Indigenous kids are still being removed from their families, more than ever before


There is an important statistic missing from the Closing the Gap report and its absence masks a major crisis facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Saturday marks the eight-year anniversary of the national apology to the stolen generations. It was a speech that captured the spirit of a moment – that the time had come to acknowledge the devastating impact the assimilationist policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families had inflicted. It was a time to make a promise, as the then prime minister Kevin Rudd said, to learn from the mistakes of the past 


This commemoration usually comes close to coinciding with the Closing the Gap report card that has support from governments of both colours and provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of Indigenous affairs. In Malcolm Turnbull’s first speech on this occasion as the prime minister, he gave the usual overview. Some things had improved – infant mortality rates are declining (but there’s still a long way to go) – and new targets had been set on childhood education since the old ones expired without being met. Four of the eight targets for literacy and numeracy have been met. And there was a long way to go on others – particularly incarceration rates and employment. We need to work together; there has to be bipartisan support.

But there is an important statistic missing from the Closing the Gap report and its absence masks one of the key areas of crisis facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families – the continuing removal of Indigenous children from their families.

The statistics from the year before the apology speech, from June 2007, showed that 9,070 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care; in June 2015 that number had risen to 15,455. In 2007, 45.3 per cent of Indigenous children in out-of-home care were placed with their own Indigenous family. Today that number has been reduced to 35.9 per cent. So more Indigenous children are being removed today than at any other time in Australian history – they are 10 times more likely to be in care than their non-Indigenous peers. Although they represent only 5.5 per cent of their age population, they make up 35 per cent of children in out-of-home care.

That the number of Indigenous children removed from their families is now higher than at the time of the apology raises serious concerns.

The afternoon of the day the prime minister finished his Closing the Gap speech, a symposium was held just down the road at Old Parliament House. Convened by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), the Family Matters Strategic Forum brought together Aboriginal community organisations working in the area of child protection due to the need for a national strategy to reduce the numbers of children being placed in out-of-home care and in out-of-home care away from family members.

In his opening address, Victoria’s commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Andrew Jackomos, summed up the problem. He spoke about how there is no accountability of government officers who act contrary to or without reference to department policies, particularly the “Aboriginal child placement principle” that determines that Aboriginal children should be placed with family members as a matter of priority.

He cited the example of being told by child protection workers, on many occasions, that they could not find Indigenous family members with which to place Indigenous children, and that he had been able to locate them within a few minutes just by using Facebook.

It’s not that we don’t know what will work; we do. There are blueprints and roadmaps in significant well-researched reports and there are experts on the ground – like the more than 100 attendees at the SNAICC forum, who can explain exactly what needs to happen. There is something profoundly distressing and frustrating about this prevailing narrative of “evidence based-policy” and then its implementation (or lack thereof). It is this gap between well-designed policy and its application that needs to be closed.

Among the audience of the symposium were a group of Indigenous women who have formed a group called Grandmothers Against Removal. Their participation at the forum was only one part of a larger, longer attempt to raise awareness of the issues related to Indigenous children removal and lobby for action in the days leading up to the anniversary of the apology. They have often expressed concern that the mainstream media – and politicians – are not interested in this issue.

Is it because people hear about the removal of Indigenous children from their families and assume bad parenting? If so, this attitude only compounds the lack of accountability by government child removal agencies who escape scrutiny due the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and it shows an indifference to understanding the real underlying causes of the problem.

One of the key platforms that GMAR has been pursuing is an implementation of the Bringing Them Home report. It had made not just observations about the appropriate ways to address past practices of child removal but made observations about the current system. These included the need to end discriminatory practices within the child welfare sector that made assumptions about dysfunction in the Aboriginal community and warned against a particular cultural lens being used to judge parenting practices within the Aboriginal community such as the reliance of relations to assist in the rearing of a child. It also warned against punishing families for the poverty that they find themselves in.

If there is an area in which we need to work together, where we need bipartisan support, it is in “closing the gap” on the number of Indigenous children who are growing up away from their families and from a true and meaningful connection to their culture. It is time to add the statistics for the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care and the number of Indigenous children placed with family members on the Closing the Gap scorecard. 

Larissa Behrendt