On the pristine coast of Arnhem land, Maningrida is a community living with heartbreak and shame. Families say they feel powerless in their fight against the Department of Territory Families, who are removing Aboriginal children at a rate almost 10 times higher than non-Indigenous children.
It’s a crisis being dubbed a “second stolen generation”.
Maningrida elder Andrew Dowadi recalls the pain of his grandson being removed from his mother as a seven-year-old.
The wounds inflicted on his family have not yet healed. At times he’s angry — at other times, he feels deep despair.
Mr Dowadi’s grandson was put under a permanent care order and placed with foster families in Darwin. He was not able to return home until he was 18.
“He lost his language. He definitely lost his language. And he was shy to come back. And he was shamed to come back … so I have to sit beside him. I say don’t worry about it, we go back home now. We’re heading home,” Mr Dowadi says.
“I just don’t know what to do. Kids crying out for their mothers and fathers. They’re not rightful to take those children away.”
Mr Dowadi is angered by what he sees as a continual undermining of his —and his community’s — authority to determine their own futures.
“You know they should come to us first for permission — if it’s right or wrong to take our children, because the parents have that right to say ‘no’. Even the community — they’ve got right to say ‘no’.”
He says the people who are left behind after the children are taken are vulnerable and put at risk.
“And they’re guilty too. If you keep on talking to the parents that lost their kids you know, they feel guilty inside. And sorriness inside. They’ll be empty inside,” he says.
We love our children
Debra (not her real name) is a Maningrida woman who recently had a child-relative returned to her care, but not without a fight.
She said she was humiliated by the Department of Territory Families, and made to jump through hoops in order to prove she could care for the child.
Having breastfed her own five boys, Debra had no experience in how much formula milk to feed an infant, and the child in her care became underweight.
She says was committed to fixing the problem, and wanted to receive help.
“He was really skinny. But I was really worried, and I loved that little baby. When I took him to the clinic, I said I needed help you know, but they didn’t tell me what to do. They just took him,” she says.
“Welfare mob when they come here … they keep secrets. They come and see us at home — tell us we’ll take this little baby.
“I was really caring for that little baby, because I love him, and he’s our future — we love our children, you know.”
Numbers tell a story
The trauma caused to Aboriginal families by child removals is by no means unique to Maningrida.
The Federal Government’s own statistics tell us Aboriginal children are removed from their families at a rate 9.5 times higher than non-Indigenous children.
In the Northern Territory, as of June 2016, 65.2 per cent of the Aboriginal kids removed from their families, were not placed with relatives, kin, or in Indigenous residential care.
The total number of children in out-of-home care numbered 1,020 in the NT — and 89 per cent of those children are Aboriginal.
The statistics fly in the face of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, which is written into the Care and Protection of Children Act.