Systemic racism in Australian child protection systems must be addressed
History is unfolding. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world—from Amsterdam, London, Paris, Japan, Zimbabwe, and Canada, to Australia and New Zealand—have hit the streets this past week to rally against Black deaths in custody.
In Australia, the call was to stand in solidarity with protestors in the US, but also to shine the spotlight on Australia’s own problematic treatment of our First Nations people.
Since 1991, no less than 437 First Nations people have died in police custody in Australia. The tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced us to look inwards: David Dungay Jr, Aunty Tanya Day, Joyce Clarke, Ms Dhu and Mr Ward are a small handful of the First Nations victims of police brutality whose perpetrators have not been called to account.
Systemic racism is the insidious virus that is killing First Nations people in Australia.
As University of Technology Sydney academic Jenna Price wrote recently, governments already know how to stop First Nations deaths in custody.
They already know how to reduce overrepresentation of First Nations people in Australian prisons. It begins in childhood. It begins by ending the disproportionate removals of First Nations children from their families.
In Australia, First Nations children are vastly overrepresented in child protection and out-of-home care systems.
In out-of-home care, First Nations children are overrepresented at nearly 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous children. This isn’t because we have no love for our children. It isn’t because we cannot care for them.
It is, in part, because systemic racism proliferates all facets of our child protection systems; from the care workers who initially remove the children, to the police and teachers who make the first call to child protection to notify of alleged abuse or neglect.
Like the criminal justice system, systemic racism abounds in ‘care’ and ‘protection’ systems where the State assumes the role of the parent.
This isn’t an obvious form of racism—direct racial slurs and racist innuendos are not typical features of child maltreatment notifications.
It is a form of racism that privileges white, Western ways of parenting and disregards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child rearing norms.
The fact that more First Nations children are removed from their families for alleged neglect than non-Indigenous children must be interrogated. Child rearing is not restricted to the nuclear family in First Nations communities.
In child protection systems, systemic racism is manifested by privileging Western society’s ideal version of ‘family’.
In Western Australia, new proposed amendments to child protection legislation reflect the desire to assimilate First Nations families into white Australian family norms.
Section 81 of the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 (WA) enables First Nations children to be placed in out-of-home care following consultation with a single family member. Not only does this erode First Nations peoples’ way of doing family, but it also strengthens government’s power to take our children.
Despite increasing First Nations self-determination power in some jurisdictions (such as Victoria), in other jurisdictions, First Nations voices are being silenced by government.
Take for example, the $2.8 million funding cut to AbSec—the peak body for Aboriginal children and families in New South Wales—is set to go ahead in the next financial year.
The continued call to eradicate First Nations overrepresentation in Australian child protection and out-of-home care systems seems to be falling on deaf ears in some states.
The solution is to listen to First Nations people, not diminish our capacity for self-determination.
As a community, First Nations people call for action to eliminate overrepresentation because we know that our children are not always safe in out-of-home care.
The reality for First Nations children living in out-of-home care is that they typically enter this system at a younger age, stay in care longer, with no plans for reunification or exit from the system. This not only increases the possibility of assimilation by virtue of removal from culture, but also the likelihood of care criminalisation.
The longer children remain in out-of-home care, the higher the likelihood of them crossing over into juvenile justice systems. The risk of then crossing over into the adult criminal justice system is subsequently exacerbated. For First Nations people, the risk of death in custody is well established.
In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody highlighted that nearly half of the 99 First Nations people, whose deaths in custody were reviewed, had been removed from their families as children. Yet the rates of First Nations children entering out-of-home care are continuing to soar.
Enough is enough. The time for a Royal Commission into Child Removals in Australia is well and truly overdue.
By Jacynta Krakouer
Jacynta Krakouer is a Mineng Noongar lecturer and researcher who works on Wurundjeri Country at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Social Work. Currently undertaking her PhD, Jacynta’s teaching and research expertise centres on First Nations child and family welfare. Jacynta is also a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group for the Family Matters campaign, which seeks to end First Nations overrepresentation in child protection and out-of-home care systems.
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