According to Helen Eason of activist group GMAC, the stolen generation is not some unfortunate footnote in history, it is continuing in modern Australia.
During a recent NT Estimates Committee hearing, it was revealed that 100% of children being held in youth detention in the Territory are Aboriginal. This figure is even more staggering when you consider that First Nations peoples account for only 25.5% of the overall NT population.
The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated in the adult prison system is also a disgrace. There were 11,737 Indigenous adult inmates being held behind bars in Australian correctional centres in March this year.
According to activist group Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), there’s a direct link between the appalling overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in prison and the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families, which in place in all Australian jurisdictions.
The ongoing stolen generation
The 2018 Productivity Commission report revealed that the number of First Nations children in out-of-home care nationally was 17,644 in June last year. NSW had the highest number of removed Indigenous kids, with 6,824 in out-of-home care at the time.
It’s the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) that carry out these removals. And despite the ever-increasing numbers of Indigenous children being taken from their homes, NSW families minister Pru Goward rejected calls to appoint an Aboriginal child and family commissioner.
“We’re not creating a separate system for Aboriginal children,” the minister told ABC radio last month. However, as far as GMAR members are concerned, there’s already a separate system in place for Indigenous children and it was implemented a very long time ago.
I spoke to GMAR spokesperson Helen Eason about how child removals lead to Indigenous children coming into contact with the criminal justice system, the importance for Australian authorities to engage with Indigenous communities and the need for healing.
Helen, how would you describe the situation regarding the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families in this state, as well as nationally?
It’s absolutely disgusting. As we say, there is no reason for our babies to be taken. Our babies aren’t orphans. We do have a lot of family. And babies need to stay with family and in community.
I speak from experience. I fought for one child for seven years against the department. I had four of my children removed from me. And my longest fight against the department was for seven years for one child.
I know what it’s like to have our kids taken from family. My mother was deemed unsuitable to have my last baby that was taken away from me.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle recognises the importance of placing removed First Nations children in the care of their own extended families or communities. But, you’ve stated that kinship placement isn’t always the answer. Can you explain why this is so?
Kinship placement is good, because they’re placing them with families. But, one of my sons was placed with my partner’s family. And I don’t get on with them. So, there was still that separation for me and my son, even though he was with family.
So, it’s not always that kinship placement works either, because I was only able to access my son four times a year for eight hours.
You’ve stated the current policy of removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families is a continuation of the stolen generations. What’s the purpose of this policy of removing Indigenous children from their families?
This is a policy that has been set up for our people to fail since the beginning. That’s why it’s continuing. It’s not a new policy. It’s a continuing stolen generation.
Us as parents and us as a people are shamed. And we carry that shame from what the system does to us. So, it’s hard for us to speak out, get out there and say what it is.
It’s only the last few years that this knowledge has been out publicly. And that’s why they’re saying it’s a new stolen generation. But, it’s not new. This is a continuation, because this same policy has been running since the beginning.
You point to a link between Aboriginal children being removed from their homes and coming into contact with the criminal justice system in later life. Can you explain how this works?
Our children are taken from their families. Our children are damaged as soon as they are ripped from their families. They’re going to have behavioural problems. And they’re going to be psychologically damaged.
They’re placed into a home with total strangers. And our kids are not being made to feel a part of that family. Our kids are the poor little black kids.
I’m speaking from the experience of my own children. They speak out now about their time. It was like they were kidnapped.
If a kid’s acting out, well, they’re slipping through the cracks. And then they end up in the juvenile system. They’re then being abused by that system.
That is another system that has been set up for us to fail. It’s not set up for us to try and walk away from there and continue on with this amazing life.
It’s set up for us to fail. And it goes from the youth system into the adult system. And we’re damaged when we walk into those gates. Look at the abuse we cop as soon as we walk into them. We’re forcibly stripped of our clothing. What is that meant to do to our frame of mind?
How are we meant to then tell our stories or deal with our pain and suffering? How are we meant to ask these people for help, when they just abused us as soon as we walked in the front gate?
In NSW, close to 50% of children in detention are Indigenous, while in the Northern Territory 100% are. What does this tell us about the fate of First Nations children living under the Australian system?
They are still raping us. They are still abusing us. And they are still killing us to this day, like they have from the beginning.
They need us to make up the numbers in their facilities, so they can continue to get paid. They’re still getting rich off of us. The separations and the divisions that they’re creating, along with the pain and the suffering, are damaging.
As I say, addiction is a symptom. Look at the addictions that come out of our hurt and our pain. This system is not dealing with the symptoms, it’s creating more problems for us.
Your mother, Aunty Hazel Collins, founded GMAR in early 2014. What were her main aims in forming the group?
My mother’s aim was to empower us and give us our voice back. And to educate us about what the system does to us. It’s about empowering each other. And giving us the strength to stand up, go against the government and be educated about how the system works.
That was my mother’s aim. If we could have this in each town and each state, then they’ve got to call on us. They’ve got to hear our voices. They’ve got to use us, because we are the answer. They’re not the answer.
Helen, what do you believe the answer is from here? What has to take place in order to bring about meaningful change for the First Nations peoples of this continent?
It’s about hearing from the real people. Why don’t they go out from their offices to the prisons and talk to our women, our men and our youth?
They’re going to hear exactly the same thing, over and over. We have been punished and abused for so long. Our pain and our stories are all the same.
Identify the problem and start making change. And the first thing they need to do is look at the policies and get some advice from the real people out in the community. That’s what they need to do: deal with the real problems.