On the tape an Aboriginal mother pleads through sobs for the chance to breastfeed her baby over the weekend. “We’ll see what we can do,” a caseworker tells her. The mother’s appeals give way to plaintive weeping as the officers’ voices grow distant. The baby’s cries grow distant, too, as the child is taken with them. The recording, made secretly on a phone one recent Friday in a rural New South Wales home, makes plain what former prime minister Kevin Rudd said on the separation of children from their parents: “The sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.”
It’s known as a “Friday Afternoon Special” – officers from Family and Community Services (FACS) turn up during the final office hour of the week, sometimes flanked by as many as eight police, with a court order to forcibly remove a child. By the time they leave, services that would help parents see their children over the weekend, or mount a legal case for the court date that will follow in a matter of days, are all closed.
FACS says such timing is not agency policy. NSW deputy chief executive, operations, Deidre Mulkerin, says “a jigsaw” of circumstances determines when a child is removed, including when a court deems the child at risk of significant harm. Police presence is the exception not the rule, too, says Mulkerin. “We run a 24-hour helpline; parents are given that contact,” she adds, before conceding it is unlikely parents will seek advice from the agency that just took their children.
Planned or not, the timing works in the agency’s favour, says NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge. “It has the effect of disempowering the parents, and it is of benefit to a department that wants no opposition to their decision to remove
Aboriginal children across Australia are removed from their parents in hugely disproportionate numbers. In NSW, it’s epidemic: a record-setting 6200 – almost one in 10 – Aboriginal children are currently in out-of-home care. NSW has 18,000 children in care, far more than any other state. More than one-third of these children come from Aboriginal families, though they account for just 4 per cent of the child and young adult population.
The current government is committed to bringing NSW into line with the rest of the country by 2019. It promises to shift focus to early intervention – recognising substance abuse or mental health issues with parents and trying to get them the help that they need – and minimising time in care, either by returning children home faster or adopting them out permanently. Aboriginal children are crucial to delivering on this commitment, but for this group critics say the method remains: remove first, ask questions later.
“I’m not saying there’s not need for these services, but you’ve got to work with the families to deal with this issue, not rip them apart,” says Aunty Hazel, from Grandmothers Against Removals, a group of Gunnedah women who formed to protest a spate of removals across the New England area. She says care plans for parents affected by removals are punitive and geared towards failure.
“There’s a patronising attitude. When there’s drugs involved, it doesn’t matter how many clear drug screens they do,” she says. “My aunty and my grandmother were taken as kids, now I’m a grandmother and it’s my grandkids that I’m not getting to see. It’s so wrong.”
David Shoebridge has taken up the cause of the Grandmothers, proclaiming a “new Stolen Generation”. That prompted right-wing columnist Miranda Devine to label Shoebridge a “disgrace” but, strictly in numbers terms at least, his analogy is apt. In the landmark “Sorry” speech, Rudd estimated 50,000 children were taken between 1910 and 1970. Children are no longer removed on the basis of race but, at the current rate of more than 1000 new Aboriginal removals a year, NSW alone would accomplish that number in the same time frame.
“They have a policy for removal but no clear path or policy for restoration,” Shoebridge says. “Perhaps sitting in a FACS office in Sydney thinking about this issue at an academic level, you lose touch with the raw emotions involved. They don’t quite understand the level to which they’re distrusted.”
Some of the choices FACS faces are impossible. In late March, former NSW community services minister Pru Goward secured reforms to the childcare act that will streamline adoptions. The idea is to minimise time in temporary foster care, where among other issues, children risk developmental problems from being bounced from carer to carer. But the children most at risk, Aboriginal children, were made exempt from key changes, the result of political sensitivity surrounding permanent adoption of Indigenous Australians. At the same time, in extreme cases where FACS decides there is no chance of reuniting Indigenous families, the new laws require the agency to develop an open adoption plan immediately; a provision Shoebridge fears may be open to exploitation by overzealous caseworkers and judges.
In NSW, where the Indigenous population is growing steadily, some children are born into developing world environments. In the majority-Aboriginal town of Wilcannia, a baby boy can expect to live to just 37. Eight out of 10 mothers smoke during pregnancy and 13 per cent of babies are born underweight. It’s in this context that FACS gets blamed for doing both too much, and too little.
The agency draws harsh criticism for its low response rate to reports of harm. The NSW ombudsman identified that reports of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children receive a face-to-face response in just 26 per cent of cases. Yet one in 10 cases of child sexual abuse in NSW involve Aboriginal children. Typically 10 risk-of-harm reports have been made to FACS before an incident of child sex abuse is discovered. On top of this, Indigenous abuse remains chronically underreported, according to the ombudsman, the symptom of an abiding mistrust of welfare agencies. Several people I spoke to in Aboriginal services say some people fear seeking help at places such as women’s refuges, where employees must alert FACS to domestic violence.
Aunty Hazel frames the blunt reality this way: “The golden rule is: walk into the refuge, walk out without your kids.”
“The concern isn’t mandatory reporting,” says Shoebridge. “It’s what happens after that. The response is to remove the child from the danger – [but] they should be removing the mother, too. Instead the kid’s whisked off a couple hundred kilometres away.”
The stated priority in out-of-home care is to place children within the community. But in Aboriginal areas, many relatives are not considered for care.
“Unless the grandmother has rejected her own daughter, they refuse to consider her,” says Shoebridge. “That decision is being made time and again. What looks like a non-discriminatory approach in practice has a discriminatory impact.”
Aunty Hazel says parents need better visiting access, to help preserve the family structure.
“My daughter sees her children four times a year, for two hours. How is that maintaining a family connection? You’re constantly monitored. You can’t take the grandchild to the toilet, this sort of thing. It’s not a natural environment. You get treated like criminals.”
The NSW Department of Community Services refuses to say how often Indigenous families are reunited after children have been removed, saying only that the rates “remain static”.
However, in Lightning Ridge and nearby Walgett – two small rural towns with large Aboriginal populations and dire socioeconomic trends in the state’s north-west – positive changes are occurring.
In 2009, community services forcibly removed up to 41 Aboriginal children from Lightning Ridge. There is disagreement over the exact number, but it is agreed it included a 14-day-old baby taken directly from hospital. The baby and its five siblings were scattered to various corners of NSW and placed with non-relatives. The baby’s parents made a 1600-kilometre round trip to deliver bottles of breast milk. One mother said the caseworkers, far from being helpful, were like “rottweilers in a chook pen”.
Some local mothers formed the Wirringah Women’s Group, demanding the state ombudsman intervene. In August 2009, four officers led by NSW deputy ombudsman Steve Kinmond descended on the town.
The officers’ surprisingly simple solution was to deputise the women. Kinmond says his taskforce didn’t focus on whether the removals had been justifiable, but instead made the welfare agents and the Wirringah group work together to bring the children back to Lightning Ridge. The arrangement led to FACS hiring several women from the Wirringah group.
The removal rate in both Lightning Ridge and Walgett plummeted – to zero – for the next three years. Today all but three of the approximately 40 children have been restored to their birth parents.
Kinmond is not surprised. “When a respected Aboriginal person is working with the family, people are more likely to listen. They can keep the child within kin, without the need for statutory court order,” he says. “It’s absolutely essential for success.”
The Wirringah women were able to identify trustworthy carers prior to removals, and help co-ordinate early intervention in at-risk homes.
“These women were extremely well placed in the community to create options,” Kinmond says. “To us the real issue is when you don’t have options on the table.”
Loretta Schuler, one of the Wirringah mothers, says the purpose was simply to make FACS adhere to its own policies around early intervention and kin placement. Now a caseworker at the Walgett FACS office, she retains a healthy dose of cynicism about the arrangement.
“They employed us to shut us up,” she says with a laugh. She also says layers of bureaucracy are ineffective in identifying real problems – if she subjected herself to the risk-assessment test, she says, she’d probably fail. Nonetheless, when a child was removed in Walgett last year, it was Schuler herself who did it – alone. She had been working so closely with the troubled mother that when she arrived, the mum was waiting out the front of the house with the child, ready to hand him over. Schuler took the boy straight into the care of the grandparents.
“I did it in the least intrusive way possible,” she says. “The police wanted to come. I said, ‘No I’m going to do this myself.’ ”
Schuler cries going to work and is crying when she comes home. “This job really opened up my eyes,” she says. “But all these people are my mob. It’s our community, we’ve got to be responsible for each other. We can bring up these children, we’ve had plenty of practice.”
Back in New England, the Grandmothers Against Removals are busy planning a protest on National Sorry Day later this month outside FACS offices around the country, calling for the immediate review of the cases of 20 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
But the group also recently secured support from the Tamworth FACS office to trial an agency that would work between FACS and Aboriginal communities. If successful, the grandmothers propose the trial scheme, called the Aboriginal Community Liaison Committee, be rolled out nationally. Kinmond, from the ombudsman’s office, says they are looking closely at the situation, too.
“We’re not holding our breath,” says Aunty Hazel, who has worked as a nurse in Gunnedah for 30 years. “But if we can save just one kid, it’ll be worth it.”
In 1997, when the Bringing Them Home Report officially addressed the Stolen Generations, recent figures showed 2400 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. That report said welfare departments in all jurisdictions “fail to consult adequately, if at all, with Indigenous families and communities and their organisations” and “fail to address children’s wellbeing on Indigenous terms”.
Today, the number of Aboriginal children in care is more than five times higher than in 1997, and despite a peak body for Aboriginal out-of-home care in NSW, the Grandmothers of Gunnedah note a total absence of communication between their community and welfare agencies. For Aunty Hazel it’s like the Stolen Generations didn’t end at all.
“The stories are the same, just the voices and the faces are different,” she says.