19 December 2014 | General Interest
Statement by Sharron Williams, SNAICC Chairperson
Jeremy Sammut’s opinion piece on the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (The Australian, 8 December) delivered a skewed and illogical clarion call for a return to assimilation policies. Sammut is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, whose motto is “Ideas for a better Australia”.
In his article, Sammut took the opportunity to plough some familiar arch-conservative ground, not just on the on the ACPP, but also smearing Aboriginal people and culture on the way and questioning the Aboriginality of what he terms “new identifiers”.
According to Sammut we risk a Lost Generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children unless we rid ourselves of the child placement principle, which is leading too many Indigenous children from the “frying pan” of abuse and neglect at home into the “fire” of Indigenous kinship carers and perpetual disadvantage.
According to Sammut, if we got rid of this “outdated” instrument of self-determination, — citing the success of mainstreaming health and education services! — we would avert a Lost Generation, by placing children in loving, presumably non-Aboriginal homes, away from their dysfunctional families and communities.
His other solutions for Indigenous children placed in protective care are adoption, permanent guardianship or residential care — any solution, it seems, as long as it keeps our children away from the “negative” impact of family, community and culture.
As Sammut himself points out, the principle has evolved since the 1980s to avert the creation of another Stolen Generation. The principle isn’t confined to deciding where and with whom children will be placed, it is also designed to give a child’s family and community some measure of participation and influence over decisions about their children.
But what Sammut and other critics of the principle do not acknowledge — through ignorance or is it an inconvenient truth? — is that, the safety, wellbeing and best interests of the child is paramount in any decision taken under the principle. By ignoring this fact, Sammut misleads the reader, blaming Indigenous culture for unsafe placements, instead of the failures of the government systems and decision-makers who have placed children in unsafe environments.
Sammut fails to mention systems inquiries across Australia that have recognised inadequate supports for the role of kinship carers. He cites kinship placements as not all being safe, but has no statistical information on which to base this assertion.
He fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship carers provide safe, quality and culturally connected care for our kids. Rarely, since the policies that underpinned the Stolen Generations began to be dismantled, have we seen such a selective and skewed presentation of ‘facts’ used to attack the importance of cultural identity and connection for Australia’s First Peoples.
The child placement principle seeks to protect a fundamental human right: namely, the right of every child to retain a connection to their family, community, culture and cultural identity. A vast bulk of research that Sammut chooses to ignore confirms that these connections are overwhelmingly positive contributors to a child’s wellbeing and identity.
As Sammut identifies, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care is unacceptably high. What he doesn’t tell us in his narrow-minded attack on Indigenous identity, is that according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 94.2% of Aboriginal children are not in out-of-home care. While our communities face many challenges, the majority of our families are successfully and strongly caring for their children.
For the 1 in 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are living away from home, we are creating a generation of lost children — not because of the child placement principle, but because it’s been far too easy for state and territory governments to pay lip service to it, even though it is embedded in legislation or policy across all jurisdictions.
Another fact that Sammut omitted in his opinion piece is that only 68 per cent of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or Indigenous residential care under the principle in 2012–13.
Professor Fiona Arney has noted that recent reviews estimate the principle has been fully applied in only 15 per cent of child protection cases involving Aboriginal children.
What is needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is very different from what Sammut is suggesting. We need a government that is better equipped and more committed to be making decisions in line with the principle. We need systems to make sure that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who know best about the safe caring options and the risks in their communities to be centrally involved in the decision-making process.
And we need to strengthen the capacity of more Indigenous community-controlled organisations to deliver out-of-home care services and safeguard the best interests of children removed from their families.
Above all, what vulnerable families desperately need is more intensive and early intervention support programs to give them a chance of staying together and not be torn apart.