Source: Australian Human Rights Commission
Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Traditional Owners yani u. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani. Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.
Thank you to Tim Ireland and AbSec for inviting me to speak to you all today. I also want to acknowledge and sincerely thank all the community groups and organisations from across New South Wales who are running community-designed, led and owned and culturally grounded programs for our children and our families. Your work is so important.
As the first woman to hold the position of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner the recognition, realisation and the ongoing fight for the human rights of our Indigenous peoples is my life, my lived reality.
I know firsthand how difficult it is for organizations and peak bodies such as Absec and others here today to do the critical social justice work of keeping our families and children together, and the constant battles with what can seem like insurmountable political barriers. I also have experienced the personal toll of child removal from one generation to the next – that it is a pain like no other and should never happen.
Like the theme of this conference, I am acutely aware of the importance of our families and kin, based in strong communities, bound together by our law and culture that can drive healing, help in reconnection and bring a resurgence of intergenerational care and responsibility for everyone and everything. This is how we grow strong kids, how we’ve brought them into a connected, embracing and vibrant world since the beginning of time.
This connection of family support, of motherly lineage and teaching was severed for so many who were stolen. But our stolen generations resilience is like no other.
Within the fabric of our society are our inherent and remarkable strengths which include resilience and survival, enabling us to live beyond extreme and brutal assaults on our society and personhood.
Still, the grief of disconnection from the places and people we belong to can be so overwhelming that it’s indescribable. We talk about it as trauma – one that is intergenerational and complex, affecting us all.
We have overwhelming evidence that shows the impact of trauma on the stolen generation. We know the same to be true of our children taken today. Their life outcomes can be so poor across a range of indictors from education to health, employment and life expectancy that the removal of our children is one of Australia’s most serious human rights concerns.
Despite this evidence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be removed at an alarming rate. Our children make up over 36 per cent of all children living in out-of-home care across the country and are 10 times more likely to be taken away from their families than non-Indigenous children.
This rate is only increasing, evidence that the system is fundamentally broken.
 If we fail to change the course, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will more than triple over the next 20 years.
I know many of you are all well versed in the numbers. They have always been shocking, unacceptable, and should never be our reality.
The numbers must be reversed. For this to happen we have to know the lives, the stories and histories that sit behind the statistics. This data cannot remain faceless it has to be told through our words and our experiences, our strengths and resilience, and our hope commitment and determination for a different future.
I firmly believe that the strongest voice, the voice that provides us with solutions and the best possible pathway forward is the voice of lived experience.
These voices are on the ground, in our communities and families all across Australia.
That is why in 2017, the first thing I did as the Social Commissioner was to launch the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning women’s voices in my language Bunuba. Over the course of 2018 I travelled Australia to hear directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls about what matters to them their strengths, challenges, aspirations and solutions. It has been 33 years since the 1986 Women’s Business report, the last time we heard from our women and girls at the national level.
Across the country, throughout the Wiyi Yani U Thangani engagements our women were unequivocal when it came to the rights of their children to access culturally appropriate care and education; to be free from direct and systemic discrimination; and to remain deeply connected to their culture, families and communities throughout their lives.
Our women spoke about how they work around the clock in multiple roles wearing many hats to keep our social infrastructure and communities functioning, while maintaining our cultural obligations. Women have also spoken about being the primary carers and nurturers growing our children into healthy adults, ensuring they have the confidence and security to embrace all opportunities right from the beginning of their lives.
Throughout the engagements women discussed needing a system that enables them to be all of who they are, to do all their work, and to keep kids safe. They have spoken of needing holistic supports where education, regional economies, jobs, housing, childcare and mental, spiritual health are all interconnected, while informed and grounded in our culture and lived realities.
These are all the factors – the things we call social, cultural and economic determinants – that provide our children the lives they deserve that are their rights.
But, it is these foundational rights to housing, food, education, health and financial security that women have told me are far from guaranteed, and rather than actively realised through structural supports, are being undermined.
It is the conditions of poverty, they said, that result in our children being stuck in a pattern of structural disadvantage where they can too easily be caught in the revolving door of institutionalisation and lifetimes spent moving from child protection, juvenile detention and adult incarceration.
Women have said to me repeatedly that this is another stolen generation.
Young people placed in out of home care are 16 times more likely than those who are not to be under youth justice supervision in the same year. It is perhaps most distressing that the Royal Commission into Deaths in custody found a strong relationship between out-of-home care and deaths in custody. Of the 99 deaths investigated in 1991 it was found that almost half had previously been removed from their parents.
As we all stand with Yuendumu and call for justice to end deaths in custody we have to call out these systemic failings, where the overrepresentation of children in care, driven and compounded by poverty, makes unimaginable crisis all the more likely in our communities.
Despite this appalling trajectory we are not seeing the determined leadership from governments to change the course. Investments remain weighted toward crisis interventions and institutional responses, instead of preventative enabling approaches. In 2017-18, only 17% of overall child protection funding was invested in support services for children and their families, while 83% was invested in child protection services.
A system that is siloed, operating free of our lived realities and contexts, segments our families across service sectors and institutions. When it comes to the protection, care and support of our children this approach is disastrous as there is limited focus on the systemic interconnected issues that need to be resolved for children to remain at home, and the vital supports that our parents and families need to keep children with them.
For example, women have raised issues of a severe housing shortage, with options and housing supports, this is particularly dangerous when women are needing to leave inadequate housing, overcrowding and escape violence, abuse and other harmful situations.
All States and Territories having now introduced legislative timeframes prescribing specific time limits (typically between 1–2 years) for children to transition from out-of-home care to permanent care, parents are needing to quickly demonstrate that they have stable housing. Given the lengthy waiting times for a severely limited social housing stock and crisis and transitional housing, there is significant concern that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are at a high risk of losing their children permanently through no fault of their own, but rather as a consequence of systemic failures in housing policy and availability.
The experience of child removals because of systemic failures is so common amongst our families, that our women have spoken to me about their fear and avoidance of engaging with services that are meant to support them for the justifiable fear that it will tear their families apart, indefinitely.
To effectively respond to the systemic issue’s women have spoken about we have to break the cycle of inequality and interventions.
Together it is people like yourselves, here today, who need to imagine what a completely different system would look like and to make that a reality.
I have heard the clarity in our peoples voices that solutions and ways of working need to be grounded in community led initiatives. Again, I have thought much about the Warlpiri over recent days and the innovative and focused approaches they’ve taken to supporting their youth over recent decades, establishing the Warlpiri youth development aboriginal program designed to create positive and meaningful pathways for all young Warlpiri people, and the Kurdiji 1.0 app to strengthen culture and identity to reduce suicides. These are award winning programs. Imagine if our systems where to wrap-around what our community knows best instead of increased law enforcement and intervention.
Families know that to do this we need to flip the system from crisis to prevention investment. For this to happen, Governments at all levels must change ways of working so that processes, policies, programs and services are community-led, strengths-based and trauma-informed.
When it comes to working with our children, at such formative determining years of life, it is even more critical that we develop therapeutic supports and interventions designed to keep our children connected to who they are – to their country, kin, family and communities. For this to meaningfully happen we need wrap-around supports for families and viable alternatives to all forms of institutionalisation so our children actually have the choice of staying in community and with extended family networks.
In this respect, a genuine commitment to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle is so important. Women have reported to me the failure of the departments they work for in placing children with Indigenous carers, even when they recommend a suitable option. This should not happen. There has to be greater transparency and accountability for such decisions. We have the most extensive family and kinship system in the world, and in the absence of family our people develop strong community and friendship networks – I guarantee with the right supports we always have somewhere to place our children. We have to make this happen.
Of course, these approaches and recommendations are not new. We all continue to raise them. There have been countless reports from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, to Bringing them Home and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory amongst many other reviews and inquiries.
These are volumes of extensive research, thousands of hours of work, heart breaking witness testimonies, and evidence-based recommendations, all of which have been shelved.
At this point in time, with the evidence at hand, and our voices singing out loud and clear in vigils and protests across the country, we need to put an end to governments, policy makers and bureaucrats thinking they know our lives better than we do. They don’t.
This is why when we release Wiyi Yani U Thangani we will be calling for reforms that respond to what our women have said, that to be truly self-determining, while rectifying injustices and disadvantages in our lives, we must be at every decision-making table, and our voices must be central to designing policy and legislation. How many more reports will it take? This acceptance by governments of crisis caused by the system, not us, must end.
It’s time we get the permanent seats that we deserve at the decision-making table of this nation. This is one of the reasons why I have taken a position on the Minister of Indigenous Australians’ Voice Co-Design Senior Advisory Group.
As a group we will be considering a robust process of co-design. I believe we can set a precedent for the way that governments at all levels must work with our peoples from the ground up.
Co-design in essence: is nothing about us, nothing implemented, without us.
I have heard recently with the marches across this country standing with the community of Yuendumu that our people are saying that we have never been silent about the changes we need. And now we need all of Australia to stand with us, to stand by our side and to see these injustices as your injustices – to see the society we want as the one you want – to believe and know that the fierce love and commitment we have to this land and our families is one that the rest of Australia also shares. Together we can unite this nation in the common pursuit of justice.
Changing this system is the responsibility of all Australians. Insisting that governments invest in prevention is about developing a national narrative of equality where everyone is given the best start in life and has the chance to succeed. To be all of who they are without fear of being dispossessed, taken away, condemned and discriminated against.
The Australia we want is one that embraces, includes and celebrates our diversity. That is the society our children have belonged to since time began and it is the Australia they deserve and have a right to.