What We Heard: Keeping kids with kin
Tuesday 22 September
This is an excerpt from our upcoming report, Hearing the voices of Aboriginal people in child welfare, a compilation of the stories of multiple Aboriginal children and families and their engagement with the child protection system.
It was this core belief of the importance of family that motivated June* to become a carer for her niece, and later, her nephew. Now, as they come towards the end of their high school journey and look toward the future, June reflects on her experiences as an Aboriginal kinship carer.
June took on the care of her niece in 2001, because she didn’t want her niece to be lost to the child protection system. And while there were times of struggle, she was committed to meeting her niece’s needs. Some years later, her nephew also needed care, and June naturally put up her hand. This presented a new range of challenges for the household, and June put her career on hold and gave up a secure job to be at home for the children, and to support them with school and extra curricular activities.
“I gave that [job] away in order to take on the responsibility of caring for the kids, because otherwise it wouldn’t have happened,” June said.
Through it all, June remained a strong advocate for her niece and nephew. However, there was very little support and interaction from the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), with the onus placed on her to navigate the system to find the support she needed. As an Aboriginal kinship carer, June felt like a second class carer, left to struggle needlessly, despite a range of provisions apparently being available that would have supported the kids to thrive.
“My kids are missing out on entitlements that would benefit them” June said. “We’re struggling when the provisions are there, and I’m having to fight and advocate through the system in order to try and meet those needs for these kids that they’re supposed to be caring for.”
As a kinship carer, the lack of supports to navigate family relationships, or to connect her children to culture and Country, placed particular pressure on her ability to meet her children’s needs. Family relationships in particular became strained, with no support from DCJ to help manage the new complexities, resulting in a breakdown of the relationship with her sister.
“On my side, the relationship broke down between my sister and myself, that type of thing, because of the care, so that’s non existent now,” June said.
June felt that being with an Aboriginal agency might have provided the assistance that was lacking, it could have supported her to navigate those difficult conversations with her family.
“Because you’re having to meet those responsibilities and there’s nobody else there to negotiate or navigate any family stuff with. Conversations that perhaps would take place if you’re in with an Aboriginal organisation,” June said.
Despite these challenges, June felt that as an Aboriginal kinship carer, she was best placed to strengthen her children’s connections to their family, community, and culture, including connecting them to Country as much as possible.
“It’s important for the kids to be able to go back and see family regularly which I’ve been able to do occasionally, but it’s hard financially, when I’m having to go to school, and the finances just aren’t there,” June said.
Her experiences as a carer have made her deeply concerned about the sort of future that the statutory child protection system is achieving for Aboriginal children and young people.
“We’ve removed the kids, and then when they turn 18 we just let them down… And the reality is, that at 18, our kids need their family,” June said. June emphasised the importance of ongoing support and oversight to make sure that Aboriginal kids are properly cared for and supported to retain and strengthen their connections to family, community and culture.
“Especially when they’re not maintaining those connections, kids getting out, are lost, with nowhere to go, and then that’s how you get the interaction with the criminal justice system,” June said.
After almost 20 years of being involved in the child protection system, June had a straight forward assessment – that the system is not working for Aboriginal children and families.
“I think that our cultural needs and our issues escape the frameworks of the mainstream system.”
Rather, June noted that her experience and understanding of the child protection system is one that is still dominated by colonial approaches, and she questioned the basic competency of the statutory system to deliver for Aboriginal children and families.
“I feel that our issues get lost within the broader system.”
And while June accepts that the intentions of DCJ might be good, the impact on Aboriginal communities has been devastating.
“I think that their intentions are probably well meaning, but I feel that they’ve lost sight, they don’t have the resources. I don’t believe they have the cultural competency whatsoever in dealing with our kids, or even with myself,” June said.
The ongoing negative experiences of Aboriginal people with the child protection system created a sense of fear for many Aboriginal families, reflecting the lived experiences of their families and communities. June saw that Aboriginal organisations and practitioners had an important part to play in working towards solutions, as they understand the context and experience of Aboriginal people and communities.
“We have fear and even if we have nothing to fear, we still fear,” June said. “Like I fear, and I’m there doing the right things, but I fear speaking out would then jeopardise a placement and things like that. I believe that our issues … our business … should be harnessed by Aboriginal organisations with Aboriginal Case Workers. Aboriginal people that understand. They’re part of this experience. They know what’s going on, and therefore, people would feel more comfortable rather than being put under the microscope and having a white dominated system that says they know how to fix the problems, ‘cause they’re creating the problem. They’re creating the problem.”
June valued the contribution and difference Aboriginal organisations make within her community in working for Aboriginal children and families.
“…when I’m negotiating and I have issues, the mainstream’s not helping me and I’m looking for strategies and that’s from our own mob or the extended community. Where I live and Aboriginal organisations and people to find ways to make things better.”
“We work together trying to find solutions and supporting each other in different processes in order to achieve better outcomes for our kids. Resources and framework strategies, that’s what we need to do, and I honestly think that the Government should stop trying to control that type of stuff and put those things into Aboriginal hands. We’re competent. We’re getting educated. There are very many strong educated people that are quite capable of taking these things on, but we’re still being micro managed. Constantly.”
June felt that the system’s care and commitment to Aboriginal children was one dimensional, and lacked the substance and follow through to really achieve positive outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people.
“[The department] removes the kids and [says] we’ll put them over there and we’ll just leave them. So on a piece of paper, it looks like … oh we’ve done the right thing by the kids, put them [somewhere] safe, we’ll throw a payment out too … doesn’t matter where that goes to … instead of looking to see whether they’re being cared for correctly, or even whether they’re meeting their obligations.”
“Like I said to the Department the other day, your Ministerial responsibility ends when they’re 18. Mine lasts a lifetime.” Ultimately, June had a simple message for improving the child protection system for Aboriginal children.
“Put it into Aboriginal hands, because we know what’s best for our kids. We know what they need. We know how to fix the problems, but we’re not getting any support in doing so.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.