4 June 2021

Reconciliation must confront hard truths about Indigenous child removal rates

| Elizabeth Kikkert MLA
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Elizabeth Kikkert

Canberra Liberals MLA for Ginninderra Elizabeth Kikkert. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down for nearly an hour to listen to a senior Aboriginal leader. I asked him to explain to me what reconciliation means to him personally.

His first response: telling the truth.

He then shared with me difficult historical accounts that are important to him. Nothing can get better until we know the facts, he asserted.

And while it is essential to know what happened in the past, a commitment to truth-telling means that it is equally important to know what may be happening in our own time and place.

His second response: genuinely listening. As he explained, this means finding out what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would do if they had their way – and then helping to make it happen.

For far too long, decisions have been made on behalf of Indigenous Australians instead of by them or with them. But when it comes to matters that impact their families and their communities, no one knows better what they need.

A genuine commitment to self-determination requires action – especially when community desires conflict with other agendas.

I accept these principles of reconciliation as explained by my esteemed Aboriginal friend.

Accordingly, I fully support the unanimous request by community leaders that a formal board of inquiry investigate and respond to “the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT in touch with the criminal justice system or incarcerated”.

READ ALSO Why does a treaty matter and how can it help Indigenous Australians?

Indigenous Australians in Canberra have every right to ask that the facts, whatever they are, be investigated and reported. Their voices should be heard, and their request should be honoured.

Going forward, the principles of reconciliation need to shape all government decision-making. This is essential for the wellbeing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, which in several important areas, experiences more disadvantage in the ACT than in any other jurisdiction.

For example, while Indigenous Australians are proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet, those living in Canberra are nearly 20 times more likely to be locked up than non-Indigenous people – the highest ratio in the nation.

In their essence, the principles of reconciliation should characterise all human interactions. Embedding these principles will therefore benefit all of us.

An inspiring example of how this can occur comes out of Aotearoa New Zealand. Like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Canberra, Maori children had long been overrepresented in that nation’s child protection system.

Reports throughout the 1970s and 1980s highlighted issues of institutional racism, and one in 1986 recommended a “substantial ideological change” that would “cater to Maori needs”.

The government’s first response was to propose strengthening child protection teams – essentially doubling down on what it was already doing.

A new minister, however, insisted on genuine reform and in 1989 the Family Group Conference became law. This legal entitlement means that families are empowered and supported to solve child welfare concerns themselves before the government can seek a court order authorising child removal.

As a result, the number of children in the care and protection system was cut in half and Aotearoa New Zealand now has one of the lowest rates of children in care in the developed world.

As an act of reconciliation, this reform was intended to “cater to Maori needs,” and it has done so. At the same time, all kinds of families have benefitted. Family Group Conferencing has even been described as “New Zealand’s gift to the world”.

It is for these reasons that Aboriginal elders in the ACT have been asking to have a similar legal entitlement in this territory – and why I have been committed for several years to seeing this reform happen. First and foremost, such reform will strengthen vulnerable First Nations families and in doing so, it will strengthen all vulnerable families.

And because very few of us can directly impact government decisions, I also invite all Canberrans to thoughtfully consider ways that they can embed the principles of reconciliation in their individual lives.

Part of this is being informed by knowing the facts about our own communities, both past and present. We also need to care enough about our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander neighbours to act whenever an opportunity arises.

This may include calling out blatant racism or gently correcting false stereotypes. It may require no longer tolerating the kinds of statistics we have grown accustomed to hearing about in Canberra.

It will certainly involve being better people – at its core, that is what reconciliation calls on us to be.

Elizabeth Kikkert is the ACT Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and a Liberal Member for Ginninderra

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Yes, reconciliation is about telling the truth, which means honesty.
Honesty means accepting that in most cases children at risk are removed by well-intentioned, authorised and sensitive professionals from abusive, drunken, child molesting dysfunctional parents in order to place those kids with better parents and to give them a better chance at life. Honesty also means accepting that removal in many cases was premature, or avoided and delayed, both leading to adverse outcomes.
The problem now is excessively high indigenous incarceration rates. The cause of high incarceration rates is high criminality. All efforts and programs to reverse high indigenous criminality and incarceration rates have demonstrably failed. No less so than in progressive ACT where opportunities for full participation in society are available to all and specifically aimed at eliminating indigenous disadvantage. But even job creation programs, which should reduce criminality, have failed to do so.
Moves to raise the age of criminal responsibility are a deceptive retreat from efforts to deal with indigenous youth criminality.
Honesty requires examining whether these well-meaning programs are actually contributing to current high indigenous criminality/incarceration rates. Is criminality a consequence of removing a child from an abusive family, or of not removing them? Are indigenous families practices disadvantaging indigenous kids?
There are no easy solutions, but without truth and honesty there will continue to be no solutions.

This is such old news as to make readers and the general public desensitised to it.

Deborah Evans11:15 am 09 Jun 21

This article highlights a major problem with both the local and federal governments. “For far too long, decisions have been made on behalf of Indigenous Australians instead of by them or with them.” This is Govt CONSULTATION. Decisions are made by bureaucrats and then the Aboriginal community is :consulted”. Referring to New Zealand is no indicatory that their [practices will work here. Families need help is establishing pro-social and supportive environments for themselves as parents and their children.

Nick Blackwell2:15 pm 03 Jun 21

I would like to knowin the spirit of truth telling – exactly why indigenous youth are being removed from parents and why placed in the justice system and not in a welfare system. Like all situations there are at least two sides to a story. Lately we only seem to be hearing about the poor outcast indigenous person (youth) not what they did (experienced) to be placed in that situation. Please extend the stories (information) of both sides.

The problem with the descriptions of “truth telling” as described here and elsewhere is that it seems to be that the “truth” can only be told from one party in the discussion and only from one viewpoint.

I don’t possibly see how this type of action will ever achieve an outcome that will be beneficial to us as a united Australian society.

Interesting comments about New Zealand but I wish you could have included links to hard evidence.

Shouldn’t we be putting resources into making families more functional so that they can look after children properly rather than picking up the pieces through child protection ?

The truth that more non-indigenous children were removed from their parents due to welfare concerns than indigenous children were?
Or are we only looking at truths that continue the charade?

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