The experience of having her four children, including her 15-month-old son, removed from her care by authorities over a seven-year period, is still painfully raw for Helen Eason, an indigenous Australian woman.
“They take your young from you and you have so many taken, you are not whole,” she says. “Even when they come home, as much as they’re all there, all the pieces can never ever be put back together.”
Australia has a dark past when it comes to removing indigenous children from their families.
In 2008, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for last century’s government policies that saw more than 100,000 indigenous children removed from their homes and placed in institutions or with white families.
But today more indigenous children are being removed from their families than ever in the country’s history. The number has almost doubled in the decade since the apology.
Indigenous children are almost 10 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-indigenous children. And the alarming increase in removals has sparked a fierce debate about whether Australia is creating a new stolen generation as this 101 East documentary reveals.
|In the past decade, the number of Aboriginal children being taken from their families has nearly doubled [Al Jazeera]|
‘A subtle extension of the stolen generation’
The Aboriginal community is bitterly divided as to the best way to care for indigenous children at risk.
While some say children at risk must be removed from their families, others say more should be done to help keep children with their parents.
In cases where children can’t stay with their families, indigenous council executive Walter Shaw says it’s vital that they remain within Aboriginal communities.
Of the Aboriginal children in foster care, 40 percent are placed with non-indigenous families.
“If you remove Aboriginal children from the Aboriginal community, you might as well shut down Aboriginal communities,” says Shaw, chief executive of Tangentyere Council, which provides services to indigenous people in Central Australia.
“One could say that these children being placed into the care and protection of welfare and the foster care arrangements with non-Aboriginal children is that they’re being indoctrinated with values other than being Aboriginal people,” he says. “I think it’s a subtle extension of the stolen generation.”
Shaw believes kinship care is the answer.
“I think we need to move to a system where we support Aboriginal families that are functional and strong to become those foster carers.”
If you remove Aboriginal children from the Aboriginal community, you might as well shut down Aboriginal communities.
Walter Shaw, chief executive Tangentyere Council
Serious drug, alcohol and violence issues
Others argue that the most important thing is to protect children who are vulnerable to abuse, whether that means placing them with indigenous or non-indigenous carers.
Alice Spring’s town councillor, Jacinta Price, says: “There’s no point saying we’re creating another stolen generation stopping kids from being removed from really horrible circumstances.”
|Jacinta Price says protecting the children and their rights as human beings should be a top priority [Al Jazeera]|
“If a community is dysfunctional, if you take a child from one family and put them in another family but still in that community, the dysfunction is still there.
“I think we need to get past the point of separating us all from race. They deserve the same rights as any other child in this country, but putting their culture before their rights as human beings, that’s where the system is failing them,” she says.
Price says there are serious drug, alcohol and violence issues in the indigenous community.
“We’ve got the highest numbers of family violence, the highest rates of child neglect and abuse and this is why children are being removed. That’s a simple fact, and if we can’t recognise and acknowledge that, we’re not going to actually get around to fixing the problem, because it starts with actually recognising that.”
If a community is dysfunctional, if you take a child from one family and put them in another family but still in that community, the dysfunction is still there … Putting their culture before their rights as human beings, that’s where the system is failing them.
Jacinta Price, town councilor, Alice Springs
The lingering trauma of child abuse
The story of Sarah, a 16-year-old indigenous girl, shows how a flawed residential care system is failing children in need of help. Sarah says her younger years with her parents were plagued by drug and alcohol-fuelled domestic violence.
“There would be cups getting thrown, blood everywhere, mum getting bashed … just real violent stuff,” she says.
But she says being placed in residential care when she was seven years old did not provide her with a safe and caring environment.
Sarah says she stayed in more than 20 care homes over 10 years and is still traumatised by the abuse she endured at two of the care facilities.
In the Northern Territory, almost 10 percent of children in out-of-home care are abused, neglected or exploited. Sarah says she ended up living on the streets and committing crimes as a result of her experience.
Now she’s trying to turn her life around, and has started a two-year police cadet training programme.
“My past is never going to leave me, it’s always going to be there with me,” she says. “I’ve just got to learn to cope with it, I just got to learn to say, ‘oh well, that happened to me, deal with it and move on’ and that’s what I try and do. It does get hard, but I try.”