OPINION PIECE: Our Response Should Not Become A Competition of Outrage

11 March 2018

Published in the NT News, Sunday Territorian: http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/opinion/opinion-closing-indigenous-communities-would-be-a-copout/news-story/c877af19bee2f474b09bd4fe9f7c4a21

Any abuse against a child is horrific but we need more than outrage to deliver the best possible future for the children of the Northern Territory.

We need cohesive child protection systems in place that work in partnership with First Nations families, not in isolation to us. I have been asked in many media interviews if Aboriginal traditional culture inhibits the safety of children or if there is a form of secrecy about it. Let me be very clear every child regardless of who they are and where they live deserves to live in safety.

To hear the calls for the closure of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory by the previous Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and current Federal Cabinet Minister Alan Tudge amid discussions about child protection misses the mark completely.

Closing communities is not the answer, as former WA Premier Colin Barnett discovered. It is a cop out and a chance for Australia to abrogate its responsibilities to First Nations people.

No one disputes the need for the safety of children. All children deserve to grow up in safe homes with loving families. Any case that we read or hear about where a child has been harmed should be about making the system better. It is not a competition to see who cares the most among political leaders or Indigenous leaders. Our humanity must transcend political divides.

The frustration is not so much about a lack of resources, but about co-ordination of those resources at both Territory and Federal levels. On a policy and practical level we have to stamp out desensitisation to the needs of vulnerable families otherwise we enable systemic racism to flourish.

First Nations families and organisations must be included every step of the way.

Aboriginal people at the coalface of child protection must be at the table. Just talk to women like Regina Bennett at the Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Womens Centre and Shirleen Campbell a strong advocate for women in Town Camps in Alice Springs and Barb Shaw, General Manager of Anyinginyi Health in Tennant Creek.

It was Northern Territory Labor that introduced the Care and Protection of Children (Act), influenced largely as a result of the Little Children Are Sacred Report. It was this legislative reform that established the first NT Childrens Commissioner with the appointment of Dr Howard Bath. The role included convening the NT Child Deaths Review and Prevention Committee. Its purpose is to assist in the prevention and reduction of child deaths in the Northern Territory.

The current Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, is currently investigating the incident in Tennant Creek with a report due at the end of the month. Sometimes this work can reveal uncomfortable truths for all involved in the child protection system from politicians to case workers to parents but this work is important and it is just as important that it is lead not just to outrage politics, but to actual change, however difficult.

The reluctance to remove Indigenous children from unsafe home environments because of fears of creating a second Stolen Generations has been flatly rejected. NT Stolen Generations Chair Eileen Cummings who says if children must be removed for safety, then remove them.

Culture and child safety are not mutually exclusive.

Kinship care in First Nations families is an important part of family life. If supported appropriately it does work well. I have raised numerous children over the last 20 years, and continue to, because of my cultural kinship obligations to my families. It is also because I want to see a better way of life for all children. The absence of adequate housing must be recognised as a key contributor to an already vulnerable situation for families.

The Territory Government has already taken substantive steps to reform youth justice and child protection, investing in new bail support services and accommodation facilities and family and youth supports.

These reforms demonstrate the absolute seriousness with which the Northern Territory Government took to the findings from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

But, the Northern Territory cannot do it alone.

The Turnbull Government needs to take its share of the responsibility and negotiate in good faith with Chief Minister Michael Gunner and the Northern Territory Government over the Royal Commissions findings. The Prime Ministers reluctance to even visit the Territory or seriously discuss steps forward on this critical issue gives little confidence to families here.

Empowering and enabling Indigenous Australians in solutions, in particular in our remote and rural regions, is the way forward.

Once in office, Federal Labor will convene a national summit on First Nations Children in our first 100 days.

This commitment is a key part of repairing the broken systems and approaches that impact on First Nations families. It is a commitment to moving forward together, with ensuring the voices and aspirations of First Nations are at the forefront.