Giving Anangu women a say on child protection

Giving Anangu women a say on child protectionIn June Mrs Mantatjarra Wilson talked on ABC’s Lateline, with tears streaming down her cheeks of her sadness for her grandchildren, and their children. The Josephite Sisters working with Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) mothers and grandmothers already had plans in place to meet with the women on the APY lands in the western desert of South Australia to talk about ‘child protection in place’. The sadness and shame among their Aboriginal friends at the direction of the debate after the Lateline program made this meeting more urgent. The Sisters knew the wisdom of the women elders and wanted their voice to be heard.

So it was that at the end of July a group of four Josephites, Michele Madigan, Kenise Neil, Helen Duke and Joan Healy, together with a very experienced child protection consultant Professor Dorothy Scott, gathered on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands at Umuwa to listen and to learn from Aboriginal mothers and grandmothers who were deeply concerned about the protection of their ‘young ones’.

Mrs Waniwa (“Auntie Lucy”) Lester, a senior Anangu woman, acted as interpreter and cultural consultant, and Dr Irene Watson, an Aboriginal academic, gently facilitated the conversation. More than a dozen Anangu mothers and grandmothers participated in the discussions, which were wide-ranging and touched on such issues of child protection as poverty, poor housing, family violence and substance misuse. Some women spoke in their own language, others in English. Some attended on one day, others two days. They spoke of their worries and hopes.

Giving Anangu women a say on child protectionThe talking began with Waniwa referring to a traditional Anangu story, the theme of which was the importance of children carrying with them the spirit of their mother, and how life itself depended on this story being carried forward, and not being discarded and replaced by that which was new and not of the mother.

In response to the question “how can Anangu grow up children strong?”, deep pain was expressed about the loss of particular children and how families had wept with sorrow. One grandmother spoke with intense anguish when recounting how her young grandchild had asked on the telephone, “Grandmother, where are you?"

The women said that Anangu who are taken away “feel like strangers in own country when they return… children taken away call other people ‘mum’—wrong way—not true—names of some people who were taken away not true now… we all want to stay in land to learn culture, not learn other people’s culture… learn from own people.”

Anangu women spoke a lot about hunger. Families cannot afford to buy food due to the very high prices in the stores. Much of the food was unhealthy. “Takeaway food not good. Take away food killing Anangu... need enough food for children to stay on lands.”

“This issue hidden... children hungry… not getting fed properly… then being placed in someone else’s care. Mistakes (of the past) can’t be repeated.” The discussion often returned to the issue of the affordability and availability of good food. “Shops big problem in community… take this to government.” “Many skinny children on lands… bones not growing properly.”

When asked what should happen when parents cannot care for their children properly and the babies are underweight—when parents might be sniffing petrol, for example—the women said that the ‘Anangu way’ was for grandmothers or aunties to look after the child, yet many grandparents are raising children without financial support. They said, “Grandmothers need help to buy food." They know that foster carers receive allowances for the expense of rearing children.

Child protection policy has a huge impact on Aboriginal communities, with Aboriginal children being six times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be in State care, largely for child neglect. One of the most serious forms of neglect is 'failure to thrive' or malnutrition in infants and young children.

Giving Anangu women a say on child protectionIt was hoped, through the homemaker services that are being developed in some communities on the APY Lands, that a house with a warm and welcoming homely atmosphere would encourage mothers and their young children to come together to cook and share healthy food with their children. “Have been thinking safe place, feeding place.” “Have house with mattress, milk, cot, fruit…that kind of place like to see." The grandmothers said they too would come to such a place, to help the mothers and play with the children. They know of traditional ways of safeguarding children from harm, but need a safe space.

The mothers would be cared for and fed as well. The Anangu women said that once trusting relationships had been established with mothers—many of whom are themselves very young and may have problems such as petrol-sniffing—the mothers would then feel comfortable having an Anangu homemaker or family support worker helping them in their home. They said, “Don’t do the work... support people to do the work… need more people to help in homes… problems start in home… need to work in homemaking."

However, there was concern that the homemaker service would not be successful unless the centres were big enough for a kitchen and a group of women and children. There also need to be enough money to buy food, and sufficient staffing by Anangu women. Women carrying out this demanding task would need to be well-housed, supported and paid properly. “Can’t make a garden without a shovel." “Not CEDEP wages—real wages.”

Accounts were given of previous services which had failed due to short-term funding and poor co-ordination. There was confusion about the many narrowly-focused services delivered from a great distance. “To tell the truth, I don’t know what they are doing." Such services were not seen as accountable to the community. “Need to sit in front of Anangu and say ‘this is what I have done'—do proper report, start to work with communities. Work out what they want. Work it out.”

Giving Anangu women a say on child protectionAnangu women could see how some things could work—for example, a program where ‘young ones’ could come together in the evenings to play music and ‘have a good feed’ reduced petrol sniffing and violence in the community. But there had been many broken promises. “Government need to talk proper story.”

A fragile hope for the future of their children was expressed by the women at the end of the days together. “Today we are talking for first time… we all know what is happening. We like to see these things in place…to be true story…make this a true story…don’t know if there are any true stories yet.”

The women who listened are convinced of the wisdom they heard. They will, at every opportunity, tell what they heard and so influence decisions about child protection in remote communities. As well, leaders of the Sisters of St Joseph, Josephites Federation and Central, will work together to keep the issue of a justly reconciled Australia on the agenda. Josephite Sisters are in partnership with Aboriginal people in every mainland state, both in remote and urban areas. Almost two thousand copies of their program The Hour Has Come are now in circulation.

"Make this a true story."



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