Supporting the culture and identity of Aboriginal children in state care

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons
Pam Simmons Guardian

I write this letter having just returned from a discussion with Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people from organisations in the Murraylands. Our invitation to the gathering asked them to share views and ideas about ways to bring children who are separated from family and culture back to a healthy connection with their identity as Aboriginal people.

Almost one in three of the children who are subjects of care and protection orders in SA are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children. A declining proportion of them are placed with Aboriginal carers. A growing proportion are in residential care, often at some distance from their communities.

There are obvious questions to be answered about how better to support families to care for their children.  The questions though that we sought views on, in addition to family support, were what can be done when children have been removed from their immediate family to build and strengthen their belonging to their clan and family.

The range of views and experience was vast.  At the heart of it was the imperative to build in the child the “sense and knowledge that they belong to us” said one Aboriginal Elder.  This means going back to important places, spending more time with their Aboriginal community, knowing who their aunts and uncles are, and being taught their language.  It also means working on what is inside a child, their view of their place in the world and who they are connected to. The lament though was that the practice is not embedded in organisations or systems. Some children have strong cultural knowledge and support, some have it sometimes, and some miss out altogether.

We learned from discussion, and from service models that work and in the literature, that what is needed is strong integration of the organisation and its program with the local Aboriginal community including governance where possible, qualified staff with high competency in working across cultures, and structured programs which build life skills in an Aboriginal context.

The sorts of things that you might look for in assessing cultural inclusiveness and support would be: care or case plans that are specific to the contact required with a child’s own clan and family; maps that identify the key relationships and children can name these people and talk of recent contact; staff who can tell you the clan groups of the children they work with and something about the land and language; and visits to community Elders on a frequent basis.

One of the obstacles to doing this well is fear of getting it wrong.  I have lost count of the number of times I have ‘got it wrong’, often in my rush to see something done, but I have never regretted trying.  Today was one of those days of trying and learning, and being grateful for the opportunity.

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We acknowledge and respect Aboriginal People as the traditional owners
and custodians of the land we live and work on, their living culture and their unique role in the life of South Australia.