Child protection processes in Australia have a history of injustice that disproportionately targets and harms First Nations children, families and communities.
As a result, contemporary child protection systems and associated professions have sought to distance themselves from explicitly racist past policies and practices by apologising for their past involvement in the Stolen Generations and committing to change.
Yet child protection systems continue to operate on assumptions about race and class that increase inequalities and injustices against First Nations families.
In a Queensland study published in 2018 that used data from 2010-2011, Indigeneity was found to be a greater predictor of “subsequent child protection reports and investigations than a rating of ‘high risk’ on child protection’s risk assessment tool”.
Another study in Western Australia found, when controlled for all other factors, Aboriginality was associated with almost double the risk of infant removal.
Understandings of risk, child abuse and neglect are often biased in favour of white middle-class parenting practices. This can lead to over-surveillance of First Nations families, and a flawed notification system.
First Nations styles of parenting are disregarded or considered unsafe
According to University of Utah academic Audrey Thompson, “Whiteness Theory treats whiteness not as a biological category but as a social construction.” White social constructions are often informing major decision-making in child protection practice and policies. This is because legislators and those making decisions about child protection are often white. However, families disproportionately affected by these decisions are often Indigenous.
As a result, white constructs also inform the baseline for good parenting practices in Australian child protection services. Essentially, Australian child protection systems were built around white, middle class standards of parenting. This means they often ignore cultural differences in how children are raised.
For example, many First Nations families raise their children collectively, with resources – such as food and housing – shared among family, kinship and community members.
The recent documentary The Department told the story of First Nations woman Stacey and her struggles trying to get her children returned to her care.
The size of Stacey’s house was viewed by child protection services as a barrier. Stacey complied with the department’s guidelines, including moving into a larger house with four bedrooms. Despite having two of her children in her care, the film ends with three of Stacey’s children remaining in out-of-home care.
Another case was a First Nations woman who had her baby taken from her by child protection. According to The Guardian, the chief executive officer of the First Peoples’ Health and Wellbeing Clinic said the initial assessment of this mother had been culturally inappropriate.
This ignorance of Indigenous ways of parenting could be contributing to the 20,077 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care as of 30 June 2019. According to the Family Matters Report, this represents one in every 16.6 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in Australia.
First Nations children had far higher rates of substantiations for neglect (31.8%) compared to non-Indigenous children (18.2%) in 2019-20, and lower rates of substantiations for sexual abuse.
Understandings of neglect and emotional abuse are subject to interpretation by child protection practitioners. These interpretations can be based on societal and cultural values often incompatible with collective child rearing, and do not account for the impacts of material poverty when raising children.
Families facing punishment instead of support
Currently, child protection services often punish and blame individuals for their “dysfunction” or risk. Genuine support, with a focus on addressing the drivers of child protection involvement, remains lacking.
For First Nations families, these drivers include poverty, housing issues, racism, trauma, mental health concerns, domestic and family violence, and alcohol and other drugs abuse.
Rather than offering support to First Nations families who are in dire circumstances – such as financial support – the response of child protection systems remains coercive, controlling, and punitive.
For example, reasons for emotional abuse substantiations can include children witnessing domestic and family violence. Rather than providing ways for victim-survivors of domestic and family violence (often women and children) to stay together, child removal often occurs.
There is no focus on the structures driving these problems. Instead, blame is placed on the affected individual.
As argued by Derecka Purnell, lawyer and author of Becoming Abolitionists, child protection systems in the United States are predicated on the failure of individuals to “protect” and supply their children with certain provisions. However there is limited support from these services to supply resources needed for parents to feed, clothe and house their children.
Australia’s child protection systems have the same flaws.
A flawed notification system
Increased involvement of child protection agencies with First Nations families contributes to a harmful perception among those who report issues to child protection (teachers, health professionals, police and the general public) that First Nations families ought to be surveilled more than others.
This becomes a vicious circle, increasing the number of reports, contributing to the overrepresentation of First Nations children in child protection and out-of-home care.
Anyone in the community can make a notification of alleged child abuse or neglect to child protection authorities. The concerned neighbour, the midwife at the maternity hospital, the teacher in the classroom, or the police officer responding to a family violence call-out.
They do not need to supply substantive proof or evidence of the alleged harm. They need only have “reasonable belief” of harm or potential harm. Their judgement as to what constitutes child abuse or neglect is at their discretion. The notifier can also remain anonymous to the family who are the target of the allegation.
Once a notification of alleged child abuse or neglect has been made to child protection authorities, the likelihood of future allegations increases. This is because an allegation in and of itself serves as another “risk factor”.
Child protection authorities hold the power to investigate any allegation of child abuse or neglect made to their jurisdiction. But affected families are left with no choice but to comply with child protection’s directives. These families often feel voiceless, powerless and in fear of a system that continues to remove First Nations children at disproportionate rates (despite making commitments to change).
Social workers have acknowledged the harms of past practices. However they remain complicit in child protection systems that continue to inflict harm against First Nations families and communities. These practices have resonance with the Stolen Generations.
Changing child protection systems requires more than apologies and acknowledgements of past harms. On-paper reforms, such as the commissioning of independent reviews into child protection systems without fully implementing the recommendations, ring hollow. As a result, child protection systems continue to cause harm to another generation of First Nations children and families.
It needs to be accepted that understandings of “risk” in Australian child protection systems have been built on racial discrimination and biased understandings of “good parenting”.
Transformation of these systems requires investment in prevention and early intervention, confronting whiteness in these practices, and improving cultural awareness about different styles of parenting.
These are a vital steps in addressing the structural drivers of involvement with child protection systems.
Better support for First Nations families to stay together is needed to avoid more generations of stolen children.
Jacynta Krakouer, Research Fellow, Monash University; Alex Bhathal, Lecturer, La Trobe University; Catherine Chamberlain, Professor Indigenous Health Equity, The University of Melbourne; James C. Beaufils, Research fellow, University of Technology Sydney; Paul Gray, Associate professor, Jumbunna Insitute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney, and Tatiana Corrales, Research Fellow, Monash University