Indigenous affairs

Reconciling care and trauma

Two young Indigenous girls at the Black Lives Matter Protest in Perth, Western Australia 2020.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought more attention to Aboriginal issues in Australia. Photo: Talya Hammond.

Aunty Hazel Collins, a Kamilaroi-woman living in Sydney, wants to bring to attention the deaths of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in Australia.

Ms Collins saw four of her grandchildren taken away by the Department of Child Protection: “It is the most devastating scene that anybody could possibly dream of going through … the impact of that and the time not spent with their family, that will never be erased.”

According to the Child Protection in Australia 2018-2019 report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were eight times more likely to be put into out-of-home care.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare defines out-of-home care as a system of overnight care for children under 18 who are unable to live with families due to safety concerns.

Ms Collins’ experience led her to found Grandmothers Against Removals, a group of Indigenous grandmothers who mediate and educate families who are dealing with the DCP.

“We’ve had a lot of Aboriginal children die through neglect and abuse in out-of-home care… I consider that to be black deaths in custody also.”

Ms Collins said it was vital Aboriginal families and communities were involved in the decision-making process when Indigenous children needed to be placed into new homes.

Curtin University sessional academic William Hayward is a Noongar man who has worked in child protection for over 15-years.

Contributing to landmark reform projects, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, WA Children’s Commission, and SNAICC (the national voice for Aboriginal children), Hayward has noticed the distrust Aboriginal families have in protection services due to the history of the stolen generation.

“I have removed children myself, and there will always be a need to protect children, but I think what’s lacking, and what has been a consistent advocacy point and request by Aboriginal-led organisations, professionals and community is that Aboriginal people need to be given more responsibility and authority to work in that space.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission landmark 1997 Bringing Them Home Report acknowledged the different family structures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, which laid the foundation of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.

This principle recognises ATSI communities know best concerning their children and places Indigenous children in out-of-home care within their communities.

While department policy required workers to first consider immediate family for the placement of Indigenous children, Ms Collins said many families were left confused when they were not contacted before grandchildren, nephews and nieces were placed in out-of-home care.  

“I was never ever approached prior to any of that, any removal. There was never a family conference to find out what we could do in supporting my daughter, whether I was willing to take my grandchildren.”

Telethon Kids Institute researcher Dr Melissa O’Donnell said many of the recommendations from this report have not been addressed by the Australian Government.

“The Australian Government still needs to provide a commitment to healing intergenerational trauma.

“Ensuring kinship and cultural connections enables children and young people to develop their sense of identity and their relationship with their culture,” she said.