Empowering Indigenous communities to prevent child abuse and neglect

Many Indigenous families fear the welfare system. AAP Image/Neda Vanovac

In some jurisdictions of Australia, the rate of Indigenous children in foster, kinship and residential care on any one night has reached almost one in ten. This rate is almost ten times higher than non-Aboriginal children and has steadily increased over the past decade. Contrast this with rates of non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care, which have stabilised in most jurisdictions.

For Aboriginal children and their families, significant spending on responses has yielded little, if any, benefit on the ground. This paradox is the result of long-standing mutual distrust between families and child protection services, a reliance on responses that are mobilised only after harm is suspected, and a failure to address the factors that drive abuse or neglect in Indigenous families.

Mutual distrust

The policies of removing children have had a profound and enduring effect on the emotional and social well-being of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As Aunt Sue Blacklock, Chair of Winangay Resources and the Australian Centre for Child Protection’s inaugural Ambassador for Children, explains:

For many Aboriginal children, being removed from the family home also means loss and disconnection from their local community, from their culture and land. This sense of loss of identity and culture, dispossession and separation from local community is the same as those experienced by the Stolen Generations.

Current child protection methods marginalise the most disadvantaged and may make them scared to identify problems or ask for help. For many families, the fear and distrust of “the welfare” has significant impacts on parenting, safety for children and opportunities to receive help.

Indigenous representatives in the House of Representatives listen as then prime minister Kevin Rudd delivers the apology to the stolen generation on February 13, 2008. AAP Image/Stefan Postles

In recognition of this harm and suffering, Aboriginal community leaders developed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle in the 1980s. The principle upholds the rights of the child’s family and community to have some control and influence over decisions about their children. It also prioritises options that should be explored when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is placed in care.

The principle has been adopted in legislation or policy in all Australian states and territories. However, recent reviews estimate it has been fully applied in only 15% of child protection cases involving Aboriginal children. Research has shown that where families have greater involvement in decision making in child protection, there is greater trust and less adversarial relationships between families and child protection services.

Delayed response

A number of inquiries and policymakers have recommended earlier intervention and prevention support for Indigenous families. But there remains little assistance for Aboriginal children and families to get help before parenting problems reach crisis point.

In the Northern Territory (NT), around three-quarters of notifications to child protection services were deemed to require support other than a child protection response. Many of these children do not receive such a response, and the concerns about their well-being may go unaddressed. Problems that could have benefited from early support worsen until they reach a threshold for statutory intervention.

Relying only on tertiary systems, which are designed to intervene once harm is suspected of occurring, is expensive, harmful and dehumanising for children and their families. Community members and policymakers liken this focus on responding to harm rather than preventing it as “the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff”.

Governments have failed to implement recommendations for earlier intervention and prevention services, or have implemented them poorly by providing services that are not based on evidence of best practice. At times authorities have failed to pay attention to the workforce and training needs of staff delivering programs for families, or have ignored the needs and strengths of communities.

This has meant that significant investments have not yielded the anticipated results. It has also meant that children and families might never receive the programs and supports that could be of potential benefit for them.

Towards innovative responses

Innovation in child abuse prevention and child protection responses for Aboriginal children is growing. The evidence base to help inform what might prevent harm and reduce intergenerational trauma within Aboriginal families is also getting stronger.

The strategies with the most promise have been developed by and with Aboriginal organisations and individuals. They focus on:

  • family and community responsibility for raising children
  • evidence-based approaches to early intervention and responding to child abuse and neglect
  • engaging families in service design and delivery
  • mobilising community and family resources for caring for children.

Promising examples include the Let’s Start program, which has been running in the Tiwi Islands (and other NT sites) for several years. This program has been well evaluated and focuses on improving parenting skills and promoting parent–child attachment for children with behavioural problems.

The Family Group Conferencing program has been trialled in Alice Springs. It brings together extended members of children’s families to share concerns about children, extend protective networks and link families to supports. It also makes plans for children’s protection and care.

These approaches empower Aboriginal communities to respond to problems in an evidence-based way. Neda Vanovac/AAP Image

For Aboriginal parents affected by poor social and emotional wellness, including mental health problems, the Family Wellbeing Program has been used and evaluated in a number of settings and been shown to have positive outcomes for participants. It has a specific focus on empowerment and personal development of Indigenous people through sharing stories, discussing relationships and identifying goals for the future.

The Winangay Aboriginal Kinship Carer Assessment Tools have been developed out of concern about the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and the lack of support for many kinship carers. These assessment and support planning tools are undergoing a large-scale evaluation in Queensland.

These approaches represent a seismic shift in working with Aboriginal families and children – from a “power over” to a “power sharing” relationship, and hopefully to an empowering one. The approaches also include a clear focus on the professional development of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers to undertake this work in a culturally safe and evidence-based way.

There is often talk of Aboriginal communities taking “ownership” of the most challenging issues. Aboriginal communities are very capable of identifying clear, workable solutions to the problems they face in caring for their children. But they must be given the support and resources to do so and to operate within a system that focuses on preventing harm.

This is the eighth part of The Conversation’s series on Child Protection in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other instalments: