Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Welfare over culture: indigenous children have a right to safety

Jeremy Sammut

08 October 2016 | The Australian - Inquirer

aboriginal child neglect poverty abuseKeating government attorney-general Michael Lavarch this week warned about a “new stolen generation” prompted by “assimilation-era levels” of indigenous child removals.

Similar assertions have been made by the Aboriginal industry in response to the escalating crisis in indigenous child welfare.

Such arguments risk perpetuating the gaps in social outcomes between the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians and other Australians.

Describing the removal of at-risk indigenous children from their families as “a new stolen generation” relies on an outdated understanding of the relationship between Aboriginal identity and traditional culture.

During the past decade, the proportion of indigenous children who have needed to be removed from their families has increased from 3.2 per cent to 6.5 per cent. But child removals today are not being driven by racist attitudes or a desire to “breed out the colour” as they were in the past. They are being removed to protect them from ongoing abuse and neglect.

More than 15,000 indigenous children live in care, reflecting the worsening dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, particularly in rural and remote areas. Tragically, too many indigenous parents — despite the billions spent annually on services and assistance for “homeland” communities — are incapable of keeping their children safe and cannot meet the most basic physical and developmental needs of their children.

Indigenous leader Warren Mundine told The Australian in 2014 that some children needed to be removed because the cycle of abuse meant that “in most of these cases there is genuine concern for the safety of the children”.

But indigenous lobby groups downplay the genuine threats to child welfare. Instead, they maintain that priority should be given to considerations of culture and identity when decisions are made about whether or not to remove indigenous children.

For example, the new “Family Matters: Kids safe in culture not in care” campaign, headed by the Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Childcare, argues it is crucial for indigenous children to be left either with their parents, or be placed in what can often turn out to be unsafe kinship care placements with relatives in their local communities — all so that they can maintain contact with traditional culture and thereby maintain their Aboriginal identity.

The notion that culture should take precedence over child welfare is alarming because it is selectively applied only to the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians living in rural and remote areas. Just as alarming are the double standards, given the different, modern realities of culture and identity in the rest of indigenous Australia.

The number of Australians who are identifying as indigenous is growing rapidly. The 2011 census recorded a remarkable 21 per cent increase in the numbers of indigenous Australians, and found that “the changes appear to have been driven by changes in self-identification in urban areas”.

Growth in the indigenous population suggests the modern definition of Aboriginality bases ethnic identity on self-identification, family history and descent from an Aboriginal ancestor.

This modern definition of Aboriginality is also a product of high rates of indigenous intermarriage: in 2006, 52 per cent of indigenous men and 55 per cent of indigenous women were partnered (married or lived with) a non-indigenous spouse, with rates of intermarriage highest in capital cities in southeastern Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics and other government organisations typically classify all children of intermarriage as indigenous Australians.

Modern Aboriginal identity also reflects the social status of the approximately three-quarters of all indigenous Australians who reside in major urban areas. These urban indigenous Australians are largely thoroughly integrated into mainstream society to the point that in relation to education, employment, housing, and other social welfare indicators, they are similar to their non-indigenous peers — without destroying their identity as indigenous based on pride and acknowledgment of one’s background.

The changing character of the Aboriginal population indicates that modern Aboriginal identity is no longer based on being culturally Aboriginal in the traditional sense: having continuous contact with Aboriginal culture and traditional lands.

Moreover, the social factors — everything from where indigenous Australians live to who they marry, through to schooling and work — that allow the majority of indigenous Australians to fully integrate into mainstream Australia are no barrier to Aboriginal identity, belonging, and recognition.

Clearly, the link between traditional culture and identity now has far less coherence as a source of Aboriginality, as demonstrated by the claiming of Aboriginal identity by those with virtually no contact with traditional culture. No matter how distant the connection with culture, Aboriginal identity is recognised by both indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

But we are still told that when it comes to the welfare of the most vulnerable indigenous children, culture must come first for the sake of their identity. Removing these children — and potentially giving them a great chance to access the benefits of mainstream society — is falsely portrayed as somehow marking a return to the assimilationist-era of the Stolen Generations.

Giving priority to culture will keep open the gap in indigenous disadvantage by trapping “lost generations” of children for life in dysfunctional communities. The belief that only some indigenous Australians should be socially excluded is deeply inequitable and discriminatory.

The emotive idea that rising rates of indigenous children in state care amounts to a repeat of the Stolen Generations is deeply misleading. What is really driving the campaign against indigenous child removals is the self-interest of the Aboriginal industry.

Increasing rates of removal will bring the long-term future of the homeland communities into question, which will have financial implications for the myriad taxpayer-funded Aboriginal-controlled organisations providing services in those communities, and also for the urban, educated, and integrated indigenous professionals who staff these organisations.

It is ironic that this privileged group of indigenous Australians — who with their own children enjoy all the benefits and opportunities of Australian life — stand to benefit from denying the most under-privileged indigenous children the same opportunity.

It is doubly ironic that this would be done in the name of preserving contact with culture, based on a definition of Aboriginal identity that these elites deem irrelevant with respect to their own and their children’s identity.

Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Kinship Conundrum: The Impact of Aboriginal Self-Determination on Indigenous Child Protection and The Madness of Australian Child Protection.

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