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Are our children really sacred?

By Muriel Bamblett - posted Friday, 14 December 2007

It is time for national laws to place Australia's first children first.

Sadly it comes as no surprise that the Queensland Department of Child Safety was directly involved in the case of the 10-year-old girl so brutally abused at the hands of young people in her community of Aurukun.

That the “justice” system then compounded the violation of this child by ignoring her right to expect that her abusers would be appropriately punished is also no surprise. We have seen this before and we will see it again unless, and until, we throw out the existing models of child protection and foster care and start again.


The reality is that in most rural and remote areas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children cannot count on statutory child protection authorities to protect them or to respond effectively when abuse occurs. Child protection models have been built on two assumptions that often don't operate outside of large urban cities. First, that child protection staff can get to a family and respond to critical incidents quickly and second, that within a community there will be a “supply” of well-resourced high-functioning families with whom to place a child.

Faced with this reality child protection staff make agonising decisions about when to remove a child from their family, and by implication their community, and place them in foster care a long way from home.

Placing Indigenous children in non-Indigenous foster care far removed from their community, as happened in the Aurukun case, doesn't resolve all the case issues or provide the child with all that they need. Children, all children, whatever their race or culture, want to be with their family. The best evidence and research tells us that abused children want to go home, to see their mum and dad, their brothers and sisters, their friends and peers. The child now at the centre of this latest national debate about Aboriginal children wanted to go home.

The model of foster care we operate in Australia is wrong. It is wrong for all children; it is wrong for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It is based on a false dichotomy. That a child is either with, and raised by, their birth family or by a foster family.

SNAICC, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, argues that children can and should be raised by both. There is a third way. Place children with a well supported, resourced and trained foster family to ensure children are not at risk of abuse or neglect. Set up a community visitors program and co-ordinate visits between the community and the child. Don't bounce kids around between foster care placements and home. Support foster families to raise children with the birth family - not for the birth family.

Reinforce the message that families have to raise their children well. Train the magistrates to administer the law correctly. Provide community services to heal the victims. Insist at every level, family, community and within the justice system that abuse is intolerable and will be severely punished.


On the night of the Federal election both the outgoing Prime Minister, John Howard, and the outgoing Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, in their concession speeches implored the incoming government to stick with the Northern Territory (NT) intervention. It is not insignificant that the NT intervention was singled out from everything that the government had done as the one thing that must be sustained by the new government.

The newly elected Federal ALP Government has indicated that it will largely continue with the NT intervention whilst reviewing aspects including the policy to quarantine welfare payments. Now some are calling for the NT intervention to spread to Aurukun.

Aspects of the NT intervention such as changes to the land permit system, land tenure and the appointment of administrators to manage Aboriginal communities have been criticised as not relevant to child protection. The Little Children Are Sacred report, upon which the intervention was premised, made no mention of taking over the running of communities and their assets as a precursor to protecting children from abuse.

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About the Author

Muriel Bamblett is a Yorta Yorta woman and has been national chairperson of SNAICC (Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care), Australia’s national peak body for Indigenous children, for the past ten years.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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