In the Spotlight

Strong communities. Strong culture. Stronger children – Celebrating the Family Matters National Week of Action

“Twenty years ago, the Bringing them Home report brought public and political awareness to the destructive impact of the Stolen Generations on communities, families and children – a historical pain that has caused trauma with lasting impacts. We cannot allow the history of trauma to devastate yet another generation of our children.”

Natalie Lewis, Family Matters Co-Chair

The Family Matters National Week of Action began with multiple screenings around the country of After the Apology, a 2017 documentary film written and directed by Larissa Behrendt. Family Matters is led by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), the National Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Their vision is an Australian society in which the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families are protected, and communities are empowered to determine their own futures and cultural identity is valued. SNAICC is a community-controlled organisation. Family Matters is a coalition of approximately 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and mainstream organisations and academics determined to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in out of home care by 2040.  This week is one strategy amongst many to achieve this goal.

After the Apology depicts four Aboriginal grandmothers who challenge government policies to bring their grandchildren home. Their grassroots actions spearheaded a national movement to curb the skyrocketing rates of child removal in Australia.

This documentary outlines the experiences as told by four Aboriginal women. Their experiences were in relation to their involvement with New South Wales (NSW) Family and Community Services (FACS):

Suellyn thought FACS would only remove children in extreme cases until her own grandchildren were taken in the middle of the night.

Hazel decided to take on the FACS system after her fourth grandchild was taken into state care.

Jen Swan expected to continue to care for her grandchildren, but she was deemed unsuitable by FACS, a shock not just to her but to her sister, Deb, who was, at the time, a FACS worker.

The filmmakers note that: the rate of Indigenous child removal has increased at an exponential rate since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the apology to the ‘stolen generations’ in 2008. These four grandmothers find each other and start a national movement to place extended families as a key solution to the rising number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. They are not only taking on the system, they are changing it.

Following the Brisbane screening of this moving and evocative documentary, a panel comprising of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak’s (QATSICPP) Chief Executive Officer, Natalie Lewis, Dr Gerald Featherstone, Chief Executive Officer, Kummara Association and Michael Hogan, Director General, Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women alongside PeakCare Queensland’s Executive Director, Lindsay Wegener discussed the poignancy of the stories shared through this film and the heart of the issues outlined by these courageous grandmothers.

This Q&A session stimulated robust discussion with regard to the state of play in Queensland in addressing the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in the child protection system. The need for self-determination and family led decision making was highlighted. The importance of the full application and adherence to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle was a significant focal point.

Natalie Lewis was clear that there needs to be a shift from cultural advice to cultural authority: Creating a path to cultural capability for non-Indigenous service providers and government agencies is not the responsibility of community-controlled organisations.  Imposing this expectation serves to distract and divert us from pursuing and actualising our own vision of self- determination. We are more than providers of cultural advice, we are skilled, capable and determined to lead the change that we all envision for our children, families and communities.  Cultural advice will no longer cut it.  We seek recognition of the cultural authority vested in our families and communities and our right to be self- determining“. 

The Family Matters National Week of Action from 14th-20th May has already held many events and public conversations to outline the key issues that need to be discussed with regard to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families in the child protection system. This is an annual awareness raising event aimed to harness public engagement and political commitment to the key advocacy intents of the Family Matters Campaign.

Family Matters is guided by six fundamental principles:

  • Applying a child-focused approach
  • Ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations participate in and have control over decisions that affect their children
  • Protecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s right to live in culture
  • Pursuing evidence-based responses
  • Supporting, healing and strengthening families
  • Challenging systemic racism and inequities

Community empowerment and human rights lie at the heart of the Family Matters Campaign. Together with community leaders and communities, they collectively aim drive local change, inform and empower families and call on Governments to act and play their part in ensuring lasting and meaningful change to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families.

These intents were clearly articulated by Professor Chris Sarra, Founder of the Stronger, Smarter Institute, in his 2016 Family Matters Report Launch Address: “We need to acknowledge and embrace the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their capacity to be exceptional. With that comes our capacity to be the best we can be and support our children, families and communities. We’ve been around for some 40 to 50 thousand years so we know about resilience. What has been missing for the past 200 years or so is often people’s acknowledgement and capacity to embrace our resilience and humanity. This needs to change.”

Whilst working throughout this National Week of Action, organisers are determined to highlight the fundamental issues that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Most importantly, they’re working to shine a light on the disconnection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from community, culture and country.

Collectively they are working to:

  • Inform service providers, policy decision makers, and the Australian public of the national crisis in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-representation in out of home care.
  • Garner support to ensure that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people grow up safe and cared for within family, community and culture.
  • Ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, communities and organisations are empowered to exercise their responsibilities for the safety and wellbeing of their children.

Save the Children’s Peta Nichol is actively involved in this campaign. She notes that this is a campaign close to the heart of her organisation. “Save the Children is involved in the Family Matters campaign because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in the child protection system at a rate of almost ten times that of other children. In the past 10 years, this has increased by 22%. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children sleeping away from their homes is almost 17,000 and is on-track to triple by 2035.  This is unacceptable, and we can definitely do better. We believe that we all have a significant role to play to address the issue of over-representation and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to devise solutions. We work as an active partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and always promote community led decision-making. Save the Children has worked along-side SNAICC to build interest in the campaign to promote action.”

PeakCare’s Executive Director, Lindsay Wegener stated PeakCare is involved in this campaign and are proud sponsors of Family Matters because there is no other choice other than to be involved: “When you are faced with the most significant injustice in our child protection system, there is no option but to act and do so in any and every way you possibly can.” He urges all in the sector and wider community to do the same.

For those of you who have not yet seen or heard about the campaign, please visit the Family Matters website where you can learn about the principles and actions in more detail. You can also sign your own commitment.  To build momentum you can encourage your colleagues to do the same.  If we all work together we can make a change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.

As the National Week of Action draws to a close an important film screening will be hosted by Family Matters Queensland at 5.30pm on 19th May: Cherbourg Women – My Struggle, My Fight. This will take place at Kuril Dhagun, Level 1 of the State Library. Click here for details.

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