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Anniversary of the National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples

Government policies and processes continue to separate First Nations children from their families at alarming and disproportionate rates – on the  fifteenth anniversary of the Stolen Generations apology, ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects on a better way to support children and families at risk.

It is now fifteen years since the unanimous parliamentary apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and especially to the Stolen Generations. The apology committed Australia to carry on the process of reconciliation through symbolic and practical actions. One of these was to set a range of targets in achieving equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The targets have generally not been reached.

One obvious test of progress lies in reducing the marked discrepancy between the proportion of Indigenous children who are forcibly separated from their families, compared to non-Indigenous children separated. The 2021 Family Matters report is not reassuring.

“Where policies adopt removal as the only or the first option, they will most likely be based on prejudices as unnoticed and as harmful as those that led to the Stolen Generations.”

In Australia last year over 20,500 Indigenous children – comprising 16 per cent of all Indigenous children – were in care, separated from their families. Over 17,000 of these children were permanently separated. Less than half were placed with Indigenous carers. In comparison with the children of non-Indigenous Australians, Indigenous children are ten times more likely to be taken into care. Despite commitments, this gap has deepened over the last ten years. As a result, in 2020 the National Agreement on Closing the Gap set a target of reducing the discrepancy by 45 per cent by 2031. On present trends, however, in ten years’ time not only will the gap grow, but the number of Indigenous children in care will rise by more than half.

It is certain that to separate children from their family and culture has serious consequences for their development. Consequently, removal, and particularly permanent removal, must be a last resort. Government policy should always focus on addressing the reasons why children are at risk, and to help families and local communities to care for their children. Where policies adopt removal as the only or the first option, they will most likely be based on prejudices as unnoticed and as harmful as those that led to the Stolen Generations.

There are many reasons for this appalling sacrifice of another generation of children. The most telling statistic is that over 85 per cent of government funding of children at risk is spent on out of family care, and only 15 per cent on supporting communities and families to raise families well.

Effectively, removing Indigenous children from the parents is the solution of choice to family dysfunction.

A better way lies in Indigenous communities participating as partners, and not the object of care in the decisions that affect them, with an emphasis on prevention. In a word, a reversal of the paternalistic and discriminatory attitudes that have led to the disturbance to children’s lives.