Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians have suf­fered most in mis­guided at­tempts to ad­here to cus­tom

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY - AN­GELA SHANA­HAN

NSW fi­nally moved this month to lib­er­alise adop­tion laws. This co­in­cides with a fed­eral par­lia­men­tary re­port into adop­tion re­leased on De­cem­ber 3 that pro­vides much-needed na­tional lead­er­ship on child pro­tec­tion.

The re­port Break­ing Bar­ri­ers: A Na­tional Adop­tion Frame­work for Aus­tralian Chil­dren rightly recog­nises that the best in­ter­ests of chil­dren need to be at the cen­tre of child pro­tec­tion sys­tems.

There are 47,915 Aus­tralian chil­dren liv­ing in out-of-home care, 41.2 per cent of them for more than five years.

The aim of the NSW leg­is­la­tion and the fed­eral re­port is to fa­cil­i­tate adop­tion for chil­dren to pre­vent them be­ing trapped in the fos­ter­ing mill, mov­ing from one place­ment to an­other, of­ten taken back to live with nat­u­ral par­ents only to be re­moved again. It is also a turn­around from the “sup­port the fam­ily at all costs” prin­ci­ple — since the cost is usu­ally the child.

Fos­ter­ing is meant to be a short-term an­swer but it of­ten be­comes a long-term one with no se­cu­rity for the child or the fos­ter par­ents. Long-term se­cu­rity is very im­por­tant for a child.

My ex­pe­ri­ence of this is through my youngest brother, David, who came to my fam­ily as a fos­ter child aged 18 months.

Be­cause of the anti-adop­tion men­tal­ity, my par­ents were not per­mit­ted to adopt him un­til he was 14, and my par­ents of­ten clashed with the case of­fi­cers, who were all for re­unit­ing him with his non-ex­is­tent fam­ily and four sib­lings in mul­ti­ple-care place­ments.

How­ever, my par­ents were de­ter­mined that David not suf­fer any sense of in­se­cu­rity. He be­longed to us, and there were eight of us, and he even used our fam­ily name from the be­gin­ning. David’s life has con­firmed the im­por­tance of sta­bil­ity. He now is mar­ried with two chil­dren, owns his home and has a highly paid job.

Of course, there are some bad sto­ries about adop­tion in the past when it was al­most im­pos­si­ble for un­mar­ried women and girls to keep their chil­dren. But adop­tion is very dif­fer­ent now. Open adop­tion is the rule rather than in the past, when it was al­ways closed, and I sus­pect that over­whelm­ingly the sto­ries are bet­ter now.

The prin­ci­ple that more se­cure place­ments with a view to adop­tion for abused chil­dren would en­sure a bet­ter out­come for their fu­ture seems a no-brainer. How­ever, it has been a hard road to get to this point be­cause, for more than 40 years, adop­tion grad­u­ally be­came a bad word and rates fell dra­mat­i­cally. This was not sim­ply be­cause sin­gle moth­er­hood be­came more ac­cept­able and more doable. It was be­cause the phi­los­o­phy of child wel­fare was skewed to one of the most durable views of the Left: that child abuse was caused by poverty, which in turn put fam­i­lies un­der stress and caused chil­dren to suf­fer.

The guid­ing phi­los­o­phy was fix the fam­ily and you could fix the abuse, with re­turn­ing chil­dren to their fam­i­lies of ori­gin the ul­ti­mate aim. This is sim­plis­tic be­cause poverty is only a part of a larger pic­ture with child abuse.

Most abu­sive par­ents also are rid­dled with all sorts of patholo­gies that are al­most im­pos­si­ble to root out long term, and the chil­dren suf­fer. What is more, in one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries, where that wealth is more evenly dis­trib­uted across the pop­u­la­tion than in many other coun­tries, it is hard to be­lieve that poverty alone ac­counts for the star­tling in­crease in num­bers of chil­dren in care.

How­ever, there is one group of Aus­tralians that suf­fers both poverty and ter­ri­ble so­cial and health patholo­gies, re­sult­ing in dis­pro­por­tion­ate lev­els of child abuse and ne­glect: Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians. In­dige­nous chil­dren are nine times as likely as non­indige­nous chil­dren to be ad­mit­ted to care, but men­tion re­mov­ing in­dige­nous chil­dren from dys­func­tion and ne­glect, and the spec­tre of more “stolen chil­dren” is al­ways raised.

The Abo­rig­i­nal child place­ment prin­ci­ple that states chil­dren must be housed with in­dige­nous fam­ily mem­bers, other kin or with an in­dige­nous fos­ter carer is an in­sur­mount­able bar­rier to change in child wel­fare for Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren. For nearly 40 years this prin­ci­ple has gov­erned Abo­rig­i­nal child wel­fare. It is tra­di­tional cus­tom but it has sac­ri­ficed the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren by pre­vent­ing them find­ing per­ma­nent homes with non-in­dige­nous fam­i­lies.

And it hasn’t worked. The rate of place­ment with kin is de­clin­ing. The rate at which in­dige­nous chil­dren were re­moved from their fam­i­lies in­creased by 80 per cent be­tween 2007 and last year. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent re­port by the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion, the pro­por­tion of chil­dren placed in ac­cor­dance with the Abo­rig­i­nal child place­ment prin­ci­ple fell from 74 per cent to 67.6 per cent last year. Why? Be­cause kin fam­i­lies are over­bur­dened try­ing to look af­ter mul­ti­ple chil­dren, their own and oth­ers’.

This a na­tional tragedy and emer­gency. Yet still we hear “stolen chil­dren” and “in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma” rolled out when­ever there is any sug­ges­tion Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren should be treated in terms of place­ment like other chil­dren. But who re­ally be­lieves the “in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma-stolen chil­dren” mantra as the rea­son for to­day’s ter­ri­ble abuse and ne­glect of Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren, and how can any of that be “healed” any­way? The num­ber of in­dige­nous chil­dren in out-ofhome care has dou­bled in the decade since the apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions in 2008.

For too long the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions have been used to push an ide­o­log­i­cal race-based agenda that has noth­ing to do with the present wel­fare of Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren. Iron­i­cally, the ca­su­al­ties of this ide­ol­ogy are the Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren it is meant to pro­tect. They are left liv­ing in squalor and mis­ery in so-called com­mu­ni­ties where all the patholo­gies are rife and they are prey to every one of them, or they are trans­ferred to live with kin who are al­ready over­bur­dened and of­ten as dys­func­tional as the orig­i­nal fam­ily.

Ir­ra­tionally, we al­low over­seas adop­tions of chil­dren who have no cul­tural con­nec­tion with Aus­tralia yet a large seg­ment of our own chil­dren is al­lowed to suf­fer be­cause of a mis­guided em­pha­sis on “cul­ture” rather than ba­sic needs and se­cu­rity.

Sadly, it will be a long time be­fore Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments have the moral for­ti­tude nec­es­sary to take off the blink­ers, stand up to the ide­o­log­i­cal bul­lies and con­front the dire sit­u­a­tion of our Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren.

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