Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families in Australia: Poverty and Child Welfare Involvement

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Elizabeth Fernandez, Anat Zeira, Tiziano Vecchiato and Cinzia Canali (eds.)Theoretical and Empirical Insights into Child and Family PovertyChildren’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research1010.1007/978-3-319-17506-5_17

17. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families in Australia: Poverty and Child Welfare Involvement

Clare Tilbury 

School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, Logan campus, University Drive, Meadowbrook, Q 4131, Australia



Clare Tilbury

Aboriginal childrenRace disproportionalityChild outcomes

17.1 Introduction

The colonisation of Australia started in the late 1800s, and today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise around 2.5 % of the total Australian population of approximately 21 million people. The status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the original owners of the land has received only limited recognition in Australian law. The High Court’s 1992 ‘Mabo’ judgment recognised certain rights to land and aspects of customary law, but there are no treaties with Indigenous peoples, as in New Zealand. In Australia’s federal system of government, the Commonwealth has constitutional responsibility for Indigenous affairs and the six States and two Territories are responsible for child welfare. Consequently there are eight different child welfare systems, each with their own legislation. There are no federal laws governing Indigenous child welfare issues, such as the Indian Child Welfare Act 1978 in the USA. This is despite major inquiries and initiatives – a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, a Human Rights Commission Inquiry into the Separation of Indigenous Children from their Parents in 1997, and a National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, that all called for a stronger national approach to advance the status of Indigenous peoples.

Colonisation, the denial of land and citizenship rights, and successive waves of government policy that undermined Indigenous communities have left a legacy in the form of poverty and social exclusion. Indicators of early child development, health, education, economic participation, and community participation reveal entrenched inequalities in living standards for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with only slight improvements over time in some areas. The latest available data indicate that:

  • Indigenous people received a substantially lower median personal gross weekly income ($400 per week) than non-Indigenous people ($608 per week) (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision 2011, p. 21);

  • A large proportion of Indigenous compared to non-Indigenous students did not achieve the years 3, 5, 7 and 9 national minimum standards for reading, writing and numeracy in 2010 (ibid, p. 16);

  • The proportion of Indigenous young people who received a year 12 certificate increased from 20 % in 2001 to 26 % in 2008, while the non-Indigenous rate remained constant at around 56 % (ibid, p. 17);

  • Between 2004 and 2008, for those aged 15–64 years the employment to population ratio increased for Indigenous people from 51 to 54 % compared to 74 to 76 % for non-Indigenous people (ibid, p. 18);

  • The estimated life expectancy at birth for Indigenous males was 67 years, and for Indigenous females, 73 years, compared to 79 years for non-Indigenous males and 83 years for non-Indigenous females (ibid, p. 13);

  • Indigenous infant mortality rates remained 1.6–3 times as high as those for non-Indigenous infants (ibid, p. 14);

  • A higher proportion of Indigenous people (20 % in 2008) than non-Indigenous people (11 %) aged 18 years and over had been a victim of physical or threatened violence in the previous 12 months (ibid, p. 23); and

  • In 2009–2010, Indigenous people were imprisoned at 14 times the rate for non-Indigenous people, with Indigenous juveniles detained at 23 times the rate of non-Indigenous juveniles (ibid, p. 24).
These inequalities are long-standing, reflecting generations of unequal treatment and social exclusion. There has been only moderate progress on improving health and wellbeing, despite the efforts of government, Indigenous agencies, and community members.

17.2 The Over-Representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in the Child Protection System

Since the early 1900s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have been subject to high levels of government surveillance and compulsory intervention. Under race-based laws dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, children were separated from their parents through the establishment of dormitories on missions and reserves, placement in children’s homes for lighter-skinned children, adoption, and foster care: practices that led to what became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997). Today, under the aegis of child welfare laws, high rates of out-of-home care for Indigenous children continue. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise around 5 % of all children aged 0–17 years, yet they make up nearly 35 % of all children on care and protection orders and placed in out-of-home care (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision 2011, p. 3). Disproportional representation is evident at every stage of child welfare involvement. Data from 2011 to 2012 show that:

  • Compared with non-Indigenous children, Indigenous children were almost eight times as likely to be the subject of a child protection substantiation (41.9 per 1,000 compared with 5.4 per 1,000) (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013, p. 16);

  • The rate of Indigenous children on child protection orders was nearly ten times that of non-Indigenous children. The rate has increased steadily each year (from 40 to 55 per 1,000), while the non-Indigenous rate has remained relatively unchanged (increasing slightly from 4.9 to 5.6 per 1,000) (ibid, p. 32); and

  • The rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (ibid, p. 41).

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, child protection intervention leads to loss of knowledge of their culture and Indigenous identity, as well as separation from parents, siblings and relatives. This is despite the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle being adopted as government policy in 1984, aiming to prevent children entering out-of-home care, and to ensure if they did, they would be placed with Indigenous carers. Yet over the last three decades, compliance with the Child Placement Principle has declined in most jurisdictions, with almost one-half of all Indigenous children in care now being placed with non-Indigenous carers (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people repeatedly raise concern about the social and emotional development of Indigenous children in placements with non-Indigenous carers, because they may lose touch with their cultural heritage, their family history, and family connections (Earle and Cross 2001; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997).

17.3 Causes of Over-Representation

The possible reasons for the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system range from the macro-level to the micro-level. However, there have been mixed results from research efforts to disentangle the effects of race from the influences of poverty and hardship. Some studies examining disproportional representation have found that economic factors (poverty and receipt of welfare payments) are more statistically significant than race in determining child welfare involvement, but the interaction with other factors such as family structure, parental substance abuse and mental ill-health is less clear (Hill 2006; Miller 2008). Clearly, poverty and associated problems are not race neutral (Needell et al. 2003), as evidenced by the major disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to be in poverty than non-Indigenous people, then they are more likely to be in receipt of all forms of social services. The patterned disadvantages experienced by certain racial and ethnic groups have led to inequalities in child welfare intervention rates in many countries (Bywaters et al. 2014).

17.3.1 Macro Factors

Over-representation is often explained with reference to the long-term social and economic impacts of colonisation on Indigenous family life. These include problems such as poverty, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse and family violence, health and mental health conditions, unstable housing, and the intergenerational loss of parenting skills (Donald et al. 2003; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997; Trocme et al. 2004). In the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the process of colonisation produced alienation, marginalisation, disempowerment, welfare dependency, and deprived communities, and these conditions have all adversely impacted upon children’s well-being (Bamblett and Lewis 2007). Needs are especially acute in rural or remote indigenous reserves or communities with little sustainable employment and limited infrastructure in the form of education, social services, health services or adequate housing. Similar experiences and effects for Indigenous children and families in Canada have been noted (Blackstock et al. 2004; Blackstock and Trocme 2005). These structural factors lead to disproportionate need (Boyd 2014) amongst Indigenous families.

The consequence for Indigenous families of enduring high rates of hardship, living in disadvantaged communities, and having more unmet needs, is that children are more likely to be at risk of harm. These structural factors can affect rates of entry into the family support and child protection systems. This is because Indigenous parents may have less access to informal family and social supports given that extended families and communities have few resources, and formal support services may be less available or less effective – either insufficient to meet demand or lacking cultural competence in assisting Indigenous families (Courtney et al. 1996; Donald et al. 2003). Concerted government efforts in the form of funding, research, and policies to address over-representation are crucial (Boyd 2014).

17.3.2 Child Protection System and Agency Factors

Institutional racism or system biases such as a lack of Indigenous staff in child protection roles and lack of cross-cultural competence of non-Indigenous staff; culturally inappropriate or inaccessible service delivery; Indigenous families being less likely to have legal representation or advocacy in decisions on removal and placement may all increase the likelihood of Indigenous families entering and remaining in the child protection system (Boyd 2014; Hines et al. 2004). Also identified as contributing to the over-representation of Indigenous children is the stressful and sometimes chaotic nature of child welfare agency practice, a focus on immediate crises rather than the long-term prospects for children (Lemon et al. 2005).