the terrible choice facing too many Indigenous women



There are two choices. Taking the bashing, or losing your kids.

That’s it, the choice for some Indigenous women in Australia, says the chief executive of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, Antoinette Braybrook.

Indigenous women are so afraid their children will be removed they continue to endure violence just to keep their families together. They’ve seen what happened to their own mothers torn from their mothers. And they don’t want it to happen again. Braybrook’s been in this struggle for decades and can tell you that these women are too frightened to call for help. If they call the police, they know the police will end up notifying child protection.

“And then your kids will be taken from you, just like that,” she says. “There are more kids being removed now from their mums and their families than at any time since settlement.”

Sometimes gone for a month, placed in out-of-home care. Then gone for a year, then gone forever.

Just one week ago, Braybrook stood before the parliamentary inquiry into a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence and begged them to understand what was happening to Indigenous families.

White Australians are watching it all happen again. After that feelgood moment of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, the number of Indigenous children removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care has risen by 65 per cent.

Risen by 65 per cent. Wasn’t that Sorry enough to tell us it had to stop?

These numbers are heartbreaking – the latest figures from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare show Indigenous kids between the ages of one and nine are 11 times more likely to be away from their families than non-Indigenous kids.

As of June last year, nearly 17,000 lived away from their mothers. That’s soared since 1993, when “Indigenous children were seven times more likely to be in substitute care than their population share would indicate”, and that’s straight from the Australian Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home report, ordered because Australia knew then it had a national emergency. Twenty years later, the emergency is worse. Much worse.

That’s why Antoinette Braybrook spoke passionately on their behalf last Monday to try to get some justice for the women and their children. Some justice and by that she means equal access to justice.

But she despairs and Olga Havnen is with her. Havnen, whose work in Indigenous communities has gone on for decades, with the Fred Hollows Foundation and a host of other NGOs, was once the Northern Territory’s Co-ordinator General for Remote Services. Now she’s chief executive officer of the Aboriginal community-controlled Danila Dilba​ Health Service in Darwin.

She knows all that must be known about the threats to Indigenous families and yet even she is staggered by the rate of child removal in circumstances of family violence.

“Why wouldn’t you remove the offender?” she asks. “It just beggars belief that we have got this stupid bloody notion of removing the children. You don’t make it safer for anyone else if you don’t remove the offender.”

She makes a good point that Australia turns its back on violence against women. All too hard, she says. Whether it’s Indigenous women in remote communities or university students, “Australia turns a blind eye”. 

Havnen says the rates of child removal are increasing just as the age of these removed is decreasing. Children are removed for a brief time, then if family reunification can’t be achieved then the time in out-of-home care is extended.

“There’s been a big push on long-term placement orders but if you can’t do that in 12 months, then they are gone for good.”

And Havnen fears an emerging scandal. She says foster families have no trouble looking after a tiny baby or small child but as the children grow, challenges emerge.

“These children are likely to have cognitive, behavioural and developmental problems because of all their vulnerabilities.” And then no one wants them. That’s on top of the struggle to place Indigenous kids with families who are Indigenous – one-third of children are placed in homes with no family or Indigenous connection.

So here are these two women, Braybrook and Havnen, their experience stretching nearly 4000 kilometres from Darwin to Melbourne and into remote and rural regions. And they are fighting the same system they’ve been fighting for decades.

Back in 2002, Braybrook, the head of the then newly established AFVPLS, put together a set of recommendations she thought would protect Indigenous women and children from having their lives and families ripped asunder by white Australian social structures and by the Australian legal system. Some should have been easy – how hard can it be to make early identification of Aboriginality in the family law system? Others much tougher. Getting magistrates to behave with increased cultural awareness and sensitivity is a work in very slow progress.

Last week, Braybrook presented more or less those same 18 recommendations to the parliamentary inquiry. In all that time, little has changed.

That’s actually wrong. Something has changed. For the worse.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a Fairfax Media columnist.



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