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AbSec @AbSecNSW
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We’re at @SeymourSydney where Katie Beckett’s play about family, connection to country & #IndigenousDads, Which Way Home, has just been performed. We’re about to see a panel of speakers including our own Dr Paul Gray discuss the play & what it brought up for them.
Thanks to @CentrePoche which has organised tonight as part of its series of Key Thinkers Forums, hosted by Prof Tom Calma. And let’s acknowledge we’ve seen this breathtaking play tonight on Gadigal land of the Eora nation.
Tonight’s panelists are Katie Beckett (writer, actor and playwright of Which Way Home), @JustinMohamedRA (Vic Commissioner for Aboriginal Children & Young People), Dr Jeff McMullen (journalist, author & filmmaker) & AbSec’s head of policy, Dr Paul Gray.
Justin Mohamed starts by saying that Victoria is the only Aus state with an Aboriginal children’s commissioner. (This is something AbSec is trying to change - we’re lobbying for an Aboriginal child & family commissioner here in NSW.)
From Justin’s conversations in his role with Aboriginal children & young people in Vic, he says the importance of culture & community shines through. It’s what gives our kids strength.
Jeff McMullen says the play brought up memories of his own parents. He recalls a story from his mum’s childhood, when she was puzzled as a young child over why she could go to the local school & her Aboriginal friends couldn’t.
Jeff says no matter how much pain he’s seen people go through, the love they have for their family drives them. It’s what keeps Aboriginal people coming back to country, finding family after so many forced separations.
Jeff McMullen: We’ve had an apology, but “the real gap that still has to be closed is to understand the consequences of history and ongoing policy that shatters families.”
Paul Gray from AbSec is now speaking. He says his eyes were opened to the challenges of child protection when he left home to go to uni, and his parents opened their doors to foster kids.
Paul says he doesn’t actually want to talk about child protection tonight, because this play has been so centred on the strength, resilience & love of our families - and they’re the things we don’t talk about enough.
Paul says we make a point of talking to young people wherever we can, as their voices aren’t heard enough in child protection. When asked what makes them feel safe, Aboriginal kids most often say it’s their family & connections.
Katie Beckett is now talking about her experiences being an Aboriginal single mum. Her son got pulled out of class the other day & she immediately had this fear that she was being watched, that her kid would be taken. How striking & unfair it is to feel that fear.
Tom Calma asks: what does the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle really mean, and is it being implemented? Paul Gray says the Principle is often understood as the #OOHC placement heirarchy, but it’s much more than this. It has 5 elements, starting with prevention.
The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle isn’t just about what happens to Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care, but about their whole lives starting from ideally preventing them from entering care in the first place.
The Placement Principle needs to be understood alongside principles of self-determination & participation, but this has been largely diluted & lost over time.
Families need to be involved in supporting kids much earlier in the child protection process. Family involvement shouldn’t start when removing a child from home, but when trying to prevent that child’s removal through supporting that home environment.
Justin Mohamed is talking about transition of out-of-home care services in Vic from state & NFP agencies to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations. Part of it is a transfer of power from big established orgs to Aboriginal orgs; that’s part of the reconciliation process.
“A number of the children we have in out-of-home care now, their parents were in out-of-home care.” We need to support parents as well as children, says Justin Mohamed.
Jeff McMullen says that changing policies don’t always change ingrained prejudices & ideas in govt agencies, hospitals, schools, etc. We need to keep working at it; these things are passed down.
Jeff thinks the way forward for Australia lies in listening to Aboriginal people: deeply, genuinely listening. Abandoning a top-down approach, unlearning the ways of the past, & embracing the strengths of Aboriginal communities.
Jeff McMullen: sometimes there is a poison in the system that needs to be removed: one person whose ideas are outdated and prejudiced, who is swaying everyone else in the wrong direction.
“When we listen we’ve got to learn to not just nod. We’ve got to shift trust to those that hold knowledge, expertise & experience.” - Jeff McMullen
Paul Gray has pointed out that governments spend way more $$$ on out-of-home care than they do on supporting families. We invest in the systems separating families more than systems propping them up.
Our host Tom Calma says we need to stop siloing issues. What we’ve seen through evidence is that preventive programs to support kids & families have a flow-on effect to reducing crime, reducing suicide. We need to make these connections.
Justin Mohamed says around 40% of kids in youth detention come from out-of-home care. There are some kids in residential care who get put in prison for minor offences like throwing a cup of yoghurt. “If these kids were valued [by the system] a lot of these things would change.”
Justin Mohamed: the system currently sees kids in out-of-home care as a problem, as a deficit. It doesn’t value them.
A comment from an educator in the audience: she wonders whether the hard work of teachers in making kids feel supported is negated by aggression from the police & juvenile justice systems. She fears these institutions escalate problems rather than de-escalating.
Jeff McMullen answers this comment by bringing up mandatory sentencing: the fact that in some cases, we’d rather hand down a sentence than look at individual situations, the humanity behind the crime.
The tyranny of low expectations follows a lot of kids throughout their lives. Adults write them off because they assume these kids will never amount to anything.
Jeff: “You really need someone in those settings to say, we’ve really got to get back to the humanity here. Why is this person being treated differently?”
Katie Beckett thinks more of our history needs to be taught; there needs to be more understanding of what has happened in the past to Aboriginal people in Australia.
Paul Gray: “We talk a lot about being evidence-based... so let’s do the things that we know stop offending, the things that strengthen families... rather than being ‘tough on crime’ and punitive to families.”
Tom Calma says often Aboriginal people are put in prison for minor things. Mothers and carers are incarcerated for things like unpaid fines, and then their children are put in out-of-home care. Who wins in that situation?
People in the helping professions need to be educated on the effects of intergenerational trauma, says Tom Calma.
A comment from the floor: “we need healing through truth-telling. We talk about justice reinvestment, we also need healing reinvestment.”
Paul Gray says a big concern at the moment is the push towards adoption in NSW. We need to look at healing; severing children from family is not a solution.
“Self-determination isn’t just about participation. Self-determination is about Indigenous decision-making being carried through to implementation.” - Paul Gray, arguing for an Aboriginal-led child protection system.
“When you look internationally this has been happening.” Paul points to examples in the United States and Canada of Indigenous peoples establishing their own, self-determined child protection systems. It’s not impossible!
“The hopefulness of art like Katie’s play is that it opens us up to see the humanity of our brothers and sisters, the people next door.” Jeff McMullen gives a pertinent note to end on. Long live meaningful art like Which Way Home.
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