Culture can never be used as an excuse for abuse of children Jeremy Sammut 01 MARCH 2018 | THE AUSTRALIAN

Artwork by Eric Lobbecke

No child protection regime is perfect, so it is plausible that the case of a two-year-old indigenous girl allegedly raped at Tennant Creek simply might have fallen unseen through the inevitable cracks in the Northern Territory system.

But as reported by The Australian, this appalling tragedy happened despite repeated and well-founded warnings about the toddler’s safety and proven findings that she had suffered abuse and neglect. This was no case of workers being ignorant of the situation. The girl allegedly suffered unimaginable sexual abuse in plain sight of the government agency meant to protect her.

This is a shocking indictment of how the ideology within child pro­tection authorities that fav­ours “family preservation” at almost all costs stops children from being rescued and exposes them to prolonged abuse and ­neglect, sometimes — as in this case — with catastrophic results.

The main reason indigenous children are seven times likelier than non-indigenous children to be the subject of a “substantiated” (proven) report of abuse and neglect — as the report ­released yesterday, Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, has found — is that indigenous children are likelier to be left in harm’s way because of misplaced “cultural” reasons.

Despite the agency having ­received 21 notifications that the girl was in danger almost from the time of birth, and despite some of these warnings of harm having been proved to have occurred, Territory Families has defended its failure to intervene on the basis that the agency was doing its “best to keep the family intact”.

No action was taken to remove the girl into care despite both parents having troubled backgrounds and criminal histories, and struggling with heavy drinking; despite alcohol-fuelled arguments between the parents — a recent fight at the family home landing the father in jail, and a death at the property a week before the alleged sexual assault; and despite the family living in an area of public housing known as “the Bronx” whose residents are notorious for drunken, violent behaviour.

Child protection authorities are particularly reluctant to remove indigenous children from even obviously and highly dysfunctional circumstances because the response to the Stolen Generations has led them to turn a blind eye to the ­social breakdown and chaos that is self-evident in some indigenous ­communities.

The 1996 Australian Human Rights Commission’s Bringing Them Home report blamed the “stealing” of Aboriginal children on the racism of white social workers. Relying on the Western notion of the nuclear family, they were accused of failing to understand Aboriginal family practices, such as lax parenting styles and the raising of a child by extended members of the whole “village”, which were labelled as neglectful and grounds for child removal.

The influence of Bringing Them Home has led child protection authorities to adopt a “culturally aware” approach that en­courages them to downplay par­ental problems, explain away the dysfunction in indigenous communities and justify leaving children in ­unsafe circumstances from which they should be removed.

This is echoed by the leaked 2014 memo obtained by News Corp, revealing that child protection staff had not only ignored but also had officially approved instances of underage girls sleeping with older men “on cultural grounds”. In practice, efforts to avoid ­appearing culturally insensitive at best, or be branded racist at worst, downplay the threats that exist to children’s welfare in communities where social norms have broken down, especially around the ­proper care of children’s basic needs and safety.

Tennant Creek’s Bronx is not the only indigenous town camp or remote community where children wander the streets late at night while the adults drink and party into the early hours. And inadequate parental supervision and unsupervised access to children by other adults are the major risk factors for child sexual abuse.

The Northern Territory government’s response has further demonstrated the denial that surrounds indigenous child protection and the extent to which fear of repeating the Stolen Generations has distorted priorities and allowed cultural considerations to trump child welfare concerns.

This is consistent with the calls from the indigenous lobby to ­reduce the number of removals of children from indigenous communities, when what is needed is more removals to protect children. The lobby’s aim is to prop up the separatist experiment of remote “homelands”, which has demonstrably failed, given the levels of child abuse and neglect.

Unbelievably, the Minister for Territory Families has not only pledged to continue to work with and support the Tennant Creek family to achieve family preservation but also has failed to rule out returning the girl to the culturally appropriate kinship care of the relatives who were supposedly looking after her at the time of the alleged abuse. Little wonder former Northern Territory child protection minister John Elferink described the system as treating indigenous children as “chips in the poker game of Aboriginal politics”.

So-called cultural sensitivity is just an excuse for tolerating the maltreatment of indigenous chil­d­­ren. To properly protect them, child protection agencies must stop turning a blind eye to their welfare in the name of “culture”.

Jeremy Sammut is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Madness of Australian Child Protection.