Working with children and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?

As NAIDOC Week begins, many National Quality Framework services will be acknowledging this important week in many different ways. Many services will be unsure about how or why they should engage with NAIDOC Week. And many services may wonder what responsibility they hold in exploring Indigenous perspectives, including the reality of lived experiences for Indigenous children and families.

According to the Report on Government Services, 17,664 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 37 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system appears to now be embedded in Australian society.

In Australia today, Indigenous children are 6.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be subject to a care and protection order.

In Australia today, Indigenous children are 10.2 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. For children aged 4 and under, this rises to 10.8 times.

As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

Recent Closing the Gap Reports have confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

Nationally, in early skills for life and learning 59-64% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are classified as ‘on-track’ compared to 76-86% of non- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Leadership is sorely missing from this issue in Parliament. Over 40 years after Gough Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill Station and symbolically handed the land back to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, it is difficult to see any of our current crop of leaders as capable of such leadership.

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in NQF services cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which, as quoted in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’. The EYLF also directly states that ‘early childhood education (with educators who are culturally competent) has a critical role to play’ in achieving this goal.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Indigenous Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Indigenous children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Indigenous children. As professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

We also need to be clear that these statistics are not failures of Indigenous strength and culture. They are the legacy of two centuries of policies and programs that systematically disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people.

But we also know that Indigenous children and their families are strong in their culture, their history, and their contributions to our communities. The challenges faced by Indigenous children and their families are not capability, but opportunity.

As a community, we need to work harder to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be valued and respected for who they are, and for their childhoods to be a strong foundation for who they will become.

Regardless of your own background, your own community, your own cultural competence—what will you do to be part of the solution?

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia.

This article is an updated version of an article originally published in 2015.

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