Researchers call to prevent further intergenerational trauma
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Researchers call to prevent further intergenerational trauma

by Freya Lucas

March 05, 2019

A study confirming that Aboriginal children are now ten times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be placed in out of home care has prompted researchers to call for urgent action to prevent further intergenerational trauma.


A review of national data arose following on from anecdotal reports from the Aboriginal community about increased removal of Aboriginal infants from community by child protection authorities, uncovering the concerning statistic.


Researchers examined child protection data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) for the period 2012-2016, as well as linked data from the Western Australian Departments of Communities and Health, with the departmental data used to investigate the characteristics of Aboriginal families who had had an infant removed.


The study, published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, found:


  • The number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care increased 21 per cent from 2012 to 2017, while the number of Aboriginal infants – those under the age of one year – in out-of-home care increased 17 per cent between 2013 and 2016.


  • Nationally, 56.6 per 1,000 Aboriginal children were in out-of-home care in 2016, compared to 46.6 per 1,000 in 2012. By contrast, 5.8 per 1,000 non-Aboriginal children were in out-of-home care in 2016, up only slightly from the 2012 rate of 5.4 per 1,000.


  • Similarly, the number of Aboriginal infants in care rose from 24.8 to 29.1 per 1,000 between 2013-14 – when the AIHW began collating data about children in out-of-home care under the age of one year – and 2016. Over the same period, the rates for non-Aboriginal infants rose from 2.6 to 3 per 1,000.


The key risk factors necessitating removal of children included substance use, mental health challenges, children with additional needs, and children from disadvantaged communities.


Substance abuse and mental health issues were particularly identified as factors in Aboriginal children being placed into out of home care, however each of those issues are well recognised legacies of the intergenerational trauma caused by the forced removal of children in the past.


Senior author of the paper, Professor Fiona Stanley, said the findings made clear that the inequity of experience between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children was getting worse, and would continue to do so unless urgent action was taken to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.


Professor Stanley made it clear that there was “no question that infants and children need to be removed from situations where their safety is at risk”, she said the current system is failing to address the pathways that result in those dangerous situations.


“If you look at it in the context of how traumatic the Stolen Generation was – the parenting, substance abuse and mental health problems that resulted and are still present three generations down the track – it is urgent that we now ensure that Aboriginal children who are removed are not further traumatised by this, and their children and grandchildren don’t have a similar pathway.


“That means ensuring they are placed in nurturing and supportive environments that are culturally as close to their families as possible – and supporting Aboriginal-controlled services to work with families and communities to overcome the challenges they are facing.”


Citing the $5.8 billion spent in Australia on child protection services including out-of-home care in 2017-18, Professor Stanley encouraged policy makers to consider early intervention, prevention, and working with solutions proposed and led by Aboriginal communities, “rather than being stuck in this cycle of spending billions of dollars at the end of pathways”.


Co-author Professor Rhonda Marriott, Pro Vice Chancellor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Research Director of Ngangk Yira, Murdoch University Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, said the findings showed little had been learned from previous inquiries and royal commissions, all of which had made recommendations – largely unheeded – aimed at healing the epidemic of intergenerational trauma.


“It’s a travesty that we have got to this point and people still aren’t asking the questions as to why and how should we be doing things differently,” Professor Marriott said.


Professor Marriott said that whilst child protection staff have goodwill, they are under-resourced, and a perspective that fails to consider the need to support “broken and traumatic” family situations, supporting parents to be the best they can be, and retain custody of their child.


“Overall we have a broken system and it’s larger than the Department of Communities. What we have to do is work together to find a solution, with everybody at the table – because it can’t just be a solution that’s driven by government and government organisations. The Aboriginal community has to be at that table, with everyone owning the solution.” Professor Marriott said.


The paper, Infant removals: The need to address the over-representation of Aboriginal infants and community concerns of another ‘stolen generation’, was a collaboration with Murdoch University and the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University

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