If it’s broken, maybe we shouldn’t try to fix it

“Children’s Services called the police… put her at the back of the [police] wagon… she’s only about 12… they really traumatised her” This is some of the story shared by Joshua Poulson about his niece, who ran away from a foster care placement back to family.


The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, prompted when the ABC Four Corners episode in July last year sparked national outrage at the abuse of children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, is now focused on the child protection system, with hearings in Alice Springs and Darwin last month.


A theme that came up through the stories of those subjected to the child protection system is the violence with which this system operates, as ‘CR and CZ’, whose story was shared with Commissioners at hearings in Alice Springs, draw attention to:


“The trauma of being ripped away from family members, put in the system… you get the police going and ripping these kids from underneath their mothers or their grandparents noses.”


And again when ‘CP’ spoke: “FACS went into the house with police involved… that scares people…”


The inquiry had to include the child protection system as well as the youth detention system, because of what Katherine McFarlane, from the Centre for Law and Justice, also speaking at the hearings in Alice Springs, calls “Care Criminalisation”. As the Royal Commission interim report highlights, young people who have entered the child protection system are over represented in youth detention.


Katrina Wong, from the Legal Aid Commission NSW, emphasised to the Commissioners that there is a more frequent interaction with the criminal justice system for young people in ‘out-of-home care’, starting with workers using police as a behaviour management tool. This sets up a journey for young people that she describes as a “constant roundabout” between the criminal justice and out-of-home care systems.


The child protection system is in place to intervene when children are ‘at risk of harm’. The decision to remove a child from their family surely requires meticulous and extensive consideration, in close collaboration with the family and community. Risk of harm is assessed using tools that are supposed to make the decisions objective, but it is arguable that decisions to remove children from their families are highly subjective by practitioners working for child protection services all over the country.


In the NT, most families in the child protection system are Aboriginal; most children removed from their families are Aboriginal; and most Aboriginal children are removed from their families on the grounds of ‘neglect’ [1]. The definition of neglect is when a child’s ‘basic necessities of life are not met by their caregiver’ [2]. For example this might be in terms of lack of food provided, or ongoing health problems. In Alice Springs, child protection services are also known to be involved with families when children are not attending school every day, or when young people hang around with their peers in town at night time.


Families facing poverty are over represented in the child protection system. Facing poverty, and the many effects of social exclusion, makes it very hard to meet the basic necessities of life. You only need to spend a bit of time with families in these circumstances to understand that caregivers are up against injustice that prevents them from caring for their children in the way they would prefer.


Moreover, with the professionalisation of the social service industry, the child protection service is made up of mostly white middle class university educated workers. Listening in child protection meetings, and reading child protection case plans, it doesn’t take long to ascertain that the dominant rhetoric of child protection workers, particularly in relation to the judgement around what constitutes neglect, is inextricably linked to a colonising agenda around how children should be raised.


Additionally, we have heard in the NT Royal Commission hearings that practitioners have huge caseloads and are very ‘time poor’. This does not bode well for careful decision-making.


Families facing poverty are under high surveillance from child protection services, and are subjected to an approach that uses power and control over their lives, as a means of addressing the social injustices they face. Commissioner Mick Gooda referred to the many experiences community members have reported to him of the so-called ‘services’ they receive: “they come and go, and they do things to us”.


Furthermore, the focus of the child protection approach perpetuates a view that these families are ‘dysfunctional’. This masks the social context of these families lives, in the face of colonisation, which has families dispossessed of their land, at times disconnected from their language and culture, and marginalised in the dominant society.


The child protection system is not informed by Aboriginal approaches and practices. In the words of ‘CP’ who gave evidence to the Royal Commission “I can’t understand how they work… I don’t think Indigenous people really understand their system.”


One of the biggest criticisms of the system highlighted in the Royal Commission hearings is the lack of kinship care placements for children; most Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in the NT are placed with non-Aboriginal carers 1. As ‘CQ’ says, about family care arrangements for children in the extended family networks that constitute the Aboriginal community, “In Aboriginal culture it does work perfectly”. Aboriginal cultural knowledges and practices for caring for children look very different than the knowledge and practices that shape the model of child protection currently being implemented.


At the Royal Commission community forum in Alice Springs, a local Aboriginal community member asserted that Aboriginal people have “become an industry”. After the forum Shut Youth Prisons Mparntwe spoke further with this community member, who highlighted that “there is no collaboration with Aboriginal people, and those who get the qualifications to get jobs in these services fit the system that’s currently there, they conform and stay in those systems… people are making money off the backs of Aboriginal people’s suffering, and the suffering continues… the system doesn’t work!”


Certainly white middle class university educated people benefit from this set up; in the NT the workers in the child protection service are paid high salaries, and the out-of-home care industry is growing. The NT is the leading state for placing children in out-of-home care, with an increase of 60% of children between 2011 and 2015, compared with most other states where the numbers of children in out-of-home care increased by less than 20% in this time period [3].


Amongst a number of the failings of the child protection system highlighted in the hearings in Alice Springs, Larissa Behrendt, Chair of Indigenous Research at the University of Technology, drew attention to the “concern that more funding goes into out-of-home care than into early intervention, restoration or reunification programs”.


With all this in mind it is possible to assume that this industry is working as part of the colonisation project of assimilation.


If the purpose of the child protection system is to protect children from harm, it is unclear, when children are being separated from their families, culture and language, and to a great extent ultimately funneled into youth detention centres which uphold practices of disconnection and dehumanisation, how this system is meeting its own objectives.

It is hard to know where to begin to ‘fix’ such a system. But perhaps it is beyond this. What is required is for an entirely different system to be developed, with Aboriginal people leading this project.

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2016. Child Protection Australia 2014-15.

[2] Northern Territory Government 2016. Child Abuse, Types of harm.

[3] Australian Institute of Family Studies 2016, Children in Care.


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