State and Territory legislation, programs and policies in the areas of child welfare, adoption and juvenile justice are intended to provide a non-discriminatory framework for the administration of services. In many cases, programs are designed with the objective of reducing the extent of contemporary removals of Indigenous children and young people. In spite of this, the over-representation of Indigenous children among children living separately from their families and communities, temporarily or permanently, remains high. It must be acknowledged that there are broad social, economic and cultural causes for continuing removals.

Many submissions to the Inquiry drew attention to the need for a broad approach to understanding the reasons behind contemporary removals of Indigenous children and young people (for example, ALSWA submission 127, SNAICC submission 309, NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) submission 362). 'A broad and detailed approach is necessary because some current laws, policies and practices which initially may not appear relevant to the terms of reference of the National Inquiry, on close examination, are very relevant (submission 127 page 11). These include 'health, housing, education, employment, the legacy of historical abuse, denigration and loss of identity, substance abuse and despair' (submission 127 page 337).

Law, policy and practice are affected by poor socio-economic conditions which make Indigenous children and young people more vulnerable to removal. For example, stress factors arising from socio-economic position and demography arise in welfare department interventions in all families. These factors are particularly prevalent in Indigenous families. In Queensland 12% of the population receives government benefits, 51% of protective services' clients receive benefits and 62% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protective services' clients are in receipt of benefits. In a study of stress factors experienced by client families in Queensland a higher percentage of Indigenous clients faced stress factors in every category. The categories with the greatest disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients' experiences of stress factors are substance abuse (68% compared with 37%), cultural dislocation (38% compared with 15%), accommodation problems (40% compared with 33%) and geographical isolation (30% compared with 20%). These stress factors also affect contact with juvenile justice systems (Queensland Government final submission page 35).

It is facile and dishonest to pretend that many of our kids don't get into trouble ... Given the circumstances they are born into, the stack of disadvantages against them, they are not doing too badly. Any group of young people growing up in our world, with our socio-economic profile, would act up and get into strife. Lay the veneer of history, prejudice and cultural disjuncture over their starting point and the problem deepens (Dodson 1995 page 26).

The frustration felt by Indigenous young people can be expressed in behaviours that are destructive to the individual and the community. To understand that behaviour it is necessary to consider the nature of the socio-economic conditions in which Indigenous people live. Some factors arise from cultural difference. Others are the results of dispossession and marginalisation - poverty, ill-health, poor education, high unemployment and homelessness.


The demographic profile of Indigenous peoples in Australia has an important influence on the absolute numbers of Indigenous children and young people likely to come into contact with juvenile justice and welfare agencies. As a result, it affects the number of Indigenous children and young people separated from their families and communities.

The 1991 Census showed double the proportion of young people in the Indigenous population compared to young people in the non-Indigenous population. Approximately 15% of the Indigenous population is under five years of age, compared to 7% in the general population. Young people aged 10 to 15 years comprise 14% of the Indigenous population in Australia. For all Australians the proportion is 9%. Approximately 22% of the total Australian population is under 15 years compared to 40% of the Indigenous population (Dodson 1995 page 15). By 2000 this age group of Indigenous young people will grow by 26%. The same age group in the general population will grow by 1%.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated, based on current imprisonment levels and demography, that by 2001 there will have been a 15% increase in the number of Indigenous young people in detention (ALSWA submission pages 339-340; see also Dodson 1995 page 15).

Indigenous children have a far higher rate of removal from their families as a result of neglect compared with abuse than the general population. Neglect is the most prevalent reason for substitute care in the under two age group and more generally among young children. In 1993 12% of Indigenous children involved in substantiated abuse and neglect were under the age of one compared with 7% for all children (Angus and Zabar 1995 page 17). The relationship between poverty and neglect and the projected demographic change together are likely to cause similar increases in welfare interventions to those expected in juvenile justice.

Family and cultural relations

Indigenous societies in Australia have very different cultural concepts of childhood and youth. Generally they do not impose the same separation or exclusion of children from the adult world as non-Indigenous society does. Responsibility for children and young people is shared through the kinship system and the wider community (Watson 1989, Sansom and Baines 1988).

Cultural difference, particularly different family structures, can lead to adverse decisions by juvenile justice, welfare and other agencies, particularly where cultural difference is not understood or does not inform policy development and implementation. At its worst, cultural difference can be treated as a type of abnormality or pathology because it differs from a perceived dominant cultural norm. In other words, if Indigenous child-rearing is seen as pathological or abnormal, Indigenous families will be more liable to intervention by social workers, police and courts. Assimilation can become an implicit result as the values of the dominant group are imposed on Indigenous people.

As well as differences in child-rearing practices, there are significant differences in family structures between Indigenous societies and the dominant culture. A survey of Indigenous people conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1994 (the 1994 ABS survey) showed that Indigenous youth (15 to 24 year olds) have different household relationships with their parents than non-Indigenous youth. Less than half (45%) of Indigenous youth lived with their parents compared to nearly two-thirds of non-Indigenous youth. Indigenous youth were more likely than non-Indigenous youth to live as partners in a relationship (21%), to be lone parents (9%) or to live with other relatives (14%).

There were also significant differences in family structure for Indigenous children aged 10 to 15 years compared to non-Indigenous children in the same age group. The 1991 census showed that over one-third (37%) of these Indigenous children lived in single parent families, compared to 13% of non-Indigenous children in the same age group; over one-third (36%) lived in an extended family unit, compared to 1.5% of non-Indigenous children in the same age group; and the typical size of these households was nearly twice the size of non-Indigenous households (4.6 persons compared to 2.6) (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 22).

Different cultural patterns such as family structure and child rearing practices can lead to poor service provision or poor access to entitlements. The Report of the Aboriginal Women's Task Force noted that extended family responsibilities in child-rearing lead to situations where women with responsibilities for child-rearing, such as grandmothers, were not necessarily receiving entitlements such family allowances (Daylight and Johnstone 1986 pages 31-32). The attitudes of non-Indigenous staff in government agencies with a direct role in the provision of services for Indigenous people also need to be considered. The attitudes which governed the management of Aboriginal children during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century may have changed officially but may still influence the way services are administered (ALSWA submission 127).

Cultural difference is also evident in the ethnocentric assessment of Indigenous parenting and family structures by welfare departments. From the late 1970s studies have identified the ethnocentric nature of social background reports and psychological tests administered to Aboriginal young people coming under state supervision (Milne and Munro 1981). The reports displayed prejudices in relation to Aboriginal culture, family life and child rearing practices through descriptions of 'dysfunctional families' and 'bad home environment' (Gale et al 1990 page 102, Carrington 1993 page 48).

Ethnocentric assumptions about family structure, individual and family dynamics and cultural values lead not only to unnecessary interventions but also to inappropriate arrangements for children in substitute care. Recurring themes are,

  • the implicit or explicit interpretation of extended familial responsibility as 'abandonment' or 'inadequate supervision',
  • the implicit or explicit interpretation of travel to maintain familial and cultural relationships and responsibilities as 'instability',
  • differences in the level of freedom and responsibility accorded to Indigenous children interpreted as 'lack of supervision' or 'lack of control' over children, and
  • the cultural biases which become incorporated in assessments and reports may be used to justify more interventionist decisions by child welfare and juvenile justice agencies as well as decisions in relation to matters such as child removal, adoption and custody.

Cultural factors were also examined in the 1994 ABS survey. The results point to the importance of Indigenous culture in the lives of young people. Over two-thirds (68%) of Indigenous youth had attended cultural activities in the previous 12 months. Over half (56%) identified with a clan, tribal or language group. Just over 70% recognised particular homelands.1 Almost one in five Indigenous young people spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language and for 13% an Indigenous language was the main language. In rural areas, 42% of young people spoke an Indigenous language and for 38% of youth in rural areas an Indigenous language was the main language spoken (ABS 1996 pages 2-5). The results of the survey point to the active role played by culture in the lives of Indigenous young people and the active part played in cultural life by Indigenous youth.

Domestic violence

The Inquiry was told that domestic violence is a problem in many communities (ALSWA submission page 322). It particularly affects Indigenous women and their children. The failure to deal with domestic violence and the failure to meet the legal needs of Indigenous women for protection against violent spouses inevitably affects the children and young people of families where violence is a problem. According to the 1994 ABS survey, many Indigenous young people identified family violence as a problem in their area. This view was more pronounced among Indigenous young women than young men (47% compared to 36%) (ABS 1996 page 23).

The majority of Indigenous children 'find high levels of warmth, acceptance, support and personal security in their homes. There are, however, Indigenous homes where there is violence and abuse. We met a number of young people who left their homes because of the unbearable tensions within them' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 28). Research has found a connection between a range of juvenile offences, problem behaviour such as truanting and domestic violence in the home (Beresford and Omaji 1996 page 45).

Domestic violence is a frequent feature in welfare department interventions into Indigenous families. Domestic violence may cause the child's home or a relative's home to be assessed as unsuitable for the child. The mother of the child may be in hospital as a result of domestic violence and the department may intervene while the child is in alternative care. The mother may be in a refuge as a result of domestic violence and be assessed as having unsuitable accommodation. Frequently domestic violence is one of the many stresses affecting a mother's capacity to look after her children. Many communities have identified domestic violence as a serious problem affecting children's well being.

The most frequently cited example of child abuse was in the context of an incident of domestic violence, in which children were frightened of the situation and ran away scared. The children almost always ran away to their kami (grandmother) (Harrison 1991 page 9).

Alcohol and substance abuse

Domestic violence often occurs in conjunction with alcohol and other substance abuse. Alcohol is a factor in a very high number of welfare and criminal justice interventions in Indigenous families. It is associated with incapacity to care for children, violence, lack of money for food and other essentials, stealing, poor health and many other problems. The relationship between alcohol and other substance abuse and intervention by child protection and criminal justice agencies is undisputed.

Substance abuse is a major problem for Indigenous young people in some communities (Beresford and Omaji 1996 pages 134-6). It can lead to intervention by welfare or juvenile justice authorities.

The criminal justice system continues to remove Aboriginal children from their families. In a stunning illustration of this, recently a 15 year old boy, with no criminal history approached a police station in the far west of New South Wales with the proceeds from a recent break, enter and steal. He claimed to have been responsible for the crime. He asked to be locked up and taken away from his community 'so I can get away from the petrol sniffing'. The police obliged and he was refused bail and prosecuted. Subsequently, information revealed that he had not committed the crime at all. Rather, he had simply taken himself to the only community service option in the town which he felt could do something about his desire to 'get away from the petrol sniffing'.

The fact that a 15 year old boy found it necessary to go to the criminal justice system in order to get assistance for a social/medical problem is an appalling situation (Western Aboriginal Legal Service (Broken Hill) submission 775).

Communities in WA have attempted to use by-law making provisions under the Community Services Act 1979 (WA) to control the sale and distribution of alcohol. They have been hindered by delays in proclaiming their communities as 'communities' under the Act and in processing and approving by-laws. Some communities which have requested assistance to become dry have been forced to wait for years (Crough and Christophersen 1993 page 126). Others, however, in the Northern Territory and WA have successfully worked with the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner to restrict the supply of alcohol to their members.

Indigenous women are looking at all avenues to address alcohol abuse. Some of their initiatives include programs to help men, 'beat the grog' campaigns, Alcoholics Anonymous, training alcohol counsellors and night patrols. Alcohol and other substance abuse such as petrol sniffing are at the heart of social problems and exist at crisis proportions in some communities.


Alcohol and substance abuse is not the only health issue. Poor health, the failure of governments to remedy environmental health problems and mental illness are all parts of life for many Indigenous people including children and young people (submission 127 pages 157-68). Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child declares the right of children to the enjoyment of the highest standards of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.

The 1994 ABS survey showed that one-quarter of Indigenous youth reported a long-term illness or condition. The major illness reported was asthma, followed by ear or hearing problems, skin problems and chest problems (ABS 1996 page 6).

Hearing loss is endemic in Indigenous children and linked to poverty. The incidence varies between areas, but an estimated minimum of 20% of Indigenous pupils in urban areas are affected by marked hearing loss resulting from otitis media. 'Problems with hearing are one of the major causes of low performance in language skills among Aboriginal children and can also be related to behavioural issues' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 25). Numerous reports, including those of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, have drawn attention to the connections between hearing loss, behavioural problems and intervention by juvenile justice or welfare agencies (National Report 1991 Volume 2 pages 364-8, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs 1994 pages 325-31).

Poor nutrition is a direct cause of many diseases. Often poor nutrition in childhood combined with substance abuse such as petrol sniffing leads to serious adulthood diseases and disability. Welfare interventions in Indigenous families are frequently related to poor nutrition. For example Indigenous children are severely over-represented in cases of 'failure to thrive', one of the most common reasons for neglect orders being sought for children under two years. Indigenous children with disabilities are the most likely to be placed in non-Indigenous substitute care and in juvenile detention centres.

The Aboriginal Mental Health Unit (NSW) commented upon the impact of forcible removals on Indigenous people's mental and general health.

Presenting issues arise predominantly from major grief or loss, trauma, the consequences of family members' removal and disruption of the strong bonds of family and kinship which characterised Aboriginal culture ... we believe that it has been the single most significant factor in emotional and mental health problems which in turn have impacted on physical health (submission 650 page 4).

Stress is another health issue which affects Indigenous families. It is related, among other factors, to living in poverty and to unemployment and under employment. In the 1994 ABS survey nearly 30% of individuals aged 15 years and over reported worrying about going without food. This worry was particularly prevalent in households where no-one was working and where there were dependent children (ABS 1995a page 13).


The Inquiry was told that 'without housing, an individual's education, economic and socio-cultural developments are severely curtailed. Without adequate housing, family cohesion and ability to care for children is severely inhibited' (ALSWA submission 127 page x). Aboriginal people have problems accessing adequate housing primarily for three reasons.

Firstly, the most significant influences are the philosophy, policies and practices of Homeswest. Secondly, the difficulty in obtaining adequate private rental accommodation disadvantages Aboriginal people. Thirdly, the practice of allocating housing to Aboriginal communities often in remote and fringe areas of the State further disadvantages them (ALSWA submission 127 page 118).

The WA Aboriginal Legal Service criticised Homeswest's policies on eviction and threatened eviction. '[M]any of the policies of Homeswest amount to direct and indirect discrimination against Aboriginal applicants and tenants' (submission 127 page xi). It drew attention to the high level of discretion at the regional level in placing Aboriginal families and argues that Aboriginal people are treated less favourably (submission 127 pages 121-148). 'There are places in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions where the state of housing can only be described as unacceptable for human habitation' (submission 127 page 152). Other reports and inquiries have drawn a similar picture of Indigenous housing throughout Australia.2

Unsatisfactory housing can have a direct link with the removal of Indigenous children and young people.

It's really awful. It is so difficult to try to bring up my children and send them to school when I am moving from one place to another. Since I was kicked out of Homeswest accommodation I haven't been able to find any accommodation. I live on Social Security and I have two children who are in high school. It is hard enough for our children to stay at school but when they have to move from school to school because we need to move and have a roof over our heads, it is very unsettling for them. That's why I have only got the two older boys. My daughter who is only ten lives with an aunty of mine in B. I wanted to look after her but some social worker from the Department said that it was best if we stayed in one place for my daughter's development. I was too scared to argue with the social worker because I know what the Department can be like.

Quoted by ALSWA submission 127 on page 117.

According to the 1994 ABS survey, some 95% of Indigenous young people lived in private dwellings, of which three-quarters were rented. The percentage of Indigenous youth in rental accommodation was about twice the national youth average. Indigenous young people were far less likely to have the security offered by home ownership. In addition, about one-third of all Indigenous young people living in private dwellings stated that the accommodation was unsatisfactory. The main problems reported were the need for repairs, not enough bedrooms and not enough living space (ABS 1996 page 12). Indigenous families are 20 times more likely to be homeless than non-Indigenous families (Dodson 1996 page 79).

Employment and income

The national picture of Indigenous employment and income shows little improvement in recent years.

The 1994 ABS survey reveals that despite efforts to increase the status of the Indigenous labour force to that of the general population there was no movement in this direction during the early 1990s. Most new jobs for Indigenous people were connected with the expansion of Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP). One result of the reliance on CDEP employment has been a greater level of part-time employment among Indigenous workers than among the general workforce (ABS 1995b page 1). The 1994 review of the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy found that Indigenous people were three times more likely to be unemployed and experience greater longer-term unemployment, the employment situation of Indigenous men had worsened in urban areas, average incomes had declined relative to the national average and there had been no reduction in welfare dependency (cited in ABS 1995b page 7). Family income levels are significantly influenced by employment levels.

The 1991 Census showed that 60% of single parent Indigenous families had incomes of less than $20,000 a year, compared to 43% on non-Indigenous single parent families. Half (51%) of two parent Indigenous families had incomes of less than $30,000 a year, compared to 20% of non-Indigenous two parent families. Yet Indigenous families are on average nearly twice the size of non-Indigenous families (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 24).

According to the 1994 ABS survey, the proportion of Indigenous youth employed or looking for work (the labour force participation rate) was 58%. Of these, nearly half were unemployed (47%). The unemployment rate of Indigenous young people aged between 15 and 19 years was 50%, more than twice that of all Australian youth (22%) (ABS 1996 pages 16-17). The level of unemployment among Indigenous young people is an important indicator of the likelihood of coming into contact with juvenile justice agencies (Gale et al 1990, Walker and McDonald 1995).

Of those Indigenous young people who were employed, some one-third were working on CDEP projects. In rural areas, over 62% of young people employed were on CDEP projects (ABS 1996 page 17). Nearly half of the Indigenous young people surveyed by the ABS were dependent on some form of government payment as the main source of income. For 29% the main source of income was through employment. Another 21% reported no income at all (ABS 1996 page 21).

The fact that one in five young people report no income at all is a disturbing feature likely to increase the probability of criminalisation. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody drew attention to the large number of Indigenous young people who could not find work and the apparent relationship between unemployment and contact with juvenile justice agencies (National Report Volume 1 page 378). The 1994 ABS survey found that higher rates of arrest contribute to lower employment rates in the Indigenous population, particularly for male teenagers (ABS 1995b page 2). The survey 'established a strong negative relationship between arrest rates and subsequent employment outcomes ... The analysis found that, all other things being equal, the fact of having been arrested within the previous five years prior to the survey reduced the chances of employment by half' (ABS 1995b page 2). In other words, unemployment among those who were arrested was double the rate of those who had not been arrested. The issue is particularly important because nearly 40% of Indigenous male youth reported being arrested during the previous five years (ABS 1995b page 40). Unemployed persons, adults and youth, also reported a higher proportion of multiple arrests than those who were employed (ABS 1995a page 58).


A number of submissions to the Inquiry drew attention to the relationship between past racist policies and practices in education which excluded or marginalised Indigenous children and contemporary low secondary school retention rates and low participation rates in tertiary education. Truanting and early school leaving are intimately connected with the likelihood of child welfare and juvenile justice intervention (NSW AECG submission 362 page 4, ALSWA submission 127 page 185).

Past educational policies have contemporary consequences.

In our recent past, the education and training system ... have been tools to systematically strip Aboriginal communities of not only our culture, but the living heart of our communities, our children ... Schools were not only used to deny Aboriginal children a culturally appropriate education whether separated or not, they were also used as points from which Aboriginal children were 'removed' (NSW AECG submission 362 page 1).

Until comparatively recently, several jurisdictions had 'policies of not allowing Aboriginal children to attend country schools if the local whites protested. Schools which did admit Aboriginal students usually practised a strict physical segregation in classrooms. Both these practices, which highlight more obvious forms of institutional racism, occurred within the memory of many of the parents of today's adolescents' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 20). In Western Australia, where Aboriginal children were excluded from schools until the 1950s, 'a cross generational pattern of alienation from schools as white institutions [has] resulted from the policies' (Beresford and Omaji 1996 page 54).

During the early part of the twentieth century there was a belief, reinforced by psychologists and educators, that Indigenous students only had a limited 'mental ability'. Although these views have been discredited as science they still 'appear to enjoy currency among some teachers' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 57). Where 'special classes' exist, Aboriginal students are more likely to be drafted into them on the basis of Aboriginality rather than need (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 42). The Inquiry was told that the contemporary over-representation of Indigenous children and young people among students who are suspended or excluded from schools reflects the earlier history of educational policies towards Indigenous people (NSW AECG submission 362).

In WA, Beresford and Omaji argue that the over-representation of Indigenous young people in school suspensions requires an investigation into a range of factors including the cultural appropriateness of the rules, the cultural compatibility of the learning styles adopted, the nature of racism in the school and social disadvantage factors. Disengagement of Indigenous children and young people from school is in itself likely to set-up young people for intervention by welfare and juvenile justice agencies either because of truanting or through the more general connection between non-attendance at school and juvenile offending (Beresford and Omaji 1996 page 69).

There is a documented lack of educational achievement by Indigenous children when measured by attendance, retention and attainment levels. Schools and teachers fail to provide Indigenous students with the educational experiences the students and their parents expect (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page xii). While there has been some increase in retention rates and participation in post-secondary education and training, the rates are still much lower than average (ABS 1995b page 2).

According to the 1994 ABS survey, 81% of Indigenous 15 year olds reported attending school compared to 92% of all Australian 15 year olds. For 16 year olds the proportions were Indigenous 57%, total 80%; and for 17 years old they were Indigenous 31%, total 60% (ABS 1996 page 13). Retention rates were higher for Indigenous girls and there were marked variations in retention rates between jurisdictions (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 6).

No other national figures of attendance rates are available. However, South Australian figures for 1993 show that the average attendance rate for Indigenous children at primary school was 85.5% compared to 93.1% for the total population. The comparable figures for secondary school were Indigenous 78.4%, total 89.4%. The attendance rate for Indigenous girls was lower than for boys. 'The implications of these figures are that Aboriginal students are likely to lose between two and four years of schooling through absenteeism. Rates for the total population are less than half these' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 3).

Reasons for low attendance include disaffection with school, difficulties of attending school arising from poverty, family pressures particularly in single parent families, high levels of sickness and high death rates among adults and the consequent social obligations (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 4). However, it is clear that some Indigenous students abandon school because of the pressures of racism and cultural dominance (NSW AECG submission 362 page 1, Groome and Arthur Hamilton 1995 page xii).

A significant number of [Indigenous] students, when asked to reflect on why they had left schools, said that they had felt depersonalised and had lost self-esteem under the pressure of racial harassment and 'put downs' from both teachers and students (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 45).

Racism from teachers is a more difficult experience to deal with than racism from other students. The types of racism experienced include racial abuse and vilification, negative comments about families and behaviour on the basis of race, prejudicial treatment, negative personal comments about 'extra money' and 'special benefits' (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 37).

The poor educational results for Indigenous students are also reflected in the rates of suspensions and exclusions from schools. Indigenous children and young people comprise 12% of school suspensions in New South Wales, although they make-up only 3% of the student population (NSW AECG submission page 4). Children as young as five years of age are being suspended, excluded and expelled from schools (NSW AECG submission 362 page 5).

Successful Indigenous secondary students share a strong and growing sense of identity. In these cases Indigenous identity was a source of strength to achieve.

For the majority of the Aboriginal students with whom we spoke, identity was a central issue. They were proud of their heritage and culture, especially in the face of racist attacks. These students felt that they possessed a culture in a way in which their peers did not. Most had a sense of the spiritual dimension of Aboriginality that separated their culture from others ... The biggest single tangible indicator of the depth of Aboriginal identity was the virtually unanimous feeling that there should be much more Aboriginal Studies taught in schools for the benefit of all students (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 11).

Levels of formal education among adults in Indigenous families are lower than for all Australians. The 1991 Census showed that the level of post-secondary qualification was four times lower among Indigenous adults, vocational qualifications were half the national rate and the proportion of Indigenous parents with no recognised qualifications was 26% higher than all Australians. Most Indigenous young people had left school by Year 10 or earlier. The proportion of 15 to 24 year old Indigenous young people who attained post-secondary qualifications (10%) was less than half that of all Australian youth (23%) (ABS 1996 page 14). Despite both the history of non-Indigenous educational policies towards Indigenous people and the contemporary profile of lower educational attainment, research has shown that the majority of Indigenous parents have a strong desire to see their children achieve at school (Groome and Hamilton 1995 page 26).

Racism in education and poor educational results are directly linked to juvenile justice and welfare intervention. Early entry into the juvenile justice system is 'nearly always associated with the alienation of the children from the education system' (NSW AECG submission 362 page 1). The 1994 ABS survey found a relationship between education and reported arrests. 'Rates of arrest were highest amongst persons who had left school but not completed Year 12 and had no formal qualifications compared to those who had either completed Year 12 or obtained post-school qualifications. Rates were lowest among those still at school' (ABS 1995a page 58). The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody also identified the effect of high arrest rates on poor education and problems with transition into the workforce (National Report 1991 Volume 2).

The submission from the NSW AECG to the Inquiry noted, after drawing the links between racism, marginalisation, school exclusion and entry into the juvenile justice system, that the provision of culturally appropriate education and training is crucial to prevention of contemporary removal of Indigenous children and young people (NSW AECG submission 362 page 5).

Inter-generational effects and later removal

The effects of separation on past generations can be handed on and contribute to further separation of children from their parents today. Many submissions to the Inquiry raised this issue. It has also been noted in previous Inquiries (HREOC 1993). Both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous experts in mental health and genocide studies have commented on the inter-generational effects outlined above and these have been discussed in more detail in Part 3 of this report.

Separation is linked with psychiatric disorders and with trauma and loss. Separation from the primary carer may render a person less secure and create later difficulties in forming relationships. Those who have been separated may carry with them a fear concerning the loss of their own children. In some cases children in successive generations have been removed. Beresford and Omaji, in an extensive analysis of Indigenous youth and involvement in the WA juvenile justice system, argue that it 'is impossible to overstate the destructiveness of forcible removal' (1996 page 33). Removal and institutionalisation had a number of effects including loss of opportunities to acquire cultural knowledge, lack of good models of relationships and parenting and a sense of unresolved psychological trauma. All of these factors have affected children and increased their likelihood of institutionalisation.

Many of the children of those who were removed have not been exposed to, or in some cases have rejected, the controls and authority of Indigenous culture (ALSWA submission 127 page 338).

Sean is my son. He is 16 years of age. He is in jail at the moment. He has been in and out of jail since he was 12 years of age. He does not know how much it hurts me to see him locked up. He needs his family. I need him.

When I go and visit him he tells me that he is very sorry for what he has done to me. He just cannot seem to help himself. He just cannot help getting into trouble with the cops.

'Sean has been in and out of jail for a number of offences. He does not really know what he wants in life. It is very hard for him and for me ... I have to look after five other children who are all younger than Sean ...

Things have not changed that much from when I was taken away from parents and placed in a mission at Norseman. By the time I got out, my mum had died and I could not find my father. I think he had gone somewhere over east and from what I heard he hit the bottle pretty badly.

Sean's father had also been taken away from his parents. He had gone to Mogumber Mission. He left me when Sean was only two years of age ... Sean's dad could not cope with his childhood. He was subjected to sexual abuse and made to work really hard.

No wonder Sean is the way he is. I and Sean's dad have had our own problems and I suppose they have rubbed off on Sean.

Quoted by ALSWA submission 127 on pages 335-6.

There is clearly a direct association between removal and the likelihood of criminalisation and further instances of removal. The compounding effects of separation and criminalisation were shown dramatically in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody investigations. Forty-three of the 99 Indigenous people who died in custody had been removed from their families as children; 43 had been charged with an offence at 15 years of age or younger (National Report 1991 Volume 1 pages 5-6).

Discussion and recommendation

Addressing the underlying issues identified in this chapter is necessary to remedy both the effects of past removal and the causes of contemporary removals.

This tragic experience [of removal], across several generations has resulted in incalculable trauma, depression and major mental health problems for Aboriginal people. Careful history taking during the assessment of most individuals and families identifies separation by one means or another - initially the systematic forced removal of children and now the continuing removal by Community Services or the magistracy for detention of children, rather than the provision of constructive support to families and healing initiatives generated from within their own communities. The process has been tantamount to a continuing cultural and spiritual genocide both as an individual and a community experience (submission 650 pages 4-5).

A recent review of the South Australia juvenile justice system noted,

Because of their high unemployment rates, low educational levels, low family incomes, etc., Aboriginal youth are at higher risk of offending in the first place. The introduction of far-reaching social justice strategies designed to address the inequitable position of Aboriginal people within the South Australian (and Australian) community are clearly required. But although this was one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the extent to which this is occurring seems to be limited (Wundersitz 1996 page 205).

Social justice measures taken by governments should have special regard to the inter-generational effects of past removals. Parenting skills and confidence, the capacity to convey Indigenous culture to children, parental mental health and the capacity to deal with institutions such as schools, police, health departments and welfare departments have all been damaged by earlier policies of removal.

Unless these conditions are altered and living conditions improved, social and familial disruption will continue. Child welfare and juvenile justice law, policy and practice must recognise that structural disadvantage increases the likelihood of Indigenous children and young people having contact with welfare and justice agencies. They must address this situation.

The denial of social justice violates the basic citizenship rights of Indigenous people in Australia. Citizenship rights include rights to standards of health, housing, education and equality before the law enjoyed by other Australians.

There is growing concern about the abject failure of governments - state, territory and commonwealth - to adequately address the rights of Australia's Indigenous people. All the reports on Aboriginal services and funding are indicating that the situation for Aboriginal people is not improving. Health, education, housing, water, infrastructure, and roads are all basic citizenship rights of Australians, yet Indigenous people are not receiving an equal level of service outcomes (Northern Land Council submission 765 page 16).

Earlier inquiries have made detailed recommendations relating to social justice. Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have committed themselves to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody addressing social justice. The Inquiry commends those recommendations and draws attention to the link between the appalling living conditions in many Indigenous communities and the need for a social justice response built on the right to self-determination.

The previous Commonwealth Government committed itself to a social justice package as the third tidr of response to the High Court's decision in Mabo (No 2).3 The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, ATSIC and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner each prepared a report on how to achieve social justice for Indigenous Australians. The Cape York Land Council urged the Inquiry to 'strongly advocate' to government the implementation of a social justice package (submission 576; see also Northern Land Council submission 765 pages 3 and 16).

Indigenous groups argued that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice should not be seen simply as a package of goods and services to be delivered to their communities. 'It entails accepting the rights of Indigenous peoples and establishing processes which translate abstract principles into the actual enjoyment and exercise of rights' (Dodson 1995 page 97). These rights are both individual human rights and collective rights that arise from the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Indigenous peoples. They include the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination.

Social justice

Recommendation 42: That to address the social and economic disadvantages that underlie the contemporary removal of Indigenous children and young people the Council of Australian Governments,

  1. in partnership with ATSIC, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Indigenous community organisations dealing with Indigenous family and children's issues, develop and implement a social justice package for Indigenous families and children, and
  2. pursue the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which address underlying issues of social disadvantage.


1. A homeland has been defined as an area with which an Indigenous young person recognise an ancestral or cultural links.

2. For example, see the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Toomelah and Mornington reports of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner's Fourth Annual Report.

3. The other two tiers of response were the Commonwealth Native Title Act and the Aboriginal Land Acquisition Fund.