Aunty Hazel Collins lived her adult life with a nagging fear that child protection services would take her children away.
She had very good reason to fear. After three of her grandchildren had been taken by child protective services, Aunty Hazel’s fourth grandson was legally taken into state care when he was just an hour old. He was physically removed from his mother at 15 months.
“Having eight or nine police there to remove a 15-month-old baby and four DOCS workers – it was very, very, hard,” Aunty Hazel said.
“My 3-year-old grandson from another daughter was with me at the time and was present at that removal. He’s 10 now and he can sit there and tell you in great detail what occurred that day.
“It was 10 times worse actually seeing him being taken out of my daughter’s arms and being driven away.”
Being there to witness that heart-wrenching removal inspired Aunty Hazel, a Gomeroi woman, to start Grandmothers Against Removals, an advocacy group that spreads awareness and supports Aboriginal parents whose children have been taken into care.
A doting grandmother, she grieves that even though her daughter regained custody of her children after 7 years, an important part of their relationship was lost and there was nothing anybody could ever do to bring it back.
“They have an anger towards the family, and resentment as well because they feel that we didn’t want them, we didn’t fight for them. But I can assure you there wasn’t a moment in the day that we didn’t want them and we didn’t fight for them,” said Aunty Hazel.
She’s determined that Grandmothers Against Removals can give power back to Indigenous families by shining light on this issue.
“Shame can be a very powerful tool,” Auntie Hazel said. “When people are trying to deal with their emotions, they feel like they’re the only ones going through it, so it’s also about building awareness that we’re not on our own.”
For Grandmothers Against Removals, the only way forward is to overhaul the entire child protection system in partnership with Aboriginal families.
“The whole system is based on genocide and there’s no way in the world it can be rectified. The government has to sit down, talk openly and transparently, and actively listen and communicate with Aboriginal people to structure the system in a way that will benefit everybody.”
Aunty Hazel’s experience is not rare for Aboriginal Australians. Indigenous new-born children deemed at-risk by NSW Family and Community Services are often removed from their mothers within hours of birth, without the family’s prior knowledge.
These newborns are removed because they are subject to a High Risk Birth Alert, authorised by section 25 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW).
The alerts are most often issued by health professionals, usually because the mother is dealing with substance abuse or domestic violence, according to AbSec’s Family is Culture report.
Newborn children may also be removed where the mother is a pregnant young person in state care, has unmanaged mental illness, is at risk of suicide or where siblings have been removed.
Babies are often taken at the hospital and cared for by hospital staff while their mothers can’t spend time with their babies unless supervised, said a spokesperson for AbSec, the peak body for Aboriginal families and children in NSW.
“For many Aboriginal mothers the experience is devastating and leads to long term psychological and health concerns and perpetuates the experience of intergenerational trauma,” the spokesperson said.
This practice is often seen by Aboriginal mothers as punishment rather than an opportunity for early intervention support and services, and disproportionately affects Indigenous mothers and children in NSW. In 2015/2016, 34 per cent of all unborn children receiving child protection services were Aboriginal even though they comprised 3 per cent of the population.
And, according to the AbSec spokesperson, past forced removals of Aboriginal children from their parents is a significant factor in this overrepresentation.
“Aboriginal children who were the subject of a substantiation [prenatal report] tended to come from those areas of the lowest socioeconomic status, 49 per cent, compared with 33 per cent for their non-Aboriginal peers,” the spokesperson said.
“Aboriginal people, collectively, are more likely to have poorer outcomes across the domains of health, housing, education and socio-economic wellbeing, and are over-represented across a number of service systems — including justice, health, disability and child protection – arising from the legacy of past forced separations.”
Australia has a troubled history of removing Indigenous children at disproportionate rates, in unethical ways and in accordance with racist policies. The children removed under these policies are known as the Stolen Generations.
The NSW government began removing Indigenous children in 1883 as part of a strategy to “merge” them into the white population, supposedly for the “protection” of the children.
In 1939, the government had to prove children were neglected before they could be removed. This provided little protection to Indigenous families as “destitution” or poverty came within the definition of neglect. Many traditional cultural practices, such as raising children with the support of extended family, also came to be legally regarded as neglect.
These “assimilationist” policies were abolished in 1972, with many residential homes for Indigenous children closed in the late 1960s.
Indigenous children continue to be significantly overrepresented in out of home care. Compared with their non-Aboriginal peers, Aboriginal children are 8 times more likely to enter care by the age of five.
“They’re with family and they’re thriving”: overhauling child protection in NSW
Indigenous mothers who are subject to an alert should be provided with “proactive Aboriginal child and family advocacy supports” said the AbSec spokesperson.
“This should include Aboriginal oversight of alerts and actions taken by services to proactively support families to address risk of significant harm concerns.”
Families can challenge orders that place their children into care by appealing to the District Court of NSW, where they can provide new evidence to argue that their children should remain with them.
But Indigenous advocates argue the government should transform the entire system to make reunification an easier outcome.
“Such a system would therefore characterise out-of-home care as an identified opportunity for intensive family work, addressing persistent risks while ensuring the immediate safety of children and young people, preferably through the involvement of extended family networks and existing relationships,” the AbSec spokesperson said.
There have been recent movements towards such a system, with the development of Aboriginal-owned child protection services, such as Myimbarr Permanency Support. Unlike traditional child protection services, this service aims to maintain contact between Indigenous children in its care with their family as much as possible. They also prioritise the connection of the child with their culture and land.
As an Aboriginal organisation, they have the support of the community and can reach out to other Aboriginal-controlled services to help with finding family of children in care, said Kelly Hampton, Team Leader of Myimbarr Permanency Support.
“Culturally we all come from different areas in Australia and we know of different families and who they’re connected to,” she said.“Sometimes we’ll culturally share a last name and any of the case workers might know family members we could look at to assess.”
Restoration with family of origin is the preferred outcome for Ms Hampton’s team but this can often be a difficult result to achieve.
“I had two girls, Noongars from WA. Mum and Dad moved to Sydney and ended up having the girls here and they grew up in Western Sydney. They both had epilepsy and would have episodes,” she said.
“I found out later they were from WA so I called there to find family and when I did they said that part of their cultural practice is when the girls are having those episodes they need healing and they need to go home.”
In this case a transfer was arranged so the girls could be with their family in WA.
“The whole community waited for the girls to greet them, take them back out to bush and do healing,” said Ms Hampton.
“They’re totally different girls. They came back to say thank you for trying to help us but they just wanted to give us feedback that they’re home now. They’re with family and they’re thriving.”
Last year reforms were passed to prevent children in the system from entering out-of-home care and to restore them with family.
If a child is considered to be at-risk of harm, their family must now be offered alternative dispute resolution before the Children’s Court can order the child be placed in state care. This gives families the opportunity to develop a plan for keeping their children safe at home.
Where children are already in state care, the Children’s Court can reconsider placing them back with their family within two years of the child entering the system. The wishes of the children can also be prioritised when changing or rescinding an order of the Court.
While the new reforms provide more opportunity to explore family options and restoration, more progress is needed to create connections across government sectors, said Ms Hampton.
A database that connects all agencies, not just Aboriginal, with the Department of Communities and Justice to facilitate placing children “in country with kin” would create better outcomes for children and families, she said.
For Ms Hampton, a major flaw with the current system is that it is largely crisis-driven rather than proactive.
“We try to use our case management skills and pre-planning as much as we can, but every day is like walking into a crisis. I think the government really needs to look at this whole system and how it can be better for everybody working in this space.”
Cindy Cameronne is a first year Master of Media Practice student at the University of Sydney and a Law and Arts degree graduate from the Australian National University. She has a particular interest in migration law and policy having worked two years in that industry.