Just over one week after the release of the 2019 Closing the Gap report, new research has confirmed that Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be placed in out-of-home care, fuelling the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

The research found the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care increased 21 per cent between the five years between 2012 – 2017. The rate of infants removed rose 17 percent between 2013 and 2016.

In 2012, 46.6 per 1000 Aboriginal children were removed and placed in care, however, in 2017 this rose to 56.6 per 1000.

Only 5.4 per 1000 non-Aboriginal children were removed in 2012 compared to 5.8 per 1000 in 2016.

The rate of infants (children under the age of one) placed in out-of-home care also increased from 24.8 to 29.1 per 1000 between 2013-2016. The rate of non-Indigenous children also marginally rose from 2.6 to 3 per 1000 in the same timeframe.

Researchers examined child protection data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and data from WA’s Department of Communities and Department of Health.

It was noted that the two main factors for child removal—substance abuse and mental health issues—are the main consequences of intergenerational trauma caused by previous removal of children.

Telethon Kids Institute Patron and senior author on the paper, Professor Fiona Stanley, said it is obvious the rates of removal are getting worse and will continue unless pathways aimed to deconstruct the cycle of intergenerational trauma are identified and developed.

“If you look at it in the context of how traumatic the Stolen Generation was – the parenting, substance abuse and mental health problems that resulted and are still present three generations down the track – it is urgent that we now ensure that Aboriginal children who are removed are not further traumatised by this, and their children and grandchildren don’t have a similar pathway,” she said.

Pro Vice Chancellor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Research Director of Ngangk Yira, Murdoch University Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and Co-author Professor Rhonda Marriott said despite reports like Closing the Gap, royal commissions and inquiries into the removal of children, Australia is not making any advancement into changing the pattern of trauma for Aboriginal people.

“This isan issue for all of us—researchers, people working in the WA Department of Communities, community leaders and community elders—people need to come together to determine what are the issues, how can they be changed and what needs to be done differently. There is a lack of courage to do things differently. Intergenerational trauma and subsequent trauma means that we have such cycles that people fit into, such as the cycle of poverty. It is very hard to break out of that,” Marriott said.

“If you think about the children who were taken away, what are we doing to help them understand how to parent in the best way they can parent? When they get to an age when they are parents, if they’ve suffered such incredible loss with their own parents and that loss of connection with family, it is very hard for them to have those role models in their lives.”

Marriott said it’s a lack of recognition by the WA Department of Communities and WA Department of Health, that there is a responsibility to the entire family, as opposed to only the safety of the child.

“There are some really important groups here in WA who aren’t consulted with sufficiently, or if they are consulted with, their voice isn’t always heard. I think it’s time for us to come together, and to be able to hear what one another has got to say. Rather than repeating previous responses, it’s an opportunity for the Department to say, this is the reality how do we change this.”

Marriot said the change begins with having the courage to install policies which make a difference.

“I don’t know if we need to throw a lot of money into this. I think it’s just a matter of doing things differently. I hope to see the impact of parent and baby services being provided, more positive parenting programs, programs that are going to make a difference to young families early childhood.”

She also suggested the increase of services such as Kincare, where Aboriginal families provide support for removed children.

In five years, based upon this research, if there is not significant change in how these issues are addressed, Marriot is concerned the cycle will continue to spiral downward.

“We know, from the coroner’s report that was released a few weeks ago here in WA, that there are similar issues. We know that out of home care is an issue and the high rate of Aboriginal children committing suicide is rising. If the Kimberley, where I come from, was a country it would have the highest rate of suicide of any country in the world – I just hope I see change in my lifetime.”

The research was recently published in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

By Rachael Knowles