Growing up with family and culture is a human right. It's also essential for healing


More than 15,000 Indigenous children will sleep away from their homes tonight. @IndigenousX host Natalie Lewis discusses the Family Matters report, released on Wednesday, that aims to end this injustice

By Natalie Lewis

Knowing who you are – a sense of self, a sense of place; of connection to ancestral culture – is an important right. It is a right that is unnoticed by many, and too often denied to our children.

I am fortunate in knowing my shared ancestry: Gamilaray (Kamilaroi) and Scottish.

I am a yinar, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt; an Australian. I find peace and purpose in knowing where I am from, and where I belong.

I am also the CEO of QATSICPP – the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak.

It is in this role that I see the impact of the denial of the right to connection to family and culture for so many of our children removed from family by child protection authorities.

I think many Australians thought that when the apology was given by the prime minister in 2008 that it signalled a shift in how our governments approached the injustices and over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

The fact is that things haven’t improved. The numbers have climbed, and dramatically so. Nationally, figures have more than doubled since 2008, with our children removed from their families, communities and cultures at a rate nearly 10 times that of non-Indigenous children.

More than 15,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will sleep away from their homes tonight. Data released on Wednesday in the Family Matters Report shows that, without a major change in approach, that number will triple by 2035.

While many of you will know that this is the situation, many people in the country will find it shocking. They’ll find it hard to believe.

This is, at its core, about equity and fairness – things that our country claims to hold dear: the DNA of our nation. If that truly is the case, then the shame of this reality should unsettle all Australians.

All families want the best for their children. All families love their children. The rights of children – of all children – is something that should unite us. In this pursuit, there is no opt-out clause to absolve our national conscience should a child happen to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

The scale of the situation tells us that it is a societal issue; an institutional one. It is not fair, it is not just, and we need to collectively demand change in the interests of our children.

The safety of children is paramount and our foremost priority. However, concurrently, care must be taken to preserve a child’s connection to family and culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been safely raising our children for 60,000 years.

Growing up with family and culture is not only a human right, but is also crucial to achieving well-being and assisting the healing process from inter-generational trauma caused by decades of injustice. Feeling strong and proud of who you are, knowing that you are loved and nurtured by your family and your culture, has profound impacts on a child’s wellbeing, development and growth.

This is a defining moment for our country. We are confounded by a national crisis. The disproportionate level of representation of our children in statutory systems is nothing short of shameful.

Methods used to tackle these issues in the past have manifestly failed our children. Government policies have consistently ignored, or undertaken without sincere intentions, the need to genuinely work with our communities, Elders, and organisations to uncover and progress solutions together.

Childhood doesn’t wait around for governments and services to get organised.

We all have a part to play in enacting this change; to be the generation that ensures the next generation suffers less pain and has more opportunity to realise their dreams; to make sure that the current number of our kids in care is the worst it’ll ever be.

The challenge is to pave the way for change in an area that many see as too complex and too difficult.

“Family Matters – Strong Communities. Strong Culture. Stronger Children” is the national campaign set up to do just this: to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people grow up safe and cared for in family, community and culture. The goal of Family Matters is to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 2040.

Family Matters provides us not simply an opportunity to actively define the role we will each play in this change, but a mandate to ensure that our vision is more than an aspirational goal or set of words.

We have over 150 leading organisations – both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous – committed to the campaign, including Australia’s leading sector and non-sector NGOs, like Reconciliation Australia, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision.

We strongly believe – and the evidence confirms – that our people, organisations and communities are best placed to provide services that safeguard and maintain the culture and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The only way we’re going to achieve our goal is by ensuring we have laid a foundation that empowers our families and allows our children to thrive.

The solutions to this issue require a cohesive, national strategy to achieve not only a systems change but also a change in attitude. It’s something we can’t achieve alone. This needs commitment of all key decision-makers from the federal, state and local levels, and it needs community leadership – Aboriginal and mainstream.

Redressing the causes of Aboriginal child removal requires a strategy across a spectrum of issues that traverses federal and state lines. These include: family support; inadequate housing; social security; family violence; health; drug and alcohol misuse; health and mental health issues; early childhood education and care; and child protection.

The costs of out-of-home care and systems that our children subsequently end up in – such as juvenile justice, justice, social welfare, disability and health – are exorbitant and only increasing. We have sufficient evidence today to know that investing early to prevent these trajectories has enormous cost-benefits.

Family Matters is calling on Council of Australian Governments (Coag) to lead a comprehensive, resourced, national strategy and target – developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – to eliminate the unacceptable over-representation of children in out-of-home care.

The 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generations is fast approaching, on 26 May 2017. Communities are already planning mobilisation to protest the tragedy that we are letting happen again.

We are calling for collaboration now with federal and state governments to collectively develop this strategy so that in another 20 years we will be in a very different position.

We have the knowledge, expertise and drive to create a better present and future for our children, and to ensure the best interests of our children are kept in the forefront of our approach. It is imperative that we all work together to change this story; to stand together in solidarity, and make these calls in unison, to ensure our national narrative communicates a future of hope, rather than hopelessness, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

  • “Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.