After the Apology: Paddy Gibson on today's forced removal of Aboriginal children

Kinderling News & Features

Most Australians know about the Stolen Generations.  Many would think that the removal of Indigenous children from their families is in the past. In reality these actions of the past are still going on in the present.

Paddy Gibson is a senior researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Research and Education. He has contributed to After The Apology, a new documentary that shows the removal of children from their families is still very much happening today. 

Paddy joined Kinderling Conversation to talk about the film, the issues facing Aboriginal children today, and what needs to be done to stop this in its tracks. 

Shevonne Hunt: How did you get involved in research for this film?

Paddy Gibson: In the Northern Territory today there are explicitly discriminatory laws which allow Aboriginal people's income to be controlled, their land to be controlled, police to have special powers over Aboriginal people, by virtue of the fact that they live on Aboriginal land. So, I was working with Larissa [Behrendt from the Jumbunna Institute] to research more about the impacts of that policy and travelling around communities in the Northern Territory. I was speaking with people about their experiences and through those conversations I was getting approached, increasingly frequently actually, by women, often young women asking if I could do anything to assist getting their children back. And I'm ashamed to say this was quite a shock to me. 

I didn't realise the extent to which Aboriginal kids were being removed in the contemporary era. I certainly knew about the history but in the contemporary era this is of epidemic proportions really, the rate of child removal now. So that was my first exposure to the issue. I did quite a bit of work with Larissa's guidance and got very involved in a number of child protection cases, going in and supporting the family in their attempts to advocate for change in the circumstances to the department. They might not have had any access at all to their children, they wanted to establish a regime of contact visits and moving towards trying to actually have those children reunified with their family. And through that process it was just so confronting to realise the way the system is so stacked against Aboriginal families. You know they're this very, very powerful agency the Child Protection Agency, and Aboriginal people are essentially powerless in that situation. 

Shevonne: Is it mainly happening in the Northern Territory or is it happening all over Australia? 

Paddy: Moving back to New South Wales I came to realise the extent to which this was happening ... This is happening in the City of Sydney, including inner Sydney. And actually, the rate of removal in New South Wales and Victoria is far greater than that that exists in the Northern Territory. So, in a lot of ways through the intervention in the Northern Territory, what they've done is basically built a child protection or child removal bureaucracy where one didn't exist before. 

Listen to Paddy on Kinderling Conversation:

They put an enormous amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars and continue to put hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Commonwealth funding towards building up this bureaucracy that essentially operates to have surveillance of communities, and remove children from those communities. It doesn't really perform any other functions than those two things. And this is very confronting up there. But they are importing into the Northern Territory something that's existed on the East Coast for a lot longer. 

Shevonne: When most people hear of children being removed in the modern context, they assume that it's because the child is being neglected and needs to be removed for their own safety. What did you see that was not this case? 

Paddy: The reality is that Aboriginal children across Australia are very often in very vulnerable situations by virtue of their socioeconomic position; a lot of communities are systematically underfunded. People living in overcrowded houses, sometimes access to a consistent water supply is actually an issue. There's really serious poverty and there's really serious social marginalisation which affects ability to get employment, education, etc. Structural neglect by the government is extreme and something certainly needs to be done about it. 

But the response from the government to that is to essentially blame the impoverished families for their circumstances. And often because people are in such a position, it will manifest in ways that there are threats to kids you know like alcohol misuse, substance misuse, high rates of family violence, high rates of homelessness. I've seen plenty of child protection cases where homelessness is the main rationale for removing the children. 

But rather than saying, 'well what do we do to address that issue?' which is a systemic issue, how do we get resources to Aboriginal communities to be able to develop on their own terms? 

The response is to fund a child removal bureaucracy and essentially remove increasing numbers of children. It is a policy approach which blames individual families rather than looking at the systemic issues. 

Shevonne: If children are in a risky, vulnerable situation and need to be taken from their immediate family, should they be kept in their kinship circle? 

Paddy: Absolutely. I would go a step further and say that in a lot of cases actually, kids can stay with their parents if there was proper support, particularly if it's Aboriginal led and that's actually coming from communities themselves, who know what they need. Personally, I think forced removal of children just shouldn't be a policy option. There are plenty of other things you can do to try and alleviate dangerous situations that some children might be in. Sure, the circumstances might not be the best for those kids, it’s not acceptable for children to witness ongoing substance abuse issues, intense family violence or aren’t being supervised and can’t be in that house any longer. But with a little bit of resource to provide more stable accommodation, more stable employment options, family support programs, if their kids are taken from people who have mental health problems, that requires mental health treatment and support, not exacerbating that situation by ripping the children away. 

If there were proper respect and resourcing for Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal families, the children would not have to be ripped away from their family. You'd be able to go in and work with the broader family network and come up with living arrangements for the children which means they stay with family, they stay safe, and they don't go through the traumatic experience of being forcibly removed, which is what we're watching and what we're dealing with now. And we're talking about serious trauma turning up with large numbers, of police ripping children away screaming in the middle of the night, dumping them with strangers and then for weeks or months on end they don't actually see anyone who is familiar to them. They go through placement after placement in these short-term care homes. This is child abuse. 

But if Aboriginal communities were properly resourced, you know with the resources that they deserve to be able to try and develop on their own terms and have their own priorities for looking after their families, it wouldn't be necessary to have what we have now - this punitive child removal system. 

Shevonne: What kind of impact does this have on families who are already survivors of the stolen generations and have seen the impact of forced removal before? 

Paddy: This is one of the most confronting elements of a lot of this work. When you're working with families where we’re literally talking about five generations of removal. That really is just such a testament to how destructive this whole policy approach is; going in and disrupting family relationships, ripping kids apart, dumping them with strangers. It has ongoing intergenerational consequences and you look at any report, any report at all, it will tell you the prisons are full of people who've been through the child removal system. The suicide statistics, again so much overrepresentation of people who've been through the child removal system, and very unfortunately when you're talking about the statistics that Aboriginal communities are grappling with, we're talking about a crisis of global proportions. There aren't other oppressed groups of people in the world that are suffering to this extent and are being punished to this extent. 

Shevonne: What changes need to be made to stop this practice? 

Paddy: Resources in the hands of Aboriginal communities themselves must come now. Next year they have already budgeted for more than a billion dollars to be spent on the out-of-home care system for Aboriginal kids. Why can't we have a guaranteed budget of billions of dollars for actual community development that's going to lead to productivity, productive outcomes not just for the Aboriginal communities, but for the broader Australian community - actually doing things that are needed, that those communities need? Building the housing, building the infrastructure, looking after the land, all of the things that so many Aboriginal communities are denied that other Australians take for granted. If there was that level of resource to urgently trying to deal with poverty that exists, but also funding community based family support programs that can recognise when there are families that are in crisis, can make sure that they have support and have the support that they need, can make decisions independent of the department, actual Aboriginal community organisations having the power to make decisions about living arrangements for children when it's not suitable for children to be staying within their house.

Those are the sorts of changes that you know we're calling for through our film, but have already been put on the table in the Bringing Them Home report of 1997. It talked about the historic process of child removal and the fact that it was actually an act of genocide by Australian governments. Then they analysed the then contemporary child protection system where things were nowhere near as bad as they are today. They were saying back in '97 'This is a crisis. You're taking kids that don't need to be taken.'

We need Aboriginal control of decision making and we need resources in the communities to deal with this systematic neglect.

For more on After the Apology and where to see it, check out their website.