Australia’s custodial culture

Since first contact, Indigenous people have been viewed as a problem that needs to be solved.

This viewpoint, rooted in ethnocentric colonialism – a form of cultural supremacy in which specific cultural groups strive to make the world in their image – remains pervasive over 230 years later. It’s visible in the current epidemic of child removals (Indigenous children are eleven times more likely to be removed from their families, and one in five lives with a state-appointed carer) and in Australia’s abhorrent detention statistics (Indigenous children are twenty-six times more likely to end up in juvenile detention than their non-Indigenous peers).

Once removed from their families, Indigenous children face a desolate future, one in which they are reduced to a number, a participating statistic in a racist penal system. The wider populace remains apathetic, their indifference shaped by paternalistic narratives that present Indigenous people as incapable of looking after their own families – despite
historically being domestic servants and raising white children.

Perhaps this current crisis was inevitable. After all, the denigration of Indigenous people was there from the moment Australia was ‘founded’ – in one diary entry, James Cook describes the ‘Natives of New Holland’ as ‘some of the most wretched people on earth’.

But racism is not just a product of a distant colonial past. Contemporary attitudes towards Indigenous people have their roots in the ethnocentrism of both the church and the state, two institutions that – despite the theoretical separation of powers – continue to be intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

Historically, church and state spearheaded the (attempted) annihilation of Indigenous people, always under the cover of feigned benevolence. They committed massacres, introduced illnesses, enacted systems of segregation, and raped, tortured and enslaved Indigenous bodies. Child removal was a central part of the colonial project and was one of the first attempts by government to redefine segregation as ‘protection’, in the same way that Indigenous people were ‘protected’ from contact with white people by being displaced to outlying townships or reserves. (Many towns still have ‘boundary roads’ – demarcation points that Indigenous people were not allowed to cross without permission.)

Darwinistic notions of racial superiority underpinned child removal and cultural assimilation policies – in other words, efforts to ‘breed out the black’. Children suffering this fate were forced, often violently, to renounce their culture, language and family so they could instead learn the white way, the Christian way, the ‘right’ way.

Over the course of 230 years, white Australia has proven itself to be a custodial state willing to sacrifice lives, cultures and country in the pursuit of profit. Since the first moment of occupation, Indigenous Australians have stood in the way of colonial greed, and this defiance has been used to ‘justify’ ongoing violence against Indigenous communities.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, child welfare was rearticulated as the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and later as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention is the most widely ratified international human rights instrument, having been adopted by 196 parties – every UN member state, except the United States. It notes that ‘the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.’

At the same time the Australian government was signing on to these international mechanisms, it was complicit in an epidemic of child abuse: Indigenous children were being removed from their families, abused in state care and subjected to cultural genocide.

In a recent edition of Overland, Amy Thomas charts how successive government policies have created a situation where Indigenous communities remain disenfranchised and impoverished. The resulting trauma has manifested in multiple ways, but the institutional response has remained eerily similar: either the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, and in doing so further fracturing their sense of self and community, or the imposition of custodial sentences, effectively cementing their identity as ‘problem’ children. Such responses, Aileen Moreton-Robinson points out in ‘Imagining the Good Indigenous Citizen’, are usually implemented without adequate investigation or objective data. In fact, despite the statistical over-representation of Indigenous children in both out-of-home care and detention, there have been no comprehensive studies investigating whether Indigenous children are more at risk than non-Indigenous children. This insular approach to research not only vilifies Indigenous communities, but also does a disservice to non-Indigenous children who fail to get assistance because the focus is elsewhere.

The underlying causes of the social issues used to justify child removal and/or detention (regularly cited ‘problems’ include truancy, defiance of authority and petty crimes) have never been addressed by an Australian government. This is not due to a lack of understanding: there are academics investigating the relationship between poverty and depression, the impacts of intergenerational trauma – notable examples include Judy Atkinson and Gabriele Schwab – and the manifestation of trauma as behavioural issues – such as the work of renowned academic and activist Gerry Georgatos. But this critical work is yet to be translated into evidence-based policy responses.

Instead, government continues to enforce policies built around two possible narratives: assimilation or segregation. Those who do not comply and follow the ‘rules’ are relegated to a life of poverty and/or incarceration.

The fact that Indigenous children are removed eleven times more often than non-Indigenous children, yet comprise just 5.5 per cent of the under-seventeen population, is a glaring indicator that Australian policy implementation has racial dimensions. The staggering statistics of Indigenous children in detention tells the same story. Yet government continues to impose oppressive policies that maintain narratives of Indigenous incompetence. The government – and, indeed, society at large – has proven its contempt for Indigenous people and its utter failure to comprehend our identities, families and traumas. Attempts to address the root causes of the so-called ‘problem’ are symbolic at best.

As toddlers, we are taught that saying sorry is not enough; true remorse requires a behavioural adjustment to ensure harmful actions are not repeated. But this simple life lesson is yet to be applied by our political leadership.

Only last year, the systemic abuse of (predominantly Indigenous) youths in detention was addressed through the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. In his opening remarks, Peter Callaghan SC highlighted the magnitude of the government’s failure by noting that there have been up to fifty earlier reports and inquiries, yet no real action or change:

It invites the question as to whether there is a need to confront some sort of ‘inquiry mentality’, in which investigation is allowed as a substitution for action, and reporting is accepted as a replacement for results. The bare fact that there has been so much said and written over such a long time is suggestive of a persistent failure that should not be allowed to endure.

It was shocking video footage, aired on Four Corners, of abuse at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre that gave rise to the most recent Royal Commission. According to the official account, the children depicted had been ‘rioting’, even though the footage clearly shows them in their cells, where they were set upon by guards and subjected to physical violence, teargas and expletive-filled verbal attacks.

Dylan Voller, the teenage boy shown being strapped into a restraint chair and spit hood after being teargassed, testified about his treatment in various detention facilities, the first of which he entered at age ten (experts have commented that Voller was failed by the system from the outset).

According to Voller, a particularly dehumanising method of punishing children was for guards to deny access to toilet facilities:

There was one instance where I was in an isolation placement at Alice Springs detention centre and I was busting to go to the toilet … I had been asking for at least four or five hours. They’d just been saying ‘no’. I ended up having to defecate into a pillow case because they wouldn’t let me out to go to the toilet. Eventually when I got let out the next morning, I was able to chuck that pillow case out.

Voller’s case is not unique. There are currently more than 15,000 Indigenous children in care, and a significant portion of these will find themselves in detention. While current evidence (such as the Family Matters report recently tabled in federal parliament) indicates that there are more Indigenous children being removed from families than ever before, it’s difficult to verify exact numbers since most records from before the 1980s have been destroyed. But the fact that the removal rate has increased from around 2,500 in the early 1990s suggests this assertion to be true.

Australia’s answer to the grave problems facing a population ravaged by colonisation is to destabilise the very foundations of Indigenous identity – protection of land, preservation of community and transmission of lore. These fundamental elements are replaced with a capitalist agenda of individual wealth accumulation – and anyone who doesn’t adhere to the ‘rules’ risks being further demeaned through custodial sentences. For Indigenous people, detention carries a very real risk of death, as demonstrated by the recent high-profile cases of Ms Dhu and Tane Chatfield.


The Turnbull government – like every government before it – has systematically adopted policies that sustain a rhetoric that demonises Indigenous people as neglectful, abusive, incompetent and drug dependent. This discourse also pervades media depictions, which often present Indigenous communities as places of squalor, violence and disorder.

Moreton-Robinson explores this trend in her examination of the Northern Territory Intervention, the longest running Indigenous policy in recent history. The intervention was not supported by an objective investigation or rigorous data, but rather rushed through because of a disingenuous claim by Gregory Andrews, an assistant secretary in the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination who gave an interview to Lateline using a falsified identity – he was billed as a ‘former youth worker’. Subsequent investigations by the NT police and the Australian Crime Commission found no evidence of the alleged paedophile rings or of petrol being traded for sex. Yet these racist claims have been used to fast track government responses – policies that continue to have bipartisan support – and the end result has been community disempowerment, a breakdown of family units and a strengthening of the myth that the state is better equipped to care for Indigenous children than their own families.

There are, of course, Indigenous children who are at risk, but the same is true for all communities. It also goes without saying that adequate resources need to be set aside to provide immediate high-level care to vulnerable children so that they do not sustain additional trauma. But we know that this is not what is really happening – nether now or in the past.

The 1997 Bringing Them Home report, the culmination of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, revealed decades of abuse, mistreatment and neglect at the hands of the state, and showed that almost every Indigenous family has been affected by forced removals.

Bringing Them Home makes fifty-four recommendations – many of which deal directly with child placement and juvenile justice – and these make for sobering reading. But it’s the report’s 535 personal accounts that make the state’s atrocities real and relatable. It’s one thing to learn that children were being removed, but another thing entirely to hear first-hand accounts of trauma and abuse. Take, for example, Millicent’s story: at age four, Millicent was ripped from her family and made a ward of the state. She was taken to Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home in Western Australia, where she was told her family didn’t want her and then subjected to daily religious indoctrination. When she was in her first year of high school, Millicent was sent out to farms as a domestic worker. In her testimony, Millicent recounts her brutal – but not unique – experience:

The first time I was sent to the farm for only a few weeks and then back to school. In the next holidays I had to go back. This time it was a terrifying experience, the man of the house used to come into my room at night and force me to have sex. I tried to fight him off but he was too strong.

When I returned to the home I was feeling so used and unwanted. I went to the Matron and told her what happened. She washed my mouth out with soap and boxed my ears and told me that awful things would happen to me if I told any of the other kids. I was so scared and wanted to die. When the next school holidays came I begged not to be sent to that farm again. But they would not listen and said I had to.

I ran away from the home, I was going to try to find my family. It was impossible, I didn’t even know where to go. The only thing was to go back. I got a good belting and had to kneel at the altar every day after school for two weeks. Then I had to go back to that farm to work. The anguish and humiliation of being sent back was bad enough but the worst was yet to come.

This time I was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor blade on both of my arms and legs because I would not stop struggling and screaming. The farmer and one of his workers raped me several times. I wanted to die, I wanted my mother to take me home where I would be safe and wanted. Because I was bruised and in a state of shock I didn’t have to do any work but wasn’t allowed to leave the property.

When they returned me to the home I once again went to the Matron. I got a belting with a wet ironing cord, my mouth washed out with soap and put in a cottage by myself away from everyone so I couldn’t talk to the other girls. They constantly told me that I was bad and a disgrace and if anyone knew it would bring shame to Sister Kate’s Home. They showed me no comfort which I desperately needed. I became more and more distant from everyone and tried to block everything out of my mind but couldn’t. I ate rat poison to try and kill myself but became very sick and vomited. This meant another belting.

There are another 534 accounts that are just as harrowing and heartbreaking – and those are only from the Indigenous people who were able to participate in the inquiry.

Of the fifty-four recommendations set out in the report, which included the formation of a national compensation fund, the introduction of learning modules in school curricula on historical and continuing child removals and the establishment of self-determination frameworks, very few have been implemented, and while the overtly colonial policies of yesteryear are no more, paternalistic approaches to ‘care’ and removal persist.

Since the Apology, delivered by Kevin Rudd in 2008, successive governments have enacted policies that further entrench the root cause of Indigenous disenfranchisement: poverty and lack of opportunity. We have seen the expansion of the Northern Territory intervention, with multiple communities forced to use cashless welfare cards and work for below minimum wage as part of Community Development Employment Projects. We have seen rates of Indigenous imprisonment at levels not seen since apartheid in South Africa and, as noted above, ever-increasing rates of child removals.

Why are we continuing to see such appalling statistics and ill-considered policies? There are many answers, but all lead back to the undercurrents of ethnocentrism and paternalism that ebb and flow from overt to covert and back again, depending on who is in power at the time.


The vast majority of cases where children are removed due to government-defined ‘neglect’ are actually attributable to poverty. This reality is a direct consequence of colonisation: Indigenous people have been forced from country and subjected to a capitalist system that offers them few of the benefits afforded to their non-Indigenous counterparts. Many communities are also denied access to traditional lands, which are instead exploited for mining projects that only benefit corporations and government. Then there are the ripples of genocidal trauma that continue to torment communities.

Experts agree that a kinship care system is in line with Indigenous culture and the best means for reducing childhood trauma. Indeed, by avoiding or minimising exposure to state ‘care’ – a system defined by constant upheaval and uncertainty – children are less likely to lose hope or miss out on opportunities.

Understandings of ‘family’ are evolving in modern Australia, but traditional forms and meanings remain relevant for Indigenous communities. Indigenous familial bonds are based upon an apical ancestor, through which large groups of people become linked. Children have a mother and father, of course, but beyond that there are sisters and brothers and then other children in the apical line (cousins), women in the apical line (aunties or grandmothers) and men in the apical line (uncles or grandfathers). The Indigenous family unit is a community, an expansive and effective safety net. Removal from this kinship care system can destroy crucial links to identity, culture and language, and can cause further isolation and trauma.

Of course, children’s interests should always be paramount, and there are instances – in all communities – when children need to be taken from harmful environments. In such instances, those with authority have a duty to ensure the highest standard of care and protection. This means that the child cannot have their identity undermined through forced removed from culture, country and community. The child’s mental and spiritual health is as important as their physical health, and kinship care is the most appropriate means for supporting Indigenous children already exposed to trauma.

While kinship care is recognised in current government policy, it’s rarely – if at all –
adequately explored as a first opinion. Instead, the majority of children are placed into foster care, where the risk of abuse continues to be significant, or in out-of-home facilities, many of which are understaffed and – just like the homes of yesteryear – run by religious or non-governmental organisations. Safety and wellbeing can rarely be guaranteed in either environment.

A landmark review of 1,200 case files of children in out-of-home care in New South Wales has just been announced and will be headed up by UNSW Pro Vice Chancellor Megan Davis. We expect the review to reveal, yet again, a system in crisis and to expose further failings by those in power. But given the historical inaction of governments following similar reviews, we have little hope for a different outcome for future generations.




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Natalie Cromb

Natalie Cromb is a Gamilaraay woman from Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve outside Coonabarabran in Warrumbungle country. Cromb has strong family influence on her writing and activism: a descendent of Mary Jane Cain, her grandfather taught her Black politics around the dinner table. She is Indigenous affairs editor of Independent Australia.

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