. Most were living away from their communities, and with non-Indigenous people who did not speak their language.
Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory came into effect in July 2012, following the expiry of the ‘emergency’ Intervention legislation. Many discriminatory Intervention powers have been retained until 2022. Under Stronger Futures, the Commonwealth has committed $442 million over ten years to ‘strengthen the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal children, youth and their families’.
But Havnen argues that the measure will overwhelmingly ‘continue to fund crisis or tertiary interventions – namely, front-line child protection workers and out-of-home care’. Her report slammed the continued focus on surveillance of families and removal of children, and the absence of plans to address seriously the extreme poverty driving ‘neglect’. Havnen was sacked by the incoming Country Liberal government in September 2012.
There will be some increased funding for Intensive Family Support Services (IFSS) under Stronger Futures. But IFSS is only available in a small minority of communities and to gain access to support, parents need to be placed on Child Protection Income Management, which quarantines 70 per cent of Centrelink entitlements.
As the major source of funding for the territory government, the Commonwealth has long been able to direct its spending priorities, as the expansion of child protection under the Intervention demonstrates. Nonetheless, the new Country Liberal government, which took power in August 2012, demonstrated its own particular zeal when it comes to removing children.
In May 2013, Chief Minister Adam Giles gave an interview to News Limited in which he indicated that child removal would be a key pillar of the Country Liberals’ response to crises in Aboriginal communities. Giles argued that the lack of removals was in fact responsible for problems facing children: ‘People were too scared of the Stolen Generation. And I believe that’s why there’s a lot of kids out there with such social dysfunction.’
In the debate that ensued, the acting CEO of the NT Department of Children and Families made an extraordinary admission to the Australian:
The Office of Children and Families acting chief executive Jenni Collard told the Australian the lack of proper checks and out-of-date care plans – meant to be the ‘bible’ for a child’s wellbeing – had created ‘case drift’ that instead reduced a child’s chances of being reunited with its family. Ms Collard said that while her department was good at taking kids into care, it was ‘not very good at looking after them’.
‘If we are taking kids into care, we are not necessarily providing care that’s any better,’ she said.
The statement did nothing to prevent News Limited from clamouring for more removals, with Murdoch himself praising, on Twitter, Giles’ plans for a ‘Saved Generation’.
Giles even mooted the adoption of children who are being neglected, a proposal that would remove any legal right for family reunification. Adoption would also help the government’s bottom line – once a child is adopted, the state pays nothing for upkeep.
The Country Liberals took power on the back of massive anger across remote communities at the disempowerment for which Labor governments in both Canberra and Darwin were responsible. But after coming to office, they launched their own cuts to community services and support available to Aboriginal families.
In 2010, the comprehensive inquiry into the NT Child Protection System produced a report entitled Growing Them Strong, Together. It sounded alarms about the increasing focus on removal:
We cannot go on building larger and more forensically-focused child protection and out-of-home care systems while paying lip service to the need to support and enable families so that they can care for and protect their own children – and we cannot keep developing approaches and services without hearing the voices of those who are directly affected by our interventions.
Growing Them Strong, Together recommended the establishment of Strong Aboriginal Families, Together (SAF,T), a peak agency to represent Aboriginal interests within the child protection system – something already in place in every other Australian jurisdiction. Its guiding principle was an approach focused on ‘removing the risk from the child’ rather than removing children from communities. Growing Them Strong, Together envisaged SAF,T leading the revival of Aboriginal-controlled child safety and wellbeing services.
But the Country Liberals have cut SAF,T’s budget in half, ending the agency’s plans for the opening of an Alice Springs office. Moreover, they forced a fundamental shift in the direction of the organisation, effectively integrating it into the removal process. The government insisted SAF,T focus on designing an emergency-care centre in Darwin for Aboriginal children who had just been removed and were waiting on court orders or foster care.
So the large-scale removal of children from Aboriginal communities into largely non-Indigenous homes is being carefully planned and budgeted for by both the Commonwealth and NT governments. Based on the removal and retention rate in 2011–12, over 3300 Aboriginal children in the NT will be removed at least temporarily under Stronger Futures by 2022, with almost a thousand staying in the system long term. And if the rate of increase seen under the Intervention continues, these numbers could be four times as high. The number of children that governments are planning to remove dwarfs anything seen in any decade in the NT during the twentieth century.
The politics of neglect
The federal government talks about the billions of dollars that have been spent on the Intervention and Stronger Futures. But this money is largely circulated through various bureaucracies managing ‘the Aboriginal problem’.
The experience in communities has been one of an acute withdrawal of productive resources. The gradual shutdown of the CDEP from 2007 meant a net loss of more than 3500 waged jobs, and the closure of vital programs. This was followed by NT government reforms in 2008 that abolished local community government councils in favour of ‘super shires’. The shires promptly seized the meagre asset base of the local councils, including vehicles, earth-moving equipment and cash.
The National Partnership Agreement for Remote Service Delivery, signed off by the Council of Australian Governments in December 2007, shows that the vast majority of Aboriginal communities are being excluded from investment that could ameliorate extreme poverty. The agreement established the category of ‘priority communities’: that is, ‘larger and more economically sustainable communities where secure land tenure exists’. It urges governments to ‘avoid expectations of major investment in service provision’ outside these communities and encourages ‘facilitating voluntary mobility by individuals and families to areas where better education and job opportunities exist’. This is sending Aboriginal people a clear message there is no hope for a better life in their community – they must leave their land and their people in order to find work and housing.
Since 2007, there has been some drift of population to urban centres on the Stuart Highway. But most people have not opted for ‘voluntary migration’; they have instead stayed in their communities and suffered. The NT Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath says that ‘on the whole, the child wellbeing indicators in remote communities are getting worse’. In January 2013, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported a 160 per cent increase in the rate of youth suicide under the Intervention and a more than five-fold increase in reported rates of self-harm.
New child protection workers moving into the NT from 2007 did not find children being abused by paedophile rings (the claim that built the Intervention). Productivity Commission figures show the rate of substantiation of child sex abuse through the protection system in the NT is much lower than in NSW and on a par with the national average.
The workers did, however, find an epidemic of ‘child neglect’. In 2006–07, there were 137 substantiated cases of neglect. In 2010–11, with ‘mobile child protection teams’ moving through bush communities as never before, there were 881 substantiated cases.
The results surprised nobody who understood the structural violence to which Aboriginal people are subjected. The cruel logic of holding them in developing world living conditions and then removing their children for neglect is most graphically demonstrated by the pro-removal public advocacy of NT Chief Magistrate Hilary Hannam. On 24 April 2013, ABC News reported on Hannam’s appeal for ‘tougher action’ by the child protection system on neglect of children. She said the system was ‘too focused on keeping Aboriginal children connected with families and culture’.
Four of Hannam’s decisions have been overturned on appeal by the NT Supreme Court in the last year, and there are three more appeals pending. These relate to orders granted for removal of babies and young children until they are eighteen years old.
On 25 September 2012, Hannam told ABC Radio that many people working in child protection were ‘too idealistic’ about extended Aboriginal families being able to raise children in the conditions that exist in many remote communities:
[I]n effect [they are] sort of saying that it’s okay if Indigenous kids get a lesser standard, which I think is just utterly unacceptable. It is not okay that Indigenous kids live in very overcrowded houses, it is not okay that they are exposed to all sorts of things in these overcrowded houses.
Hannam is right that overcrowding and squalid housing conditions are at the centre of the challenges facing Aboriginal families trying to raise children. In many remote communities, it is common for more than twenty people to share a house. You would think, then, that the response would involve a housing and investment program to change the conditions and help children grow up safe and healthy. But despite trumpeting billions in long-term budget projections for Aboriginal housing, the government’s own statistics show there will be no alteration in the rate of overcrowding.
The year 2012 saw a record boom in the construction industry in the Northern Territory. NT Department of Business figures show that more than 15 200 construction workers completed $1.6 billion of work in the December quarter alone. But more than 90 per cent of this work was ‘engineering’, primarily building infrastructure for major resources extraction projects such as the INPEX gas plant in Darwin. Meanwhile, not a single person has been employed building new housing in the hundreds of Aboriginal communities and smaller outstations that exist outside of the ‘priority communities’.
Say no to a new Stolen Generation
During its analysis of the development of assimilation policies in Australia across history, Bringing Them Home says:
Following the 1951 Commonwealth-State Ministers Conference, Paul Hasluck, the Minister for the newly created portfolio of Territories, urged the Commonwealth to adopt a national co-ordination role and set an example in the Northern Territory by taking active measures to encourage assimilation.
With the Intervention and Stronger Futures, we have seen a similar process of ‘active measures’.
Take the Australia-wide cuts to the CDEP. Rene Adams, head of the Toomelah Aboriginal Cooperative in north-west NSW, recently told Tracker magazine, ‘all people who were on CDEP are basically unemployed now … Mental health issues and suicides have increased. There’s more drugs, more violence, more alcohol. It’s heart-breaking’.
Punitive welfare controls are now accepted by the major parties as necessary for Aboriginal advancement across Australia. The only debate is over which model to use and how quickly to roll it out.
The triumphant politics of assimilation have exacerbated the drive to remove Aboriginal children. This has been mirrored by rapid increases in the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal adults and children alike.
But the invisible battle Aboriginal communities have been fighting with child protection agencies is beginning to spill out into the public arena. In the last year there have been a number of protest marches in Brisbane led by Aboriginal parents and grandparents demanding the department ‘stop stealing our kids’ and forcing negotiation around individual cases. In June, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) launched a national campaign to reduce the rate of removal at their national conference, which drew an unprecedented 1100 delegates. They held a major public forum in Federation Square, Melbourne on 14 June titled ‘Stop the creation of a new Stolen Generation’.
The battle to end the Northern Territory Intervention is still being fought. While Commonwealth legislation continues to mark Aboriginal people as second-class citizens, ‘solutions’ based on punishment and control will remain central to the national agenda.
Following Giles’ recent interview, Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, an Elcho Island elder who has led the resistance to the Intervention, wrote a letter to the Chief Minister announcing the launch of a campaign called ‘Keeping them Home’:
The majority of our people live in Third World conditions, with poverty, unemployment and disadvantage a part of everyday life. The struggle of families to raise their children properly comes from this lack of stability, not from a lack of responsibility … The dysfunction in our communities is caused by decades of neglect, and is now further exacerbated by the disempowering policies of the Federal and NT Governments.
Like everyone else in the world, we love our children deeply and want the best for them. We need support to do this. Not for our children to be taken away from us.
We need more family support programmes in every community run by Aboriginal people. When there are problems, we need ways to bring together those in the community who can offer support through family group conferencing. Together we can find better ways to keep our children safe.
A Yolngu child has a spirituality, his own ‘skin’, his culture, language, and place in his community. He belongs to that country and its people. You are committing a deep wrong by taking that away from him. This is why so many of the Stolen Generation have suffered so much … What you now propose to do is to tear open the bandages and cut us again.
We need to remove the knife and stop the cutting. Large-scale removal of children cannot be allowed to stand as a ‘solution’ to the oppression and grinding poverty Aboriginal people continue to suffer Australia wide.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!