It is good to see that most voices on the debate about the welfare of Aboriginal children are all in good agreement on the need to prioritise safety. For example, the authors of a recent story on an ABC webpage stated “All children have the right to a safe, happy and emotionally supported childhood where they are nurtured and loved. This is beyond debate.” That’s great, but the article quickly progressed to mention ‘cultural needs’ (whatever that means) and went on to boldly state “Aboriginal children should be placed with Aboriginal families.” Of course no justification was given for this claim, which in some sectors has taken on the status of being self-evident and an unquestionable truth. And anyone who does question it is accused of being racist or promoting assimilation.
To the authors’ credit they mentioned some barriers that may make it difficult for Aboriginal families to be considered as carers. For example, some Aboriginal parents may lack the literacy skills necessary to be able to comprehend and complete the application process that is required to be a carer. I am all for having more Aboriginal families being eligible to be carers – not just of Aboriginal children but any child that needs a loving and caring family. If this means making the assessment procedure easier, then so be it, so long as it can be reasonably shown that the potential carers can provide a safe and nurturing environment for children in need of care.
It is the principle that claims Aboriginal carers are preferred to non-Aboriginal carers that I oppose. Specifically, on the Australian Institute of Family Studies webpage it states: “If no other suitable placement with Aboriginal carers can be sought, children are placed with non-Indigenous carers as a last resort.” The principle should be colour blind and restated as “children in need of out-of-home care should be placed with carers who can provide a safe and nurturing environment.”
Let’s look at the implications of the current principle that sees Aboriginal kids preferably placed with Aboriginal families. Although the principle is only a recommendation and not a legal requirement, it does raise some interesting and potentially serious problems.
Consider the union of an Aboriginal person and their non-Aboriginal partner. A majority of people identifying as Aboriginal who are in a relationship, are with a non-Aboriginal partner, so this is a common scenario. Suppose the couple part ways and are faced with the process of working out custody arrangements for their children. Should a parent's ancestry be a consideration in determining how much time the children spend with each parent? What should happen when the Aboriginal parent states “I want my children to have a connection with their Aboriginal culture”? What should then happen if the non-Aboriginal parent makes a similar and equally valid claim of “I want my children to have a connection with their non-Aboriginal culture”? Is the culture of one parent more important than that of the other parent? Surely it would be considered racist to think so?
As another potential problem, suppose the Aboriginal parent is considered less responsible than the non-Aboriginal parent. For example, they may have drinking related offences. Should culture trump demonstrated irresponsible behaviour?
Continuing the logic of the current placement principle, suppose there is a couple with one partner Aboriginal and the other non-Aboriginal, and the Aboriginal partner dies. Would the non-Aboriginal parent be considered appropriate and competent enough to care for his or her children? Would the State need to intervene and ensure that the surviving parent meets a list of demands that are assumed to demonstrate the parent’s competency and ensure the children’s cultural needs are taken care of? Would the parent be required to undertake some form of ‘cultural awareness’ training?
Most would agree any such requirements are ridiculous. In my opinion, the current placement principle for Aboriginal children in need of care is equally ridiculous.
Finally, which Aboriginal children in need of care does the current principle apply to? Currently a child can be considered Aboriginal because he or she has a distant relative who is Aboriginal. The child may be far removed from anything that could be considered ‘Aboriginal culture’ but does that mean attempts should be made to place him or her with an Aboriginal family for the sake of connecting him or her with their ‘culture’?
Well identity politics has reared its ugly head again. Let’s not forget that these Aboriginal children in need of safe loving homes are Australian children. Again, I am all for Aboriginal families being recognised carers for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, but culture should be given less priority than what it is currently given. All kids thrive in a culture of love.