In Australia Aboriginal children and young people are in alternative care at almost nine times the rate of other children. The size of the over-representation and the consequences mean we should take a look at some of the specific issues surrounding Aboriginal kids in care.
Perhaps it is hard for non-Aboriginal people to completely understand and feel the impact of the powerful network of relationships that hold together traditional Aboriginal communities where brothers and sisters are indistinguishable from cousins, and uncles and aunts take on many of the roles and responsibilities of biological parents in European families. Even for me as an urban Kaurna man, the network of relationships, support and obligations is more complex and extensive even than in my family-oriented Italian heritage.
The removal from family of an Aboriginal child comes at a great cost no matter how necessary and justified. The tearing away from kin and country causes great anguish and sadness and, as we have seen with many from the stolen generations, lives marked by despair and self destruction. Keeping children out of care by intervening early and supporting birth families to care better is ideal but these services are not always provided.
In our legislation and in our practice we make a special effort to maintain family and cultural connections for Aboriginal kids but sometimes the nature of Aboriginal communities and the fostering relationship can present particular issues.
Finding foster or kinship care within the child’s community would seem the best solution but resentment by biological parents can cause friction in close communities or when groups come together for events such as funerals. Finding foster care outside of their immediate communities, even with Aboriginal families, can mean a major separation from the child’s extended family, country and culture. For these children we need to make a deliberate effort to maintain and rebuild these connections.
Much of the day to day commitment to maintaining cultural connections inevitably must come from foster carers who provide the 24/7 care. We ask much from our foster carers in this regard. We look for and encourage carers who will welcome children into their families and develop enduring loving relationships with them. At the same time we ask that they consciously and deliberately support a cultural maintenance process that requires considerable effort, can be upsetting to the child and ultimately may lead to the child deciding to discard them entirely.
Having the right sort of conversations with foster carers at the start of fostering can help. Carers’ understanding of the importance to Aboriginal children of kin and culture and of building a realistic picture of their birth family is important, as is a mature acceptance by carers of the sometimes transitory nature of fostering.
Government and non-government agencies have services and resources to help. In the Aboriginal Family Support Service’s (AFSS) Mirror Families Project, a specially trained worker engages with Aboriginal family networks to build practical support which enables kids to be cared for within their own communities, mirroring what an extended family would provide.
Relevant and attractive tools like the AFSS’s Lets Talk Culture and Liz Tongerie’s soon to be published Aboriginal Life Story Books make the job of engaging Aboriginal kids about their kin and culture easier for workers and carers alike.
Families SA is set to provide additional support and structure to the way in which the maintenance of Aboriginal identity is built into case planning. A new practice framework, planning guide and planning template, supported by a rollout of training has been successfully trialled with social workers in regional areas.
Fiona Ward, Director Country, explained to me how Families SA will continue to direct all resources possible into building relationships with Aboriginal communities. She said that recognition of cultural issues is also fundamentally important for Families SA when addressing housing, health and education issues in partnership with Aboriginal communities and key to providing safe and healthy environments for Aboriginal children.
Prevention services like those provided under the Stronger Families, Safer Children program are vital to bring about the required changes.