I can give you statistics and talk in depth about how complex the welfare system is. I can tell you that the recent commentary from David Gillespie and the all-white Sunrise panel is incorrect and insensitive.
And, I will. But first, do you know what an Indigenous Placement Principle is?
It’s simple. When welfare decides to take an Indigenous child away from their parents, the process begins to determine where they are placed.
These are the 3 steps to the process in descending order of priority:
1. A safe family member
2. A safe Indigenous family
3. A non-Indigenous family
Now, let me tell you my story. My name is Rarriwuy Hick. I am a Yolngu woman. I am also a kinship carer for my nephews, who I love with all my heart. As is my father, Paul Hick. We work extremely hard to ensure that they are safe, happy and striving for the best. Yes, I hope that they fail at times and make minor mistakes in life so that they can learn and grow from them. I want them to grow up to be intelligent, funny men, who are respectful and compassionate. The boys have been in our care for just over a year now, and we are already seeing the glimpses of the wonderful men they will become.
The boys were five and two at the time they were forcibly removed from their families; or we could say ‘stolen’ and placed within the welfare system. On the 14th of November 2016, they were on a plane to Darwin to live with a non-Indigenous family, people who were not their relatives. The most terrifying part of the whole situation was that the kids had been living in an unknown city and with strangers for days without our knowledge. When I found out our kids were taken, I thought: Where are they? Who are they with? Are they safe?
In the 1970s, government welfare bodies worked with Aboriginal and Islander child care agencies to bring the Indigenous Placement Principle into legislation. They are supposed to abide by these hierarchical guidelines and protocols.
But they haven’t been.
I would not tell lies to you
Like the promises they did not keep1
Indigenous children across the country have been taken from their families and placed into non-Indigenous families without welfare bodies prioritising searching for relatives, or a safe, Indigenous family.
In our case, my nephews were not given a fair chance of exploring all options before being taken straight to a stranger’s house. In our situation, the two boys had both paternal Grandparents, and myself (paternal Aunty), who would have taken them in a heartbeat if we had known. The boys also have a strong bond with their extended families and other Indigenous families from neighbouring towns or communities.
Yet, taking the boys to a non-Indigenous foster home was priority number one for Australia’s welfare system.
Since the day the boys were born, I have taken them numerous times into my care as an Aunty for extended periods of time. Whether that be holidays or just on breaks to relieve their parents of the pressures of parenting. I have gone above and beyond to look after the boys, caring for them almost as a second mother. I love them unconditionally. To find out they had been taken away, and to not be informed of their removal, has been one of the most painful experiences of my life.
Once I found out about the Indigenous Placement Principle, I couldn’t believe that the welfare system would go against their own protocols, in breach of their standard practice. Later, I was shocked to find out how common this was. This story, unfortunately, is all too common within the Indigenous community in relation to the welfare bodies in Australia.
When I found out the boys were being taken to a non-Indigenous family, I didn’t know what to do next. I felt completely helpless. I know that’s how many of you may feel if you too have lost children to the welfare system.
We called NT government welfare agency, Territory Families, ten times a day just to get an answer. We heard nothing from them for weeks on end. We only knew through a family member that we think the children were in Darwin, but we still didn’t know who they were with.
I was fortunate enough to have a friend who worked as a welfare worker. She suggested contacting the NT Children’s Commissioner. They replied to our emails immediately and contacted Territory Families. It was only then that we were able to talk to my nephew’s case worker and have more of an understanding of where they were.
Territory Families organised phone call sessions with the boys. Through these calls, I realised that the two boys were beginning to lose their language. English had always been their fifth speaking language. While in foster care, they weren’t being encouraged to speak to each other in our own language, yolngu matha, and felt it was bad behaviour whenever I tried to communicate in it. And not only that: the boys began to tell me not to call them by their Aboriginal names.
This was confusing to us because the children had always been extremely proud of who they are and where they come from. The trauma the kids were going through was serious, and all too similar to what happened to the Stolen Generation.
Said it was for the best
Took us away
Told us what to do and say
Told us all the white man’s way2
We fought tirelessly to get the boys back with family. We needed them home with us. But our voices weren’t being heard. Territory Families did everything in their power to ignore us. But I wasn’t going to allow that to happen. We took our story to social media.
Our campaign #OurKidsBelongWithFamily was born from the realisation that no matter how many hoops we jump through trying to please and satisfy the current welfare bodies, there always existed the chance that we were not going to get the boys back. So in order to shine a light on this issue we decided to bring our story to the world. We decided that we were not going to sit on our hands and wait for Territory Families to grant access to our children.
We brought the fight to them. Exposing their blatant disregard for their basic standard principles. Using social media. Getting our story heard on the floor of Parliament House. We weren’t going to wait.
Our campaign has been around for exactly a year now. I find it deeply concerning that we are still having these conversations.
I find the recent comments from the Assistant Minister for Children and Families, MP David Gillespie, perplexing. He spoke about how Aboriginal children within the welfare system should be placed within the care of non-Indigenous Families more frequently—as if it were some rarity.
Then the completely non-Indigenous panel on Channel Seven’s Sunrise Hot Topics segment, led by Samantha Armytage with Prue MacSween and Ben Davis, chose to chime in with their lewd and offensive comments. They interpreted what Gillespie said as: white people should be able to save abused children from rape, physical abuse and neglect. As if we are incapable of self-determination. Throwing comments around loosely about the Stolen Generations without any sensitivity whatsoever. Reinforcing negative stereotypes of our people, with no mention and complete disregard of the tireless work Aboriginal carers, like myself and many others, put in day in and day out. I can’t help but take those comments to heart. I can’t help but be offended.
The biggest cause for concern has and always will be the safety and welfare of children. Are they safe from abuses in a stable, happy home? From the day I chose to make our voices heard on a greater platform, I have always had the priority of children’s safety in mind. At all times. Children deserve to be safe, happy and in a stable environment. They also deserve to know their family. That their family love and care about them.
And there was resounding and overwhelming response of positivity from you: the public. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, standing in solidarity in outrage, both at our situation and countless other Aboriginal families going through the exact same process.
Territory Families had no other choice but to reunite the boys with their family. Us. They did their due diligence. Background checks, house inspections, psychological tests—all the necessary processes that a carer must go through in order for children to grow and prosper in a safe environment. And we had no problem with that. Safety is of the utmost importance when it comes to a child, and that is our number one priority.
As we grew up we felt alone
Cause we were acting white
Yet feeling black3
We just want the options for Aboriginal children to be with their families to be explored greater and further—exhausted even. There are families who want their children. Just the way we do. And if after the greatest search there aren’t, then by all means place children within a loving and safe non-Indigenous family. But culture is important. Cultural identity is important. Connections and communications to family is important. In this writer’s belief, these connections to culture and family should be a standard practice for the benefit of the child when placed in care. We know the horrors and traumas of the Stolen Generations. How our people were affected when children were taken away. If not, please do your homework.
I hope for my nephews that in the future they will be seen as young men who work hard and respect others. I don’t want them to only be seen as ‘BLACK’ men, or as useless, or abusers, or lazy. We no longer have to carry these labels and stereotypes that many non-Indigenous people give us. We will put a mirror up every time those labels are thrown at us. And we will continue to show our children that they a beautiful, special, unique, intelligent, funny and capable of doing anything in this world. Maybe one day we will see an Australian Indigenous Prime Minister who will fight for our people and equality.
Back where their hearts grow strong
Back where they all belong
The children came back4
Rarriwuy Hick is a Yolngu woman, an actor, dancer, writer and choreographer. She has appeared in ABC’s ‘Cleverman’ and ‘Redfern Now’. She tweets at @RarriwuyHick
Meyne Wyatt is an Australian actor who grew up in Kalgoorlie. He graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 2010 and has appeared in several theatre productions around the country. He tweets at @MeyneWyatt