Indigenous Grandmothers organise against unjust removals
An official Australian narrative has developed around the seeming insolubility of the third world statistics of Australia’s First People. This narrative pushed by the mass media and political parties across the spectrum, is being accepted by many Australians. It is past time to challenge this vilification of the world’s oldest living culture and confront the causes of our intransient racism which translates to assimilation by stealth. In capitalist Australia – the only beneficiaries of the official narrative – and present policies attacking Indigenous land rights and culture, are powerful mining and monopoly interests and the governments that support them.
Building the struggle to recognise and defend Indigenous rights to land and culture must be a priority.
Aboriginal people themselves take up the fight through initiatives like Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), an organisation formed in 2013 by a group of Indigenous grandmothers to challenge the daily abuse of Indigenous families’ rights by government agencies. A little known fact today is that, on any night across Australia, there are more Indigenous children in state “out-of-home care” than there were during the period of the Stolen Generation. There are more than 15,000 Aboriginal children presently in “out-of-home care” and 32,000 parents are deemed to be “unable to look after our own children”. This is approximately a third of children in “out-of-home care”, yet Indigenous Australians make up approximately 3% of the Australian population.
On the 6th anniversary of Sorry Day, in February 2013, a group of Indigenous grandmothers met in Tamworth, NSW, and formed Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR). Since then their simple initiative has become a national resistance movement against the racist and systemic practice of removing Indigenous children from their families, communities and culture. The Grandmothers were angered by state child protection agencies who they believed deliberately ignored extended family and community networks willing to care for Indigenous children deemed to be “at risk”.
GMAR, together with the Ombudsman’s Office, developed a set of guiding principles, “How to Work with Aboriginal Families, Individuals and Communities”. These principles have now become a rallying creed for Grandmothers Against Removal Committees, which have sprung up across the country over the last three years.
Late last year, Grandmothers Against Removals held a public meeting at Redfern Town Hall to begin organising a protest in February 2016 in Canberra, against the mass scale of removals of Indigenous children across Australia (see details this page). “Removals of Indigenous children”, the meeting was told by a GMAR spokesperson, “are not happening in line with legislation which requires state agencies to notify family members before removing Indigenous children”.
The Aboriginal Placement Principal is included in the relevant child protection Acts to enable extended family members to care for children who may be at risk. It states that the child protection agency must first look for Aboriginal family members to care for any Indigenous child suspected of being at risk. The Grandmothers and elders present told the meeting, that in Aboriginal culture and law if an individual or family “drop the ball”, there are others there to pick it up and support them for as long as it takes. One grandmother responded to the cultural racism inherent in judgements made about neglect and abuse in Indigenous families by pointing out that if “we can’t do it the way they do, doesn’t mean it’s wrong”.
Rather than attempting to support the placement of Indigenous children with their grandparents or another family member, members of GMAR and the audience reflected on their experience of child care agencies “interrogating” families and “looking for reasons not to place children with them”. The children, the meeting heard, were placed instead with white families and restricted from contact with their Indigenous families by distance or the often arbitrary conditions placed in the Care Plans formulated by state agencies.
This is resulting in long-term separation of Indigenous children and their families. Audience members pointed out that traumatic consequences for the child and family result from a billion dollar “child protection industry” that vilifies Aboriginal families and fails to recognise and support Aboriginal culture. Similar practices in the past led to intergenerational trauma as Indigenous children were cut off from their culture and language. From their experience, the Grandmothers present at the Redfern meeting were unanimous in their belief that no lessons had been learnt from the Stolen Generation.
Indigenous people at the meeting rejected the stereotyping of Aboriginal families as drug addicts and alcoholics. This stereotyping has led to the phenomenon of “hidden shame” amongst Aboriginal people. Not dissimilar to the generalised shame that the NT Intervention has caused Aboriginal men who were tarred with one brush as child molesters and consumers of pornography. The incidence of domestic violence and institutionalised child abuse in society as a whole “has not had a similar outcome for other sections of our community”.
The Grandmothers explained that many Indigenous people do not know their rights and are unable to insist on these being respected. A spokeswoman pointed out, “Our people do not believe they have human rights ... we need to educate them, … you can ask to have a support person with you when DOCS visit. We need to stop the blackmail of people to sign off on Care Plans by false promises of early restoration if they sign straight away”.
The goal of assimilation began with colonisation and is the ultimate result of ongoing discriminatory practices like those being opposed by the Grandmothers. Back door adoptions are being encouraged by the use of legislation which allows white foster parents to adopt children after a certain length of time. This is in the context of the ongoing failure of governments to support Aboriginal families in crisis, (employment programs cut, land rights reversed, Aboriginal organisations defunded, Indigenous legal and health services closed etc): it is a continuation of assimilationist policies.
Indigenous audience members revealed that many Indigenous Australians will avoid ticking yes to questions about their Aboriginality on government forms because this can make them a target for racist assumptions about their ability to raise their children.
Grandmothers Against Removals is planning a nationwide protest in Canberra between February 11 and 13 … “we need to join our voices to become a very loud voice… work collectively to implement a restoration program and place child protection issues back in community control. Instead of spending money on home care services it should be spent on family preservation.” The Canberra protest is timed to coincide with the anniversary of “Sorry Day” and demands all our support to make governments accountable for the billion dollar industry that has been created around child removals. As one audience member commented, “Stop these departments coming in and making our families dysfunctional”.