This article was published in the Koori Mail this month by Padraic Gibson
After the Apology, a feature length documentary written and directed by Indigenous filmmaker and academic Larissa Behrendt, is currently being screened in communities across Australia. There was a series of screenings in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory on August 22-23. The “Stronger Families” program, run through Anyinginyi Aboriginal Health Corporation, hosted separate screenings for women and men. A public screening was also held during the evening in the local Peko Park.
The documentary explores the current crisis in Aboriginal child protection. More children are being forcibly taken from their families than at any time in Australian history and the numbers have more than doubled since former PM Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. After the Apology was produced by Pursekey Productions and lots of the research behind the film was done by the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, where I work at the University of Technology Sydney. The film has a particular focus on the strong women leading a grass-roots protest movement for change, Grandmothers Against Removals.
The Grandmothers’ efforts to organise and fight to have children reunited with their families and their message about the need for self-determination in child welfare, was well received in Tennant Creek. The small town is currently in the middle of wave of child removals. I conducted interviews with community leaders and affected families after they had watched the film. Many people are confused, scared and deeply sad that so many children are being taken away, many placed in Alice Springs (500kms south of the town), or even further away, cut off from all contact with their extended families.
Child protection services in Tennant Creek have been the subject of intense public debate this year, following an horrific rape of a small child in February. A report by the NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne, released in early May, documented an extensive history of neglect, homelessness, alcohol abuse and family violence in the family of the child victim. The report also showed that there were many efforts over the years made by extended family members to report risks, provide temporary care and keep the children safe.
Rather than look at how these family members or Aboriginal organisations could have been better engaged and supported to change the children’s circumstances, media reports and NT Government commentary bluntly called for more Aboriginal children to be taken into foster care. The Australian newspaper reported that fifteen children were taken from Tennant Creek in a single week in the wake of the report. This in a community with between 1500-2000 Aboriginal people. In the NT and across Australia, Aboriginal children are overwhelmingly removed for “neglect”, rather than physical or sexual abuse.
A number of local families* described to me the shock and awe tactics used to take children away in recent months. Child protection workers and police, sometimes in large parties, are turning up without warning and grabbing children, without any meaningful consultation with families.
Dianne Stokes Nampin, a Warlmanpa and Warumungu community leader who helped to organise the screenings said:
This is a really good movie that has hit us hard in Tennant Creek. We have a really sad feeling seeing our kids being chased and taken away by the police and welfare. We are all telling the stories of how our old people were taken away, part of the Stolen Generations. They came back to us after many years, with lots of stories about being raped and abused in the homes. Now there is another Stolen Generation happening. We are so worried for them. A lot of the families cried watching that movie, we are thinking about our kids. But we got the message now. We need to stand up and be strong and talk back to the [white people] taking our children. They need to be home with us.
There are many calls locally for urgent action to turn around the shocking living and social conditions experienced by many Aboriginal families, which impact heavily on child safety. According to a number of residents and service workers, the housing situation is the worst it has been for decades, with chronic overcrowding in dilapidated houses and many people sleeping rough. When the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) were cut in 2008, the town lost more than 300 jobs. Lack of opportunity is fuelling dangerous levels of alcohol consumption and family violence.
The strength of culture and language is a source of great pride for many Aboriginal people in the Tennant Creek region. Despite many challenges, strong voices are speaking up for change. One local grandfather who has had a number of his grandchildren removed this year* said:
They can’t keep taking us backwards, back to the days of the Stolen Generations. We want to be going forward. We want our kids here with us, going hunting for bush foods, with us at ceremony time. They can’t keep missing out, they are our future.
*Interviewees must remain anonymous due to current Children’s Court proceedings.
Padraic Gibson is a Senior Researcher at the Jumbunna Institute, University of Technology Sydney. He worked on After the Apology and is assisting with the roll out of community screenings. To organise a screening in your community, register your interest at http://aftertheapology.com/#take-action