Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in child protection and out-of- home care services compared to non-Indigenous children (Titterton, 2017). The reasons for this are complex and are connected to past policies and the legacy of colonisation. Poverty, assimilation policies, intergenerational trauma and discrimination and forced child removals have all contributed to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care, as have cultural differences in childrearing practices and family structure (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], 1997; SNAICC, 2016; Titterton, 2017).
Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is being or is at risk of significant harm. Between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016, the rate of substantiations of abuse, neglect or risk of harm was 43.6% – 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost seven times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be the subject of substantiated reports of harm or risk of harm (Titterton, 2017).
Child protection data tell us how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children come into contact with child protection services. These data are not a measure of the actual prevalence of child abuse and neglect experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as there are several problems with these data that result in some children who:
- have been abused or neglected not being included in child protection statistics; and
- have not been abused or neglected being included in child protection statistics
In addition to these known problems with child protection data, there are several issues that contribute to the under-reporting of violence, neglect and child abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. These include:
- Fear, mistrust and loss of confidence in the police, justice system, government agencies and the media, including a belief that perpetrators of sexual or family violence will not be punished (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Bailey, Powell, & Brubacher, 2017; Prentice, Blair, & O’Mullan, 2017; Willis, 2011).
- Fear of racism (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, 2013).
- Fear that the child may be removed from the community (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Taylor & Putt, 2007; Titterton, 2017).
- Community silence and denial (Gordon, Hallahan, & Henry, 2002).
- Social and cultural pressure from other members of the family or community not to report abuse or violence, the belief that reporting is a betrayal of the culture and community, and the fear of being shunned by the community (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Prentice et al., 2017; Taylor & Putt, 2007).
- A belief in the need to protect the perpetrator because of the high number of Indigenous deaths in custody (Stanley, Tomison, & Pocock, 2003).
- Fear of repercussions or retaliation from the perpetrator or their family (Stanley et al., 2003; Willis, 2011).
- Personal and cultural factors of shame, guilt and fear (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Prentice et al., 2017; Taylor & Putt, 2007).
- Lack of understanding about what family violence and child abuse and neglect are generally, and lack of understanding about what constitutes family violence and child sexual abuse specifically (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Prentice et al., 2017).
- High levels of violence and the subsequent normalisation of family violence (Prentice et al., 2017; Willis, 2011).
- Lack of culturally appropriate services (Prentice et al., 2017).
- Language and communication barriers, lack of knowledge about legal rights and the services available, and lack of services for victims of child sexual abuse (Anderson & Wild, 2007).
- Geographical isolation (i.e., nobody to report to, no means of reporting and minimal contact with child welfare professionals) (Gordon et al., 2002; New South Wales Ombudsman, 2012; Stanley et al., 2003).
Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce. (2006). Breaking the silence: Creating the future. Addressing child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities in NSW. Sydney: NSW Attorney General’s Department.
Anderson, P., & Wild, R. (2007). Ampe akelyernemane meke mekarle – Little children are sacred. Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. Darwin: Northern Territory Government.
Gordon, S., Hallahan, K., & Henry, D. (2002). Putting the picture together: Inquiry into response by government agencies to complaints of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities. WA: Department of Premier and Cabinet.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). (1997). Bringing them home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Sydney: HREOC.
New South Wales Ombudsman. (2012). Responding to child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities. A report under Part 6A of the Community Services (Complaints and Monitoring) Act 1993. Sydney: New South Wales Ombudsman.
Prentice, K., Blair, B., & O’Mullan, C. (2017). Sexual and family violence: Overcoming barriers to service access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients. Australian Social Work, 70(2), 241-252.
SNAICC. (2016). The family matters report: Measuring trends to turn the tide on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child safety and removal. Melbourne: SNAICC, the University of Melbourne, Save the Children Australia and the Centre for Evidence and Implementation.
Stanley, J., Tomison, A. M., & Pocock, J. (2003). Child abuse and neglect in Indigenous Australian communities (Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 19). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/issues/issues19/issues19.html>.
Taylor, N., & Putt, J. (2007). Adult sexual violence in Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 345. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from https://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi345
Titterton, A. (2017). Indigenous access to family law in Australia and caring for Indigenous children. University of New South Wales Law Journal, 40(1), 146-185.
Willis, M. (2011). Non-disclosure of violence in Australian Indigenous communities (Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice No. 405). Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from <www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/401-420/tandi405.html>.