Alice Springs grandmother and former welfare worker Christine Kngwarraye Palmer. (ABC News: Declan Gooch)
Indigenous grandmothers say child protection policies must strike a better balance between keeping children safe and allowing them to stay with their families.
Grandmothers Against Removals (GAR) was founded in the NSW town of Gunnedah, and has helped cut its rate of child removals by advocating for families affected by child protection policies.
The group travelled to the outback town of Alice Springs on Wednesday to meet with other Indigenous carers.
The Northern Territory has the highest rate of children in care, at 16.8 kids per 1,000, and Indigenous children are up to 10 times more likely to be admitted to out-of-home care.
Founder and Gamilaroi woman Hazel Collins said communities needed to stand up to the Government.
“It is definitely a model that can be adopted by any community, and I strongly urge wherever I go that communities do this,” Ms Collins said.
“It’s about us having control. We’re big brother to a department that is never going to be able to fix anything because they’re the problem.”
It comes in the wake of the alleged rape of a two-year-old Aboriginal girl in the remote community of Tennant Creek, which has placed the Territory’s child protection policies in the national spotlight.
It was revealed the child’s household had been subject to more than 20 notifications to child protection services, and an internal review found Territory Families lacked oversight and coordination in its handling of the case.
“That particular family in Tennant Creek were crying out for help,” Alice Springs grandmother Christine Kngwarraye Palmer said.
“The services in Tennant Creek failed that mother. And when you look at the system here, all the services in Alice Springs [ get in the way of] that beautiful kinship system.”
Kinship system ‘always going to be there’
Grandmothers from both Gunnedah and Alice Springs believe government policies have devastated traditional Aboriginal family structures, rather than making the most of them.
Ms Palmer said child protection authorities could use a range of kinship-based options that did not involve taking the child away from their family.
“It’s always been there, through skin, through songs, through paintings, through dance and that. It’s a system that’s always going to be there,” she said.
Grandmothers Against Removals founder and Gamilaroi woman Hazel Collins. (ABC News: Declan Gooch)
“So we need to get all these people to come back and start working with the grandmothers.”
Ms Palmer worked in the welfare system in the 1980s, and recalled the case of an 18-year-old woman who left out-of-home care and returned to her community, only to find she could not fit in because she did not speak their language.
“Now that’s totally wrong. Our children should grow up with their family, learn the language, learn who’s who in the family connection,” she said.
As part of their trip, GAR and Alice Springs grandmothers held a screening of the child removal documentary, After the Apology.
Padraig Gibson, who worked on the movie, said children could still be protected without being removed.
“The answer to meeting those risks lies in the family, and lies in the community themselves,” he said.
“If there’s risks of harm, meet with the families, meet with the communities. Discuss with them what safe living arrangements might be available for those children.
“There’s loving homes that are there. Don’t come in with police and rip children away.”
Walter Shaw, the CEO of Tangentyere Council, which provides services to the Alice Springs town camps, said the Territory Government needed to direct more resources to kinship-based programs.
“The kinship care model will assist families with navigating the system once the child is removed, [as well as] in place of child protection, and also assisting families … with those informal care arrangements,” Mr Shaw said.
Grandmothers Against Removals is advocating for changes to child protection policies. (ABC News: Declan Gooch)