Australia's Aboriginal Children: A New Inquiry

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Graham / AP

Candles spell out "Sorry the First Step" on the lawn in front of the Federal Parliament in Canberra, Australia, on Feb. 11, 2008

A day before Deborah Melville's death in July 2007, the 12-year-old was visited by a Northern Territory child-protection worker at her foster home outside of Darwin, Australia. The caseworker noted the girl's distress, who, according to the Australian media, was crying on the kitchen floor when she arrived. The social worker comforted Deborah, reassuring her that she would not be uprooted and moved to another home.

Melville, an indigenous child placed in the care of her great-aunt after her birth mother lost custody of her in 2001, was not likely to have been crying out of fear of abandonment, but out of sheer agony. She had a festering bone infection from a three-week-old fracture in her right leg that had already spread to her organs. The following morning, according to reports, Deborah was carried outside by her carers — apparently at her own request — and for eight hours she lay dying in the backyard. An autopsy revealed that one and a half liters of pus were found in her right leg. One doctor described the case as the worst bone infection he had ever seen.

In Australia, Melville's case has been widely covered in all major news outlets since 2008. But while the nation may have been made aware of the horrific neglect that Melville suffered, a largely unpublicized audit claims that her death was only part of a much greater problem. According to a 2007 report leaked to the Australian on Feb. 6 and written by psychologist Howard Bath, then the director of a nonprofit organization that specializes in support for child, youth and family services, the Northern Territory child-protection system is near collapse. Today, just over two years after Australia apologized for six decades of a policy that forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their homes, a new inquiry into that system is being launched.

Melville's great-aunt and aunt both lived at the home at the time of Deborah's death. Both women were charged with manslaughter in the case but were eventually acquitted in 2008 on the grounds that they couldn't have known just how sick she was. Not everyone, however, was let off the hook: In an inquiry completed on Jan. 19, the national Department of Families and Child Services, the authority that was supposed to be protecting Deborah, was found largely responsible for her death, having ignored the many red flags raised throughout her six years in foster care.

One of the crucial conclusions of Bath's report is that the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (ACPP), a guideline instated in 1983 to avoid another Stolen Generation scenario, is problematic. Responding to the painful legacy of old laws by which children were forcibly removed from their families and placed thousands of miles away in homes of white Australians, the ACPP stipulates that Aboriginal children removed by the state from their parents should be placed with family members or other indigenous Australians whenever possible. But it's a system, the study shows, that is failing the children it was designed to protect. "The present data suggests, as do some of the decisions in the case studies, that in some cases this principle appears to be given primacy over basic child-protection considerations," Bath told the Australian.

Frank Hytten, the CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), dismisses conclusions that the ACPP is to blame as absurd. "The guideline has been in place for more than 20 years, and in that time, the absolute first principle has always been child safety," he says. Hytten faults inadequate support and training for child-protection staff as the problem, not the concept itself. "You have the least experienced staff on the front line, and they are often overwhelmed by the complexity and highly charged emotional situations in which they have to work; taking a child away from their family is never easy, but sometimes, for the safety of the child, where no better options exist, it has to be done."

Other findings in the 2007 Bath report mentioned in the Australian include failure to regularly monitor the children placed in care, poor assessment of carers, and lack of support services for at-risk children in the Northern Territory. "It's a system that's been in crisis for some time and is getting worse," says Jodeen Carney, Shadow Minister for children and families. Carney, based in Alice Springs, is enraged at the "cover-up culture" that has surrounded the report, whose full contents have yet to be disclosed. The Northern Territory's Child Protection Minister, Kon Vatskalis, issued a statement that this is to preserve the privacy of the victims, but, says Carney, "It should never have been suppressed in the first place."

Child protection in the Northern Territory has long been a hot-button issue in Australia. In 2007, the Northern Territory government released a report titled "Little Children Are Sacred," which revealed appalling statistics about rife sexual abuse of children in remote Aboriginal communities. The report was immediately picked up by the press and politicians alike and became the catalyst for the widely contested Northern Territory intervention — a system by which the federal government imposed nine measures upon indigenous Australians living in remote communities, including alcohol restrictions and pornography filters on publicly funded computers.

In addition to inciting loud opposition from human-rights groups, those measures have also failed to alleviate the problems facing Aboriginal children, who are still over-represented in the child-protection system. Indigenous children are nine times as likely to be cared for by people outside their immediate family than non-indigenous kids, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Kate Valentine, the AIHW spokeswoman, told ABC News that the reasons behind this are complex. "They involve factors such as the intergenerational effects of previous separations and poorer socioeconomic status."

A fresh inquiry into the child-protection system in the Northern Territory will commence with public hearings on Thursday to evaluate its current approaches and infrastructure. "We need to help vulnerable and at-risk families become the circles of nurture, protection and care they are intended to be," said Muriel Bamblett in a statement released Feb. 11. Bamblett was the chairperson of SNAICC until 2008 and is active on many boards concerning children, families and the indigenous community and one of three chairs for the inquest. "But we must never sacrifice a child's need to be safe." Bath, who was appointed Children's Commissioner for the Northern Territory in June 2008, has stepped down from the role to co-chair the inquiry, the results of which are expected to be released this year.

"Part of me supports the idea of another inquiry, but a bigger part of me says, Here we go again. How many more do we have to have?" Hytten says of the inquiry. His concern is that the ACPP will be altered, and Aborigines in the Northern Territory will have even less command of their own destinies. "People thrive when they control their own lives," he says.