Friday, September 19, 2014

Jeremy Sammut from Australia: Hard conversation about Aboriginal culture and child protection


Conservative social commentators have indulged in 'divisive grandstanding' by linking Aboriginal culture to the abuse and neglect of Aboriginal children, according to Ngiare Brown, the deputy chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council.

These claims suppress the hard conversation we need to have about Aboriginal culture and child protection.

We cannot afford to ignore the question of 'culture' when discussing child maltreatment in disadvantaged Aboriginal communities, because 'culture' has long been pivotal to what is and isn't done to protect Aboriginal children.

Since at least the publication in 1997 of the Bringing them home report ('Stolen Generations' report), the standard literature on Aboriginal child protection has used the defence of traditional culture to downplay the impact of customary Aboriginal parenting practices on child wellbeing.

Bringing them home blamed the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system on the 'cultural bias' of caseworkers who failed to understand and respect Aboriginal family values. Because these values differed from the Western view of the 'normal' nuclear family, Aboriginal customs such as lack of parental supervision, encouraging children to be self-reliant, and the involvement of extended kin networks in rearing children were incorrectly labelled by caseworkers as neglectful.

This analysis of the Aboriginal 'village' stepping in for parents and caring for children remains influential. The 2007 Wood report into child protection in NSW stressed how difficult it is for caseworkers 'raised in Anglo-Celtic society' and valuing 'the nuclear family above other conceptualizations of the "family", to have any insight into ...the safety of an Aboriginal child.' Similarly, the 2013 Cummins report into child protection in Victoria also stressed the need for 'culturally competent' assessments of the needs of Aboriginal children and families.

The problems with a 'culturally appropriate' approach to Aboriginal child protection are twofold.

The first problem is that the sort of culturally determined parenting practices described above, which may have been suitable in the social conditions of the past, are no longer functioning well in the present. This has created a genuine child protection problem; it has been well-documented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies that the most common form of maltreatment experienced by Aboriginal children is chronic parental neglect of basic needs including 'adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene or medical attention.'
The anthropologist Peter Sutton (who is no conservative) has argued that culturally embedded Aboriginal parenting practices, which he describes as a 'customary permissiveness in the raising of children', play an important role in accounting for neglect of children's most fundamental needs.

The second problem is under-responding to the protective needs of Aboriginal children out of fear of being judgemental or 'culturally inappropriate'. The assertion that concerns about Aboriginal families are motivated by cultural insensitivity, at best, and racism, at worst, creates a powerful justification for non-intervention by child protection authorities. It promotes double standards and reverse racism in the name of 'respecting culture' that lead to Aboriginal children being left in circumstances from which non-Aboriginal children would be removed. 

It may not be politically correct to discuss how culture the habits accumulated overtime and passed down through the generations might be maladapted and have negative welfare effects. But nor is it 'racist' to do so.

'Culture', whether it is Aboriginal or otherwise, cannot be used as an excuse if child protection policy is to advance the best interests of Aboriginal children.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies at www.cis.org.au. 



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