Best practice in government agency responses to sexual abuse of Aboriginal children and solutions to Aboriginal family violence

This section explores potential solutions and best practice principles for governments attempting to address the issue of family violence in Indigenous communities, particularly child sexual abuse. There is no panacea for the problems of family violence, but there are clear themes evident in the available literature produced by Australian and overseas Indigenous commentators and practitioners.

If interventions are to be effective, a number of factors need to be recognised. Firstly, effective solutions will require a ‘sea-change’ in government policies and practices. Given the current failure to effectively address family violence in Aboriginal communities, there appears to be a need for a philosophical change across the whole of government: specifically, a stronger commitment to addressing Indigenous violence, a preparedness to devolve power and decision-making to the Indigenous community, and a willingness to adequately resource interventions over time. For this to work, there needs to be Indigenous community participation and ownership – Aboriginal people need to take responsibility for their communities and attempts to prevent family violence. Secondly, prevention and intervention initiatives need to be systematic and multi-faceted. As noted above, there are many factors that can contribute to the perpetration of violence. These interact in highly complex ways, and will not be amenable to simple, single-focus, short-term interventions.

This section explores some of these issues in greater detail. The setting or context for best practice in general, is reviewed. Unfortunately there has proven to be a number of major hurdles to effective practice within Indigenous communities. Some of these are identified and discussed. Broad best practice principles for intervention within the Indigenous community have been identified in the literature. These are outlined, followed by a range of more specific solutions and a review of some of the programs currently in place.

The context of best practice – learning from the wider professional sector

Adopting an ecological approach

Tomison and Wise (1999: 2-3) provide a good overview of current understanding of the setting and directions of best practice for prevention and intervention in the field of child abuse. They draw attention to the importance of the environment within which effective intervention should take place, as well as the need for a multi-layered approach. These factors are of particular relevance to best practice approaches in relation to family violence within Aboriginal communities.

Current theories of the causes (or etiology) of child abuse draw heavily on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of human development (Bronfenbrenner & Mahoney 1975, Bronfenbrenner 1979). Underpinning the various theories is recognition of the complex, multidimensional nature of child abuse and neglect (Garbarino 1977, Belsky 1980, National Research Council 1993).

Belsky’s (1980) model of the etiology of child maltreatment integrates a number of diverse single factor approaches, including psychological disturbance in parents, abuse-eliciting characteristics of children, dysfunctional patterns of family interaction, stress-inducing social forces, and abuse-promoting cultural values. He offers a conceptualisation of child maltreatment as a ‘social-psychological phenomenon’ where abuse is determined by the mutual influences of the individual child or parent, family, local community, and the wider culture or society.

The central theme of Belsky’s multi-level modelling approach is the interaction of protective and risk factors. That is, the overall likelihood of child abuse results from the combination and interaction of complex constellations of factors, some enhancing and some minimising the potential for abuse, whose influence may increase or decrease over different developmental and historical periods (Holden, Willis & Corcoran 1992, National Research Council 1993).

Implications for prevention and intervention

Until recently, most child abuse prevention strategies have focused on addressing child, parent and family-related factors that are associated with a greater propensity for child abuse, with scant attention paid to the societal and community factors that cause harm to children, or that impact on the lives of children and families (Hay & Jones 1994, Korbin & Coulton 1996, Reppucci, Woolard & Fried 1999).

As referred to earlier, the US psychologist James Garbarino (1995) has argued that there is currently a toxicity of some social environments similar to the toxicity of some physical environments, and that aspects of the contemporary social environment, wider society, local communities and neighbourhoods, are particularly harmful for children. Garbarino identified a series of toxic factors including violence in all its forms, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and an under-resourced education system, that may be presumed to lead to an increased potential for abusive or neglectful behaviour in families, or higher incidences of other social ills. He asserted that the management of socially toxic environments should be analogous to the management of the physically toxic environment – requiring a similar, if not greater, level of perceived urgency by the public.

To be truly effective, consideration must therefore be given to the means to remedy the socially toxic factors that underpin child abuse and other family violence via the adoption of community or neighbourhood and society-wide approaches (Parton 1985, Seagull 1987, Limber & Hashima 1992, Harrington & Dubowitz 1993, Rayner 1994, Thompson 1995, Cox 1997). Greater recognition that ‘programs focused solely on the individual seem destined to failure if they do not take into account community context,’ (Reppucci et al. 1999: 411) has led to the perception that child abuse cannot be overcome through ‘administrative, legal, technical and professional measures which leave social values, structures and dynamics unchanged’ (Gil 1979: 1). Concomitantly, there has been a move to develop multi-level prevention and intervention efforts that typically maintain an individual or family-level component, but which also address the socio-cultural context within which children and families live (Cox 1997, Reppucci et al. 1999).

This understanding is of particular relevance to the Indigenous community, where as discussed earlier, significance is given to the broader psycho-social context in understanding the cause of family violence in general and child abuse in particular. Thus, concomitantly, best practice intervention must address these broader issues if effective solutions are to be reached.

Risk and Resiliency

Researchers investigating the risk factors that may heighten children’s vulnerability to various social ills, such as child abuse and neglect, have consistently identified some children who are able to achieve positive outcomes in the face of adversity – children who are ‘resilient’ despite facing stressful, high risk situations (Kirby & Fraser 1997).

Resilience appears to be determined by the presence of risk factors in combination or interaction with the positive forces (protective factors) that contribute to adaptive outcomes (Garmezy 1985, 1993). The interaction of risk and protective factors occurs at each stage of child development and within each ecological level (that is, it is affected by a child or parent’s internal characteristics, aspects of the family, and of the wider social environment) (Kirby & Fraser 1997). A number of studies, particularly those by Werner (Werner & Smith 1989, Werner 1989, 1993, Rutter 1987, Garmezy 1985, 1993), have led to further investigation of the interaction of risk factors and the buffering, or protective factors, that may protect a child from risks and enhance resilience (Bowes & Hayes 1999). However, research is still required to determine precisely the ways in which interactions between risk and protective factors may influence child outcomes (Kaufman & Zigler 1992).

Three types of resiliency have been identified and described. First, overcoming the odds, where positive outcomes are attained, despite high risk status; for example, an infant born pre-term is considered to be at high risk because of an association with poor health outcomes but may achieve good health outcomes. Second, sustained competence under stress, where, in environments where stress and conflict is high, children display an ability to cope well. Third, recovery from trauma, where children function well after experiencing severe trauma – for example, war, severe violence or a natural disaster (Kirby & Fraser 1997).

It is important to note that just as risk factors may be unique to particular populations, resiliency is also culturally determined. Behaviour considered adaptive and normative in one culture may not be perceived in the same way in other cultures. A second potential source of variation in childhood resilience is associated with the nature of children’s developmental processes. That is, children respond differently to risk over time, with vulnerability or resilience shifting as a function of ‘developmental or maturational changes’ (Kirby & Fraser 1997: 15).

Garmezy (1985) identified three main types or constellations of protective factors which contribute to the level of resilience or positive outcomes that are achieved.

Dispositional attributes of the child – the personal characteristics or skills that may foster resilience, such as rapid responsivity to danger, precocious maturity, the use of relationships for survival, the conviction of being loved, and a sense of optimism (Mrazek & Mrazek 1987, McQuaide & Ehrenreich 1997).

Positive family relationships – resilience is associated with, among other factors, high levels of parental monitoring and high levels of support from at least one parent, a history of good parenting, effective interpersonal communication between family members, and low socio-environmental stress (Herrenkohl et al. 1994, Fantuzzo & Atkins 1995, McCubbin et al. 1998, Resnick et al. 1996, Pharris et al. 1997).

External social supports from the community – good social and cultural supports, a strong religious affiliation, few stressful life events, positive life expectations, and ongoing opportunities for positive connections from families, schools, and communities are protective factors associated with more positive developmental outcomes (Langeland & Dijkstra 1995, Benard 1993, Vinson et al. 1996 Pharris et al. 1997).

These findings reinforce the importance of the socio-cultural context of the child’s situation and the ecological nature of child development, vulnerability and resilience.

Implications for prevention and intervention

In order to intervene in child abuse more effectively, strategies are required that focus on both reducing risk factors and strengthening protective factors that foster resiliency. As Cox (1997: 253) notes: ‘(T)ruly ecological approaches that are developmentally attuned demand concurrent programs that work on protective as well as risk factors and that reflect and impact on processes working within and across various domains of the child’s world.’ Thus, in relation to Indigenous children, it will be important to foster resilience by drawing on family and community cultural strengths to assist the child and his or her family to overcome risk factors.

Barriers to best practice within the Indigenous community

A number of barriers to reducing the level of violence in Aboriginal communities have been identified, some of which are discussed below. While there is some commonality between the barriers to solutions to child abuse within the non-Indigenous community, most of the outlined barriers are particular to Indigenous communities, often arising from, and entwined with, the causal factors of family violence.

On-going paternalism in government policy

It is generally recognised that past government policies were often misguided and paternalistic, being designed to ‘protect’ or ‘assimilate’ Indigenous people (Robertson 2000). The impact of these policies was that they ‘damaged or destroyed social systems integral to the healthy functioning of their (Indigenous) society’ (Robertson 2000: 109). A major barrier to the solution to family violence relates to the fact that Indigenous child welfare policy is still based on the premise that the government should decide what is best for Indigenous people (Sweeney 1995). While many programs implemented by government are well-intentioned, they are not working because they are developed and implemented from a Western paradigm (Robertson 2000). Insufficient input from Indigenous people has led to political and social vulnerability, powerlessness and bureaucratic processes governing their lives.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report states that ‘Indigenous people can no longer live under a system that defies and inhibits autonomy and self-determination’ (Robertson 2000: xi). The report gives a clear message: ‘Indigenous Communities must be afforded the opportunity to be the architects of their own solutions …so that they can be active participants in initiatives that affect their lives, and not silent recipients’ (Robinson 2000: 195). The ‘time is overdue for politicians and service providers to hear and acknowledge the voices of Indigenous people’ (Robertson 2000: 111).

Inadequate services

Review of the literature on services for the Indigenous community leads the authors to draw a number of conclusions. In brief, it was difficult to find out just what services to address family violence are available for Indigenous communities, due to the apparent scarcity of programs tailored specifically for the Indigenous community, and the short-term and uncoordinated nature of the programs.

The findings from a recent national audit of Australian child abuse prevention programs (Tomison & Poole 2000) confirms the low number of family violence prevention programs for Indigenous people. In the Audit it was found that only 16% of over 1800 identified Australian child abuse prevention programs were reported to be targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, more detailed analysis revealed that only one quarter of these programs (i.e. 4% of the 1800 programs) had been specifically developed or tailored for Indigenous people – the majority of programs were actually generalist programs servicing a range of clients. Tomison and Poole note that given that Indigenous people ‘often prefer to attend services offering culturally relevant programs, staffed and managed by their own communities’, the failure to adapt or develop services for Indigenous needs is a significant problem (Tomison & Poole 2000: 86).

Much of the literature that is available relates to Aboriginal issues and programs in Queensland. The Fitzgerald report (2001) documents the fact that there are few services in the Cape York communities that can address violence and substance abuse; provide programs for perpetrators; or provide trauma and grief counselling. Again he confirms that those services that are available are based on service models that are not accessible or relevant to Indigenous people in Cape York. Again addressing North Queensland issues, Ketchell and Sweetman (2001: 9) note that ‘the money set aside to combat Aboriginal domestic violence across the entire community this year would not be enough to build two women’s shelters’. Exacerbating the problem, Ketchell and Sweetman report that two key services for victims of domestic violence in North Queensland Aboriginal communities closed in the three months prior to the article’s publication (1/7/02). One of these programs which was administered by Apunipima Cape York Health Council and serviced the entire Cape York region, was closed when the $553,000 three year funding ran out.

The latter issue leads to the second group of problems which can be summarised as the ‘ad hoc’ nature of many the programs. Commentators commonly express concerns about the short-term nature of funding. Funding duration is usually for a maximum of three years under state and federal government grants, with no commitment for a continuation of funding. Programs, having ‘arisen out of desperation’, may be provided on a voluntary basis or funded through non-recurrent grants or pilot initiatives (Fitzgerald 2001: 20). Thus, by the time programs are established, have developed effective links with the community and community organisations, often only 18 months may remain in which to actually offer services, prior to service closure (Cripps, personal communication). One example of this is the service, ‘Healing Our Families: Apunipima Family Violence Advocacy Project’, which closed due to a lack of funding (Cripps, personal communication).

Funding concerns also relate to the complexity of the funding arrangements associated with programs, many of which have developed through ‘ad hoc allocations of Commonwealth and State funds’ (Fitzgerald 2001: 31). Fitzgerald explains that ‘current funding arrangements are complex, highly fragmented, and may in some cases cause competing and conflicting priorities’ (2001: 31). There is little coordination between funding sources that include Commonwealth and State grants and subsidies, and sources of revenue generated by the communities. A ‘silo mentality’ is often present which restricts the cooperation between agencies and collaborative work (Fitzgerald 2001).

Robertson describes this problem as the ‘confused and contradictory legislative responsibilities’ that is further complicated by the three levels of government, and a ‘serious lack of inter-governmental collaboration and cooperation which has led to duplication of services and wastage of money’ (Robertson 2000: 109). For example, in Queensland there was an annual changing of priorities of funding in the 1980s which meant that there was no sustainable development in Indigenous communities (Robertson 2000).

Indeed, both Fitzgerald and Robertson argue that the lack of an accepted, sustainable service system directly contributes to an increase in the community’s problems and exacerbates the likelihood, and levels, of violence.

The need for responses to the problems rather than repeated Inquiries

Allied to the need for effective services (above) is a perception that there is a need to shift attention and resources away from re-assessments of the problems within Aboriginal communities, moving them towards a focus on actual service development ‘on the ground’. An ATSIC (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Council) Media Release in February 2002 said that ‘there have been far too many Government reports on Aboriginal Affairs which have been written and simply allowed to gather dust in a filing cabinet. Talk is cheap. It is time for action and we are calling on the State and Federal Governments to respond with enough financial resources to ensure we can adequately tackle domestic violence in our communities’ (ATSIC 2000).

This view is held by other Indigenous commentators. Robertson (2002) points out that Indigenous family violence was recognised as a top priority last year during the media debate surrounding Geoff Clark (ATSIC Commissioner) and family violence. However, as yet nothing has happened on the ground to address that violence. Fitzgerald states that while ‘communication between outsiders, including public officials, and the people in the communities is impeded by lack of interest, cultural barriers and justifiable resentment’, it is also being hampered by the constant outside research and debate about Indigenous lives ‘without any noticeable improvement in their circumstances’ (2001: 52).

Mistrust of the present system

A number of issues have been identified in the literature as barriers to the effectiveness of the programs to address family violence. Sometimes there is a mistrust and a lack of confidence in the services which are provided, leading to a failure to use the services.

Such feelings are exacerbated when services have been provided, but where they fail to take effective action. For example, the Robertson report notes that there was ‘an alarming number of cases where there was a clear breach of legislative responsibilities on the part of both Queensland Police and the Department of Families, Youth and Community Care’ (Robertson 2000: 185).

With particular reference to the sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities, Greer (1992) draws attention to the following issues which present as obstacles to intervention in relation to sexual assault:

  • Previous experience with authority leads some communities to keep child and adult sexual assault under wraps;
  • Given past poor relationships with the police, reporting may be viewed as a betrayal;
  • Even when a report is made there may be a feeling that nothing will be done anyway; and,
  • Concern about the criminal justice system and the possible imprisonment of offenders.

Fitzgerald (2001) also writes that Indigenous women often do not use support services for fear of what will happen to the perpetrator in custody and are more likely to use refuges as respite and then return to the violent partner. This problem is compounded by a number of issues:

  • a lack of information about the legal process and an unwillingness to seek legal advice (Fitzgerald 2001);
  • in remote communities women may not have access to transport or telecommunications, thus making it very difficult to leave a violent relationship (Fitzgerald 2001); and,
  • the fear of their partner dying in jail is a justifiable fear of women particularly in communities in Cape York, parts of Northern Territory and Western Australia, particularly where tribal law is still practiced and respected. Apart from the trauma caused by the death, such a death in custody would be viewed as being the woman’s fault and she would be subject to payback from his family which may result in her death or a significant injury (Fitzgerald 2001, O’Donoghue 2001).

Blagg (2000b) identifies a problem for Aboriginal women in relation to the difficulty they have in translating their requirements into the language demanded by government agencies. Rather than government involvement, here the solution may be to support the community infrastructure, such as Aboriginal women’s groups, by giving them the resources (and professional support) to address the community problems (Blagg 2000b, reporting the Aboriginal Women’s Task Force and the Aboriginal Justice Council 1995).

Finally, the Aboriginal Women’s Task Force and the Aboriginal Justice Council (1995) noted problems in relation to policing and justice systems and the ability to protect women on remote communities. They identified a lack of police services, racist attitudes of some police, the failure of the police to respond rapidly and appropriately and the inability of all aspects of the criminal justice system to deal with family violence in a culturally sensitive manner.

Thus, in circumstances where there is no response or a very limited or poor quality intervention by services, or where Indigenous people do not have the skills and/or means to handle often complex service systems, people are left to cope with violence unassisted. Such responses have increased the mistrust of governments and services providers by the Indigenous community, thereby making these services even less available.

Worker trauma

Given the extent of family violence in Indigenous communities, it is likely that child protection workers and other service providers are experiencing trauma from their work (Stanley & Goddard 2002). Recently published research has shown that traumatised workers who also feel isolated in their work have a reduced ability to protect children who have been severely abused, from further abuse (Stanley & Goddard 2002).

Cripps (personal communication) reports that this is a particular problem in Indigenous communities as the workers are often in great danger as they live and work in the same community. Workers also have to contend with the fact that an offender may be a member of their own family or a community Elder and there may be conflicts of interest and confidentiality to resolve before any intervention or support can be undertaken.

Further, many workers are severely overworked and suffer from burnout, thus making them less able to cope with other forms of stress (Stanley & Goddard 2002). Memmott and colleagues (2001) identify both a personal safety risk in relation to violence intervention workers and the problem of stress and burnout. For some time a number of Aboriginal workers have also been requesting further professional training and support from government services. Unfortunately, this request has not always been responded to (Tomison, personal communication).

Conflict between the welfare of the Indigenous child and the welfare of the Indigenous community

A major issue in child protection (and one that is commonly overlooked) is the philosophical conflict between family preservation and child protection. Preserving the family and protecting the child may be incompatible aims in some cases of child abuse (Goddard 1996). It would seem that this problem is magnified in the situation of Indigenous children, where there is an additional overlay of complexity associated with the clash of two cultures – Indigenous and non-Indigenous. That is, there can be a conflict between protecting Aboriginal children from abuse and allowing the Indigenous community cultural independence and self-determination. Thus, there may be conflict between ‘the best interests of the community’ and ‘the best interests of the child’ (Lynch 2001: 506).

This conflict is addressed by Lynch (2001), who describes the problem in relation to Australian Aboriginals and Canadian First Nation Peoples, and makes some suggestions as to how the issue should be viewed. Lynch argues that the ‘best interests of the child’ principle is recognised in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, interpreted in a landmark case, King v Low, in Canada.

Lynch notes that ‘the dominant consideration to which all other factors must remain subordinate must be the welfare of the child’ (2001: 507). Yet to understand the best interests of an Indigenous child necessitates an exploration of the ‘fundamental links between culture and identity and the concomitant importance of family and community to the meaningful existence and survival of First Nations and Aboriginal children’ (Lynch 2001: 508, 509).

The dominant court system individualises people, abstracting them from their family, cultural and racial contexts, in contrast to viewing children as part of a community identity – a perspective held in Indigenous culture. Thus conflict may arise as:

  • in both First Nations and Aboriginal communities, responsibility for child welfare and nurturing often resides with an extended family or kinship network and the community as a whole;
  • mainstream law entails the notion of stability of residence, whereas Aboriginal communities may have a practice of mobility of children between responsible adults;
  • there is also a risk that in considering Aboriginal and First Nation culture, it will be ‘frozen’ and conceived in static terms relating to the origin of the cultures, traditions, norms and customs, rather than as a dynamic and fluid culture; and,
  • there is a problem that the law will ‘construct’ the culture by the law shaping and defining it.

Thus, there is a risk that much ‘contemporary child welfare law and practice is aimed at ‘normafication’ – assimilation in a veiled guise as the values of the dominant group are imposed on First Nations and Aboriginal peoples’ (Lynch 2001: 523).

Lynch believes that the Indigenous child’s need for safety and security should generally override concerns for the preservation of cultural links, affiliation and identity.

‘Relationships that damage the integrity of a child cannot be justified by a child’s identity interests: membership in a community, or involvement in identity-related practices or beliefs, does not eliminate a concern for the dignity of the child’ (Lynch 2001: 523).

However, once a child has been removed, the child must be placed back with the family as soon as possible without lowering the minimum level of protection and care for the child.

According to Lynch, assessing the best interests of Indigenous children and their communities involves:

1. Consideration of the best interests of a First Nations or Aboriginal child in his or her community and culture and the rights and interests of the community.

He notes that recent legislative amendments in both Australia and Canada go some way towards satisfying this. However, Lynch argues that these changes (in Australia and some Canadian states) do not go far enough and should go beyond the ‘consideration’ of how ‘Indigenality’ may be relevant to a custody, placement or care determination. ‘Indigenality’ should be considered peremptory or presumptive and should include (as with the Canadian states of Alberta and Quebec) not only the rights and interests of a First Nations or Aboriginal child in his or her community, but also the rights and interests of a First Nations or Aboriginal community in its children. US legislation in relation to Indian child welfare, requires that ‘meaningful recognition and application of the rights and interests of an Indian child in his or her community, and vice versa’ (Lynch 2001: 537). Thus, usually the First Nations or Aboriginal community itself will be best positioned to determine whether a child has been neglected. Placement of a First Nations or Aboriginal child should take place only on the advice, recommendation and instruction of that child’s Indigenous community.

2. Sensitivity to customary traditions, laws and practices

Education of decision-makers is needed. In addition, where Indigenous communities are involved, they need to be funded and equipped to properly attract, assess and train alternative First Nations or Aboriginal carers (Lynch 2001). Lynch quotes Kline (1992: 216) who says Indigenous communities must ‘be empowered, financially, politically, and otherwise, to develop their own child welfare services outside the framework of existing …schemes’.

3. Application of the Indigenous Child Placement Principle and consideration of long-term interests in permanency planning.

4. Addressing underlying causes of child maltreatment in Indigenous communities, including the broader social, economic, political, historical and cultural issues.

A major risk associated with the failure to recognise and resolve policy and principles in relation to the potential conflict between the wellbeing of the child and the right to Indigenous self-determination is that the child will not receive adequate protection to ensure his or her safety. There is some evidence that this may be happening. The legacy of past mistakes by child protection services appear to be sometimes leading to a present fear of child protection staff/departments to take action to intervene when a child is at risk of harm. There appears of be a fear of the community’s reactions and confusion about what action (or inaction) is in the best interests of Indigenous children.

This conclusion is supported by a recent statewide review of out-of-home care services for Aboriginal children and young people in Victoria (Practice Leadership Unit 2000) (and highlighted in a number of media articles). The review identified a practice of minimisation of statutory involvements by Department of Human Services Protective Services in cases where intervention was/is required to avoid significant harm to Aboriginal children. Muriel Cadd from SNAICC (Secretariat of National Aboriginal Islander Child Care) reports that little intervention is being taken at present in the Northern Territory in relation to the neglect of Indigenous children (personal communication, 2002). It is likely that this issue is playing a role in relation to intervention of child protection services in relation to the sexual abuse of Indigenous children.

Sutton (2001: 141) also expresses the view that in Australia at present there is evidence of the conflict between child welfare and Indigenous rights to self-determination. He states that ‘more neglect is tolerated for some Australian children than for others, notably Aboriginal children in the more isolated settlements’. Sutton (2001: 141) states that in a community ‘enjoying “self-determination” he observed a young woman in advanced pregnancy staggering along a road with a can of petrol to her face’.

Recommended solutions

The literature proposes a number of solutions to the high levels of family violence and the disproportionate number of Indigenous children who are involved with child protection services. The solutions range from a complete re-writing of the model of child protection used with Indigenous communities, to specific suggestions about best practice intervention. The underlying theme throughout the literature is the need for greater involvement and ownership by Indigenous community members of child protection/anti-violence policy, program design and implementation. The only variation across the literature relates to the extent of the involvement.

Arguments for a radical policy change in relation to the provision of child protection services within the Indigenous community

Many commentators argue for radical change in relation to the provision of child protection services within the Indigenous community, the extent and nature of this change varying between them.

Cunneen and Libesman (2000) point out that ‘The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families’ found that not one submission from an Indigenous organisation saw the current interventions from child welfare departments to be an effective response to their child protection needs. The model of operation of child protection services, based on ‘individualising’ and ‘pathologising’ a particular family, is culturally suited to white Australian culture, not Indigenous culture (Cunneen & Libesman 2000: 105).

Litwin (1997) acknowledges that the NSW Department of Community Services has taken measures directed at advancing self-determination, empowerment and acknowledging Indigenous culture. These steps include recruiting Indigenous field officers and policy advisers, funding Indigenous organisations, and including the Child Placement Principle (see below) within the child protection legislation (Litwin 1997). However, attempts to adjust programs to Indigenous culture tend to be largely tokenistic (Cunneen & Libesman 2000). For example, although an Indigenous departmental officer may be employed, there are still interventions from other non-Indigenous professionals and organisations, and key decision-making still remains with non-Indigenous officials. The over-representation of Indigenous children in the care system can be taken as a demonstration that these policies are not leading to successful outcomes (Litwin 1997).

Litwin (1997) notes the paradox of child welfare bureaucracies providing a service to Indigenous people when, as she states, the Welfare Department contributed to the need for these services in the first place. She points out that Indigenous communities do not have a tradition of active involvement in child welfare policy, their response, based on past history, being one of suspicion and resistance. Thus the administration of the self-determination policy has required an ever-increasing level of government intervention. Indeed, even the attempt to make child welfare bureaucracies more attuned to Indigenous needs will be swamped by non-Indigenous culture and processes. Not only is it unrealistic to believe that the few Indigenous employees will be able to positively influence departmental policy and practice, but these workers are faced with the conflict that they are working within a child welfare system which ‘…has been implicated in the ongoing generation of profound social and cultural trauma for indigenous Australians’ (Litwin 1997: 334).

Litwin (1997) states that there has never been an attempt by child welfare to understand the nature of the differences between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous concepts of childcare. The legacy of the past is still overshadowing present intentions in relation to Indigenous policy (Sweeney 1995). Litwin (1997) points out that there is not a precise definition of ‘self-determination’ and what this means in practice, such as how it is to be negotiated, the constraints which may limit autonomy and how competing interests can be resolved. She argues that the power imbalance between the Indigenous community and welfare bureaucracies is ‘overwhelming’. Without these major issues being addressed, and a determination of where the Indigenous culture is expected to fit in with the bureaucratic child welfare culture, ‘institutionalised racism’ will continue (Litwin 1997: 337).

Cunneen and Libesman (2000), and Sweeny (1995), argue for a complete revision of child protection services in relation to Indigenous Australians, while others recommend fairly radical legislative changes. Sweeney (1995) draws on the report, ‘Learning from the Past’, which was commissioned by the NSW Department of Community Services and prepared by the Gungil Jindibhah Centre at Southern Cross University (the date is not given), which argues for a greater focus in State policies on the concepts of collaboration and empowerment. ‘Learning from the Past’, recommends that counselling services and measures to reunify Indigenous families should be undertaken by independent Indigenous organisations, and that the role of the child protection departments should be limited to funding and referral (Sweeney 1995). However, Sweeney believes that the recommendations of the report do not go far enough. He believes that control and responsibility for Indigenous child welfare needs to be passed to the Indigenous community. He doubts whether the child protection system is capable of real change, without this process.

Sweeny (1995) also makes the recommendation that there should be an holistic approach by the government in relation to Indigenous children which coordinates all areas of child welfare, including the services of child protection, adoption, juvenile justice, custody and education. He argues for a broader approach which examines issues such as:

  • the need to reduce the number of Indigenous children removed from their families;
  • the need to ensure that cultural factors are considered in all decision-making stages;
  • the need for children who have been removed from their family to have the maximum possible contact with the community; and,
  • the need for communities to have involvement in all post-removal decisions.

The Inquiry (‘Bringing them Home’) recommends that new legislation be enacted, based on self-determination by Indigenous people, where far greater control over matters affecting young people is given to the Indigenous community (Cunneen & Libesman 2000). Cunneen and Libesman (2000) report that it was recommended by the Inquiry that the Federal government establish negotiations to allow Indigenous people to formulate and negotiate an agreement, leading to legislation, on measures best suited to their needs. The Inquiry also recommended that legislation set out minimum standards as a basis for future developments in relation to Indigenous children. However, such legislative and policy change is a state responsibility, and according to Cunneen and Libesman (2000), there has also been no indication that State/Territory governments will move towards law reform in order to transfer power to Indigenous communities. The authors of this brief also draw attention to the issue that it is likely that there will be considerable difficulties associated with locating (or developing) an Indigenous agency to undertake the task of protection.

Alternatives for Indigenous offenders to the present criminal justice system

With regard to domestic violence, Blagg (2000b) states that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have a clear preference for change strategies that do not require the violent offender to leave the family. He recommends that, wherever possible, intervention should aim to divert Aboriginal offenders from unnecessary contact with the justice system. Emphasis should be given to developing ways to achieve family and community healing. Talking largely about domestic violence, he says that ‘interventions should:

  • be delivered by Aboriginal people and organisations;
  • offer culturally relevant support services;
  • respect cultural and family obligations and ties; and,
  • assist Aboriginal people in determining longer term solutions’ (Blagg 2000b: 1).

Robertson (2000) draws attention to the importance of providing funding for community groups to develop, trial and assess programs which could be alternatives to sentencing options for lesser offences. It is noted that this has been done in Australia – referring to the work of Blagg in WA, a men’s group in Mt Isa, work done for men on Palm Island, and in Brisbane (Robertson 2000). It would appear that the ability to offer an alternative to the criminal justice system, such as a system which returns to traditional Indigenous laws, would address issues around a failure to acknowledge violence due to issues of shame and the loss of confidence in present government agencies and processes.

Aboriginal Magistrate Pat O’Shane has reiterated comments made in Atkinson’s 1990 book ‘Finding the Dream’ that prison is not that answer in domestic violence situations. O’Shane suggests that ‘men who abuse and batter women should be made to go on courses to learn how to manage their lives and respect others’ (Anonymous 2001 25th July: 2). She said ‘courts should promote a healthy, happy community by making offenders go through programs to help them build self respect and repair their lives and relationships’ (Anonymous 2001 25th July: 2). She continued by stating that prisons are a breeding ground for ‘violence and misogyny’ and they should be considered as a last resort and only for serious or repeat offenders in sentencing (Anonymous 2001 25th July: 2).

Fitzgerald (2001) acknowledges that there are a number of emerging models of practice addressing family violence, and that many of these reject the criminalisation of the violence as the sole strategy. He reports that Indigenous communities are currently exploring new approaches to family violence that are based on customary law practices and principles of restorative justice, much information regarding the latter coming from New Zealand. Nicholson (1995) believes that a Federal Act should be created, which is applicable to all States and Territories, which recognises Aboriginal customary law. He goes on to say that ‘little or no progress will be made’ unless the Federal government is prepared to act.

Indeed, it would appear that WA is making some concessions towards this model. It is reported that Justice Carmel McLure in the WA Supreme Court gave a lighter sentence to an Indigenous man as he had already been subjected to a tribal punishment, spearing in the legs and thighs (Kappelle 2002). A report in The Koori Mail states that the WA government is undertaking a review with the Law Reform Commission of how Aboriginal customary law can operate within the bounds of the mainstream legal system (Moncrieff 2001).

Also of interest is that in WA in 1994, a report on gender bias in the law and administration of the law, was produced (Iorns 1994). A number of key recommendations were made, including the establishment of a permanent committee to monitor how the operation of the courts impact on Aboriginal women, and the establishment of a dispute resolution process, which offers an alternative to litigation for matters of Indigenous family violence. Iorns (1994) notes that unfortunately this report repeats recommendations made in earlier reports which have not been acted upon.

One final alternative to the conventional application of justice may be the use of mediation (Ralph 1997). Mediation, as commonly defined and practiced in an Aboriginal context, is more like the process of counselling and seen as a process which would strengthen an Aboriginal community (Suave 1996, reported by Ralph 1997). It should be noted, however, that mediation is often rejected by women’s organisations in contexts of violence because of power differentials.

Service development and delivery

The literature offers a number of ‘best practice’ suggestions for intervention into family violence in Indigenous communities. ‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ states that it is now too late for prevention services (Robertson 2000). In contrast, the authors of this brief suggest that prevention services are a vital part of a total package of responses, rather than being seen as ‘either/or’ services.

There is a common call in the literature that effective intervention into family violence needs to address both the past traumas and present situational problems and health disadvantages of Indigenous communities. Almost without exception the literature notes the need for inclusion/participation of the local community. The authors draw attention to the guide, ‘Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists’ (Dudgeon, Garvey & Pickett, 2000) which provides some useful information and approaches to working with Aboriginal communities.

Service delivery principles and needs

Commentators provide a range of broad principles as a basis for all service provision in the Indigenous community. Many of these principles relate to themes commonly repeated by the various authors.

Building on the tenets laid down by Sweeney (1995), Blagg (2000b) provides a summary of some of the intervention service models that may be effective in reducing violence. The author believes that the following broad principles need to be considered when planning services:

  • participation;
  • ownership/self-determination;
  • infrastructure (training and education); and,
  • support services to support child protection function.

Fitzgerald (2001) identifies four themes which he recommends should guide a reform agenda. These are strengthening of individual family and community capacity, creating safe environments, building sustainable environments, and re-orienting service delivery ‘to ensure that services are technically competent, coordinated, integrated, flexible and accessible’ (2001: 35).

Blagg (2000b) says that while there is a lot of criticism of existing intervention models into family violence, there is not, in Australia, a lot of fully developed alternative models. Blagg (2000b) notes that the literature supports models of intervention that:

  • are tailored to meet the needs of specific localities;
  • are based on community development principles of empowerment;
  • are linked to initiatives on health, alcohol abuse and similar problems in a holistic manner;
  • employ local people where feasible;
  • respect traditional law and customs where appropriate;
  • employ a multidisciplinary approach;
  • focus on partnership between agencies and community groups;
  • add value to existing community structures where possible;
  • place greater stress on the need to work with men; and,
  • place more emphasis on intervention that maintains family relationships and healing.

‘The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report’ emphasises the need for the inter-linking of services to address the multiple forms of violence in the communities, the need to meet the need for healing and the need to be flexible in approach (Robertson 2000). Multi-service delivery centres must be established to provide a coordinated service for alcohol and drug addiction, family violence, sexual assault, grief counselling, advocacy for women, child counselling and support groups for men (Robertson 2000). Aboriginal communities have the notion of ‘healing’, which describes a dynamic and unfolding process of individual and collective problem-solving.

The report recommends some ‘best practice’ principles for programs which need to:

  • ‘build on skills of people at Community levels and promote open Community discussion;
  • be based on the belief and practice that any form of violence is unacceptable;
  • include protocols and guidelines for service delivery, and for the behaviour of staff;
  • establish the safety of victims of violence as a first priority in protocols;
  • include trained, skilled workers;
  • provide sound, appropriate training for workers;
  • network across agencies – coordinate between services and agencies, including police;
  • empower people for personal and Community change;
  • inform and help people who have been victimised so that they do not remain victims;
  • build on a partnership between men and women who are involved in increasing the knowledge and skills of the Community;
  • proactively direct crime prevention strategies;
  • ensure the appropriate application of domestic violence/sexual assault legislation’ (Robertson 2000: 120, 121).

A number of specific suggestions are made by the commentators, including those outlined below.

The need for services to address alcohol abuse

The need for services to address alcohol abuse is often mentioned in the literature. Robertson (2000) notes that in isolated rural and remote areas services to treat alcoholism can only be described as ‘inadequate and pitiful’ (Robertson 2000: 30). Robertson suggests that the isolation of some Aboriginal communities would assist in the surveillance of the provision of alcohol, making it easier to undertake road checks of vehicles and people entering communities. There should be alcohol awareness programs. Indigenous people should be represented on Health District Service Boards (Robertson 2000).

Fitzgerald (2001) has recommended that the government allow individual communities three years to reduce the levels of alcohol consumption before giving consideration to banning the sale of alcohol in them altogether. Cripps believes that this approach is returning to the days of protection and assimilation in which white people determine who is, or is not, fit to drink in Indigenous communities (personal communication).

The need for program evaluation and research

Another commonly raised recommendation is for the evaluation of programs. ‘All services must have built-in evaluation, measurable positive outcomes and accountability’ (Robertson 2000: 119). Part of this process is the determination of base line indicators (Fitzgerald 2001). Sutton (2001: 143) reported that of the 130 remedial violence programs in the Indigenous communities in the 1990s (identified by Memmott and colleagues 2001), only six programs had undergone a ‘reasonable evaluation that was in a documented form’. This pattern is very much a reflection of the wider professional’s community failure to come to grips with program evaluation, although a greater focus on evaluation is beginning to bear fruit (Tomison & Poole 2000).

Robertson says that a good example of an accountable service is SAAP (Supported Assistance Accommodation Program), a service which should be extended to the Aboriginal Communities. Best practice should be developed at a national level to define the principles of service delivery on matters of family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities across Australia (Robertson 2000).

It was reported in The Koori Mail that Reconciliation Australia supported public debate on the issue of Indigenous family violence but felt that it was more important for the debate to be centred on the identification of best practice models of Indigenous family violence programs that are already working in Indigenous communities. ‘Communities struggling with the issue need guidance on what works and what doesn’t. Solutions must be community-driven, and best practice examples of community programs and initiatives would greatly assist’ (Anonymous 2002 March 20th).

There is also a need for research and theory development on the issues of violence in Indigenous communities in order to achieve greater understanding on the associations between race, gender and age, within a colonial context. ‘Without these considerations, poorly researched and prepared programs often create more problems than they solve’ (Robertson 2000: 46). While there are many reports which cover the territory of family violence in a broad way, the authors found little specific research on child abuse within Indigenous families, an oversight confirmed by Muriel Cadd (Stanley & Tomison 2001). Cadd (Chairperson of SNAICC) believes that this gap is present partly because there is no person or organisation in Australia who takes special responsibility for the welfare of Indigenous children. The ‘Proposed Plan of Action for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in Aboriginal Communities’ (SNAICC Secretariat National Aboriginal & Islander Child Care 1996) places high priority on the need for more research on child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

More specifically, Sanders & Markie-Dodds believe that the ‘Triple P’ program, one that is being increasing used throughout Australia, needs to be evaluated with Indigenous groups, ‘whose mental health needs have been largely ignored by psychology as a discipline’ (1996: 81). Zubrick and colleagues believe that information on the mental health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations is ‘critically needed’ (2000: 573).

Provisions for education and training

SNAICC (1996) notes that to effectively address the multi-faceted dysfunction/problems plaguing Aboriginal communities, there is a need to develop and support Aboriginal welfare/support services operating within the communities (e.g. Aboriginal Infant Welfare services). They advocate establishing a community-controlled Aboriginal children and family centre to gather information, develop training and education resources.

It is important that a strong training program for Indigenous people already working as volunteers or community-based professionals (e.g. in Aboriginal Child Care Agencies) is developed. For example, it is reported that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Councils are asked to undertake tasks beyond their capacities in the area of administrative skills (Robertson 2000). In addition, broader leadership skills need to be developed in the community. Robertson recommends that tasks should be spread around more community groups and training in the local government system be provided.

Education on violence prevention and the harms of alcohol and drugs is needed throughout the community and in schools. Education is needed on issues such as general education, health, child development and violence. Post-release perpetrator programs are needed (Robertson 2000).

Training in cultural awareness is needed for non-Indigenous professionals working with Aboriginal communities. Non-Indigenous professionals should be trained by skilled Indigenous facilitators. In addition, more Indigenous workers should be employed in mainstream services and given access to training to increase their skill levels. De-briefing should be available to all workers who may be traumatised by the intensity of their workload (Robertson 2000). Professor Andrew Armitage from Victoria University, Canada, reports the establishment of an Indigenous stream of social work with subjects in Indigenous studies and where reflection on the inter-face between the two cultures is facilitated (personal communication).

The need for the community to take responsibility

Pearson (2000) reports that the solution is not a matter of blame. ‘People are caught in an economic and social system which precipitated this misery. But it is a matter of responsibility. Our people as individuals must face their responsibility for the state of our society – for respect and upholding our true values and relationships. Our own laws and customs’ (2000: 19).

This argument is supported by Ah Kit (2002:15), who notes that ‘Aboriginal organisations must bite the bullet and develop innovative strategies to overcome the cancerous ideology of despair.’ One measure to take responsibility is a 21-member National Indigenous Working Group on Violence which is presently being convened by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC 2002).

As well as the Indigenous community taking responsibility, there is a need to involve the broader community in regional summits between Aboriginal groups, the government, Community Councils, mining companies and private businesses, to develop strategies and objectives for the social and economic developmental needs of Aboriginal communities (Robertson 2000). The Government should aid small business enterprises in Aboriginal communities (Robertson 2000).

Current solutions and programs

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

Ah Kee and Tilbury (1999) outline the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle, which has been enacted in most Australian states. The principle sets out the right for Indigenous children to be brought up in their own family. It gives guidance for alternative placements and continuing family contact, and requirements for consultation with Indigenous agencies. In NSW and WA guidelines in child protection services require that Aboriginal children are placed with an Aboriginal family (Ainsworth & Maluccio 1998).

Ah Kee and Tilbury (1999) believe that, despite a concerted effort to try and make the principle work in Queensland over a 15 year period, there has been little real improvement in outcomes for Indigenous children in care. The authors outline the steps which have been taken, such as research, training, the use of Indigenous community workers to work alongside front-line staff and the development of the Child Protection Reform Strategy which has been developed in conjunction with Indigenous agencies. Ah Kee and Tilbury (1999) also outline some of the reasons for the limited progress. The reasons include a lack of constant reinforcement in relation to the Placement Principle, tensions between the child protection department and the Indigenous agencies, the lack of evaluations and particularly, a persistent lack of funding. In Queensland about 10% of alternative care funding goes into Indigenous agencies, whereas 25% of children in alternative care are Indigenous (Ah Kee & Tilbury 1999).

In Victoria, it is reported in a statewide review of out-of-home care services for Aboriginal children and young people that there is still concern about the extent of placement of Aboriginal children with non-Indigenous families (Practice Leadership Unit 2000). The reasons for this relate to the small number of Aboriginal foster carers available, the difficulties child protection workers have in locating family members able to care for Aboriginal children and young people, and to some extent, requests from parents to have their child/ren placed with non-Indigenous families (Practice Leadership Unit 2000).

Problems such as these add to the difficulties and complexities of protecting Indigenous children. The Department of Human Services, Victoria, has reviewed solutions to some of these difficulties in collaboration with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (Jackson 2001). Ideas revolved around modifications to the present system of child protection, such as the use of Indigenous child protection workers to work solely with Indigenous children and their families, the development of reciprocal training and consultation with Indigenous services and better liaison with Indigenous services (Jackson 2001). Funding has been provided to SNAICC (Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care) to provide an Indigenous support worker for Indigenous children who have contact with child protection services (Cadd, personal communication).

Programs currently in operation

It is very difficult to identify programs which address family violence, let alone understand the success of the program and the ‘best practice’ issues which can be learnt from the program. This problem has been identified by a number of writers (for example, Memmott et al. 2001, Tomison & Poole 2000). This is partly because of the limited number of programs; the ‘ad hoc’ nature and the limited life of the programs; as well as the impression gained by the authors that much effective work is being done at the grass-roots and community level but not necessarily being ‘officially’ recognised. In addition, many programs do not necessarily identify themselves as ‘violence prevention programs’ as they have the aim of addressing, for example, recreation or health needs, and alcohol prevention services (Memmott et al. 2001).

In 1998, Memmott and colleagues (2001) recorded 131 family violence prevention programs with Indigenous people in Australia, 25 operating in WA. They offered the following categories of services: support; strengthening identity; behavioural change (men and women’s groups); night patrols; refuges; justice programs; dispute resolution; education; and composite programs. Information is provided on some of the types of programs, and programs which appear to be successful.

Another publication, the ‘Through Young Black Eyes’ handbook (SNAICC 2002) provides a very useful Australian-wide list of Indigenous services.

Men’s Groups

A number of men’s groups have been formed in the last five years, throughout Australia (Anonymous 2001a January 10th). The Yarrabah Men’s group in Queensland has had at least 15 men referred to them by the courts under intensive correction orders or probation, none of whom have re-offended. The group aims to teach the men self respect, encouraging them to take responsibility for overcoming violence, as well as having socialisation and learning objectives, such as the art of fishing and hunting (Anonymous 2001a January 10th). This group has recently produced a promotional video to send a message of self respect, anti violence, and anti-substance abuse to the community.

Robertson (2000) reports on a Palm Island Men’s Group which formed to work in conjunction with the Local Justice Group, the Katana Women’s Shelter and Queensland Police. Following 17 suicides on the island the previous year, there was not one suicide after the group was established. Similar joint efforts by men and women have been made at Kowanyama, Yarrabah, Mt Isa and Cherbourg.

Aboriginal Night Patrols

The first night patrol originated in Tennant Creek, in 1989, and was established by the Julalikari Council. From there the concept has spread and been adopted and adapted to meet the needs of communities throughout NT, WA and in some parts of NSW and Queensland (Memmott 2001: 68). Operating in cooperation with police, the Patrols attempt to address family violence situations and may be an alternative to police intervention (Blagg 2000b).

The majority of Night Patrols use volunteers that include community Elders and leaders who travel around the township to resolve and settle disputes, particularly in areas where alcohol abuse is a major problem (Wright 1997). The night patrols also assist police when required and transport victims of alcohol and/or abuse to hospital (Wright 1997). The sobering-up shelters are used to enable aggressive drunken men to ‘cool-off’. A night patrol in Numbud, WA, which has been in operation since 1995, has recently expanded their service to include picking up children from local communities and ensuring they get to school, in an attempt to prevent the extent of drinking and violence by young people (Blagg 1999b: 19).

In 1997-1998, ATSIC spent $946,000 on the funding of 23 night patrols (MacDonald 1999). However, the situation with at least one of the Night Patrols can demonstrate some of the problems these units face. Warden schemes operating in the Kimberley region of WA were identified as failing to cope with the demands placed on them. Blagg believes this situation may have been resolved if the schemes had been properly resourced, staffed by properly trained people, had the backing of the community and council, supported by outside agencies, achieved a gender balance and reflected tribal groupings (Blagg 2000b).

Education Programs

Indigenous responses and program initiatives on family violence have, in many cases, been education driven. For example the Awabakal Aboriginal Medical Service, Hunter Health’s Aboriginal Health Team and the Hunter Centre for Health Advancement worked in partnership to develop and launch a special education program known as Walkabout Learning. The program aims to build community awareness of the issues of family violence, alcohol and drugs and to support and build the capacity of Indigenous workers to address these issues when working with clients who may be at risk. Practical guide books have been developed, service directories, as well as a interactive touch screen computer kiosk, housed in the waiting room of the Awabakal Aboriginal Medical Service for clients and their families to access (Anonymous 2001 July 11th).

Other communities and community organisations are also developing similar educational material to raise awareness of family violence in the community. The Domestic Violence Advocacy Service located in New South Wales produced a resource booklet for Aboriginal women about domestic violence and the law in New South Wales, entitled ‘Our Dream … Stopping The Violence’ (Anonymous 2000 January 12th).

Palm Island has an annual domestic violence week and march organised by the Kootana Women’s Organisation (Howes 1999). Men, women and children joined together to march for the first time, in 1998. The Kootana Women’s Organisation reports that the designated week and the march develop an awareness in the community about family violence. It is reported that the Kootana Women’s Organisation also raised funds for emergency accommodation, an idea developed by the local children (Howes 1999: 23).

The National Child Protection Clearinghouse Audit (Tomison & Poole 2000) reports that a number of schemes have been undertaken to provide cross-cultural awareness training for non-Indigenous workers (for example, Deemal-Hall & McDonald 1998; Firebrace 1998). The Audit also reports that Indigenous cultural issues have been incorporated into a variety of programs, such as the Protective behaviour curriculum and training materials. A number of government and non-government agencies have employed Indigenous workers to work with local communities. The example is given of a program developed by ‘The Education Centre Against Violence’, Parramatta, NSW, which provides training and resources for NSW professionals working with children and adults working with family violence. The Audit also notes that the Centre was developing a course on Aboriginal family violence for Aboriginal family health workers.

In 1999, the ‘Education Centre Against Violence’ produced, and has since distributed, two videos tackling the ‘taboo’ subject of child sexual assault, and the equally difficult subject of domestic violence. ‘Big Shame’ is a story about child sexual assault involving a young girl who is being sexually abused by her grandfather, a well respected Elder in the Aboriginal community. The second video, ‘Who’s the Loser?’, is a story about the impact of family violence on children (Anonymous 1999 November 17th).

Family Support

In June 2001, the Victorian Government announced the launch of an Aboriginal Family Preservation Program which would provide intensive support to help overcome parenting or family problems. The $224,000 program would help families in crisis by delivering support at home and reunify children already separated from their families. With the support of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency this program will provide an intensive home based service to families for up to three months, with longer extensions if necessary (Anonymous 2001 June 13th).

‘Healing Our Families’, Apunipima Family Violence Advocacy Project

The Apunipima Cape York Health Council launched the ‘Healing our families: Apunipima Family Violence Advocacy Project’, in 1999 (Condie 1999). The project has since closed down as funding ceased in September 2001. The main features of this project included the Council:

  • taking on the role of intermediary between Cape York communities and service providers;
  • assisting in the development of health promotion strategies;
  • working to improve response times to Indigenous women and children who experienced family violence;
  • using the existing value systems in a community to develop violence prevention strategies; and,
  • ensuring community women are involved in intervention policies targeting families who are repeatedly at risk.

Under the project, women who were victims of family violence received appropriate legal assistance, referral advice, community support, and safe relocation out of a community, if required. Perpetrators of family violence were dealt with by Elders’ Justice Advisory groups who made the decision about the appropriate course of action, which, in the case of imprisonment would involve post release support to stop the cycle of violence.

‘Tuckandee’ – Using Aboriginal Art to teach

This program, which anecdotal evidence suggests is most successful, uses traditional Indigenous stories and production of paintings to educate the community in issues such as parental responsibility and promoting shared responsibilities for child protection. Part of the program is a travelling art exhibition. The program is run by Aboriginal artist, Tex Skuthorpe and colleague, Anne Morrill (Taylor 2002).

Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Programs

Six new programs have been funded within the Indigenous community under the ‘Partnerships Against Domestic Violence’ Programs (Partnerships Against Domestic Violence 2001). The services have a preventative focus as well as a crisis response, and have the aim of addressing violence in the communities.

‘Best Start’ program

Lambert and colleagues (1999) note that the program, ‘Best Start’, which offers early intervention in the form of family support and parent education, appears to have had a positive impact on Aboriginal families and the rate of child abuse. An evaluation of 16 Best Start projects was to commence in 1999.

Stronger Families Fund Projects

The Federal Government’s Stronger Families Fund project has allocated $20 million over four years to be used with Indigenous families (Stern 2002). The principles underlying these projects were planned at an ‘Indigenous Community Capacity Building Roundtable’. It is planned that these programs will use, and build on, community strengths and empower Indigenous leadership (Stern 2002).

A key facet of the government support is provided through the Australian Institute of Family Studies, who have set up a Stronger Families Learning Exchange, specifically designed to provide action research evaluation support to the various funded projects. The first Bulletin of the Learning Exchange, (Anonymous 2002) describes a program that has begun operation in Derby, WA. Commenced in 1994, and established by the Jalaris Aboriginal Corporation, this service provides a drop-in centre for the local children, offering them food, education, recreation, and attention to health needs. Funds from the Stronger Families Fund will enable this service to be extended and provide education and advice to the service.

Models used with Indigenous communities overseas

As with the situation in Australia, while there is some literature on models of child protection used with Indigenous communities, this literature is small and difficult to access. Sweeney (1995) gives some information on models of child protection services in Canada, New Zealand and the United States, where part, or all, protective responsibilities have been transferred to the Indigenous population. Pellatt (1991) provides an overview of the position of child protection in relation to Indigenous communities in many countries, although the information is somewhat dated. She records an overall world trend towards less intrusive protective practice and notes that Indigenous communities in Australia, Canada and the US are seeking legislative change.


Since the late 1970s, there have been attempts to develop child protection and family support services run by (and for) the First Nations peoples. Hill (2000) outlines some key issues for consideration when developing services for the protection of children in Aboriginal communities. Underlying this approach is recognition of the ‘cycle of poverty and dependency perpetuated by the very services designed to resolve the social ills of First Nations communities …[and that] First Nations people [have] had to become active participants in the resolution of social problems that impacted them’ (Hill 2000: 163).

Subsequently, Aboriginal foster care programs and child protection services – staffed and run by the Indigenous community and with statutory authority – were provided in a way that recognised the cultural integrity of the people. The new services were developed under the auspices of the mainstream child protection body, but were not a unit of the Department.

Underpinning the service development was the following:

  • recognition of the need for formal training and professional education for Aboriginal workers;
  • adoption of ‘least intrusive’ approach to child protection work (unless over-ridden by risk of harm) and the greater emphasis placed on seeking to work with extended family as an alternative to placement, thereby maintaining the child within the family and cultural community. ‘However, accepting these new opportunities also required First Nations to embrace the legal system in situations where involuntary interventions were necessary to protect a child’ (Hill 2000: 166); and,
  • recognition of collective Aboriginal rights – if court intervention is necessary for protection of a child, the child’s tribe is entitled to be notified and has the right to send a representative as a third party to the court proceedings.

In addition, a variety of family support programs were developed, particularly culturally appropriate parent education programs for Indigenous parents, and the development of ancillary services, such as an Indigenous co-operative day nursery.

It is interesting to note that the development of all these services, including the statutory services, could be characterised as conflictual, as ‘at every step …there emerged political clashes, formal and informal, for decision making power’ (Hill 2000: 166).

Overall, many of the tenets of the approach described by Hill have been embraced by Indigenous groups/agencies (and to an extent, government departments) in Australia. However, a statutory child protection service controlled and run by the Indigenous community has not been trialed yet.

Unfortunately, implementation of such a model is not easy, nor has it necessarily led to significant improvements in Canadian First Nation communities’ health and wellbeing and/or a reduction in violence. Although providing an example of how to move forward with more effective services, Hill’s model has some serious ‘gaps’. It does not seem to address issues of how to place a child within their Indigenous community if the community is beset by familial violence, substance abuse etc. Nor does it provide a solution to the mainstream statutory authority’s (or Aboriginal authority’s) reluctance to intervene with Aboriginal families, which may leave children in serious harm. Finally, it does not address the issue of effective prevention and/or community development to minimise the removal of children and violence in the first place.

Lynch (2001: 506) believes that the ‘standards and interests of the dominant paradigm have been applied to First Nations and Aboriginal peoples, particularly children, with insidious effect’. He supports the call by many First Nation and Aboriginal groups that there is a need for them to make decisions for themselves from within their own legal, political, cultural and social frameworks, in relation to child placement and protection principles and laws, and management of their own child welfare agencies and services. However, until this happens, there is a need to adapt the prevailing ‘best interests principle’ (Lynch 2001: 505). There also needs to be the option available that some Indigenous groups will remain within the mainstream legal system.

Comment on ‘best practice’ services

It would appear that past practices still leave a legacy, impacting on both Indigenous people and present government policy and practice within Indigenous child welfare. Unfortunately many of the well-intentioned policies, such as the use of Indigenous officers in child protection services, appear to have only resulted in superficial changes, rather than fundamental change. Many writers argue that the control of child protection services and other child welfare should be given to the Indigenous community (with professional support from mainstream statutory child protection services). There are overseas precedents for this approach, the success of which needs further examination.

It is also apparent that many of the tenets underlying what may be ‘successful’ overseas approaches are well-known to both Indigenous and mainstream services, but that implementation of new approaches has been a highly politicised, difficult process that is unlikely to proceed quickly.


Family Violence

Gender Sexuality

Governmental Best Practice

Research Conclusions

Research Findings