Indigenous communities and families are reeling under the impact of a new stolen generation, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their families in staggeringly high numbers. More than a third of the 39,600 children in “out-of-home care” nationally are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, even though they make up only 4.6 percent of the national child population.
Since the Northern Territory Intervention began in 2007, the rate of child removals in the NT has increased by 80 percent. In Queensland the number of children removed from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island families has increased by 42 percent since 2007. Nearly half of these children taken by the Department of Community Services have been placed with non-Indigenous foster families or carers. In the NT, nearly two-thirds of the children removed have been placed with non-Indigenous foster families.
In New South Wales, nearly one in 10 Aboriginal children have been removed from their families: of every 1000 children removed from their families in NSW, around 83 are Aboriginal. The trends and figures for elsewhere in Australia are similar. According to the latest report on child protection released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the national rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed in “out-of-home care” has increased from 41.3 to 55.1 per 1000 children. This contrasts sharply with the non-indigenous rate of 5.4 per 1000 children.
Rather than acknowledge the horrendous impact of the Intervention and the removal of children, NT Country Liberal Party Chief Minister Adam Giles is committed to entrenching the worst aspects of it. His support for the “case-by-case” forced adoption of Aboriginal children is not surprising.
Federal opposition leader Tony Abbot has made clear his preparedness to pursue such a policy, as well as extending Intervention-like controls over all welfare recipients, especially for the long-term unemployed and welfare-dependent families. As was to be expected, Giles’s recent comments have been supported by apologists for the policies that created the stolen generations, such as reactionary media commentator Andrew Bolt.
Yolnu Elder Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra wrote an open letter to Giles on 16 May, in which he challenged the chief minister: “Mr Giles, you claim that only one child has been taken away and given up for adoption in the last 10 years. But the fact is, about 60 children are being taken away every month in the NT by child protection services. Children are being taken away from us at numbers not seen since the Stolen Generations.
“In the case of the Stolen Generations, as you do today, the policy of forced removal of children was justified as ‘in the best interest of the children’. 40 years after it ended, the nation acknowledged the deep wrong of such a policy and began a long-awaited healing process with our people. What you now propose to do is to tear open the bandages and cut us again.”
Gondarra and other elders and Aboriginal organisations have called for the return of family support services that have been run down or stopped completely by state or territory and federal governments. In particular, they have called for an increase in Aboriginal-managed family support services in all Aboriginal communities, along with the establishment of family group conferencing processes where there are concerns regarding child safety.
The practice of removing children in the NT and elsewhere has further dislocated and undermined Aboriginal communities, already under pressure from the historical impact of colonial occupation and acts of genocide. The result of this legacy and the current policies is reflected in myriad disturbing trends, particularly with children and youth. During the years 2007-11, suicide rates for Aboriginal youth 10 to 17 years of age doubled. Over the same period, Aboriginal youth accounted for 75 percent of all youth suicides in the NT. The suicide rates for Indigenous youth in the NT and Western Australia are presently the highest in the world. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also over-represented in prison, with the rate of incarceration steadily increasing over recent years.
Fig leaf for racism
While the rationale for the NT intervention was as a measure to deal with child abuse, neglect, truancy and and other problems, this was a fig leaf for a thoroughly racist and paternalist policy. The plight of “at risk” Aboriginal children and the poverty-stricken communities in which they live was never going to improve under conditions where their rights were stripped, along with the imposition of a strict regime of apartheid-like social control.
Bo Spearim, a youth activist involved with the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) explained to Red Flag: “We all know why the intervention was really put in place – it was because it came down to the government simply not wanting our people having control over our own destiny. That’s why they suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to have it introduced. They are against anything like us governing ourselves or self-determination … it all comes down to mining and money at the end of the day.
“[The NT intervention is] a trial run for what to put in place in other communities, places like Bankstown and rural areas of New South Wales and in cities and towns elsewhere. They are doing what they have done to our people for many years – take our rights. Gillard and Abbott just don’t get it … how these policies are hurting and stigmatising our people. They always stigmatise our people and show no respect, like when they talk about the rivers of grog.”
Activists from BASE have recently been involved in actions with community members demanding the Department of Community Services return children to their families or relatives. “We want our sovereign rights and a sovereign republic for all people … Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, wherever you come from, based on equal rights and justice for all.”
From July 2013 the programs run in the NT, Bankstown and elsewhere will result in compulsory income management being extended automatically to include anyone who is under 25 and exiting prison, as well as young people assessed by Centrelink as “unable to live at home” or who are on a “special benefit” due to homelessness. This will disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and contribute to more children being taken from their families.
The NT Intervention and its offshoots and the removal of children are fundamentally about breaking community connections, breaking ownership over traditional lands and breaking the resistance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are little more than dressed-up old style colonial racism.