Caring for a child from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background can be an enriching experience and have a positive impact on your life. Aboriginal culture is rich in tradition, art, stories and music.
The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) is the national peak body representing the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. SNAICC stresses the importance of effective and differential recognition of the unique rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to safe and stable connections to kin, culture and community – this is because their stability is grounded in the permanence of their identity in connection with their family, kin, culture and country. SNAICC also assert the care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children away from family, kin, culture and country will most likely cause harm to these children and exacerbate inter-generational harm to families and communities (SNAICC Policy Position Statement, July 2016).
Recognising this, an important cornerstone guiding work in the care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (The Child Placement Principle). This principle is a nationalpolicy position that recognises the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to be cared for within their own families and communities whenever possible, and where this is not possible for children to remain connected to family, community and culture. The Child Placement Principle also upholds the rights of family and community to have some control and influence over decisions about their children where the child protection system is involved.
The Child Placement Principle is based strongly on the presumptions that removal of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child from family should be an intervention of last resort, and reunification must be a high priority. The principle involves five core elements – prevention, partnership, placement, participation and connection. CYPS and ACT Together recognise the importance of these five core elements and are working towards fully embedding the principle across all aspects of their work. See ‘Guiding legislation and policies’ for more information about the Child Placement Principle.
While caring for a child from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background brings similar experiences to other children in care, the legacy of the Stolen Generation and the impact of forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on individuals, families and their communities should never be underestimated or overlooked. As a consequence, and in addition to the Child Placement Principle, the Children and Young People Act 2008 includes specific provisions CYPS and ACT Together must consider when working with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander families. Two of these are around who will care for the child and adoption.
Under the Act, where one or both of a child’s birth parents are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture, everyone involved must be guided by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people principle. This principle legally governs how CYPS and ACT Together engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It ensures everyone working with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child acts in ways that:
- maintain a child’s connection with the lifestyle, culture and traditions of their community
- consider submissions made by or on behalf of any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or organisation identified by CYPS or ACT Together as providing ongoing support services to the child and their family
- maintain the traditions and cultural values as identified by the child’s family, kinship relationships and community with which they have the strongest affiliation.
When work with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander family results in a child entering care, the Act further outlines the specific options for who can provide care to the child as well as the priority order of those options. In doing so, the Act states CYPS and ACT Together must, using the priority order, place the child with the first carer available with whom the child does not object to, and who is consistent with the child’s Cultural Plan (if already developed). The priority order is:
- a kinship carer
- a foster carer who is a member of the child’s Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community and is in a relationship of responsibility for the child according to local custom and practice
- a foster carer who is a member of the child’s community
- an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander foster carer
- a non-indigenous or Torres Strait Islander foster carer who is believed by staff on reasonable grounds to be:
- sensitive to the child’s needs
- capable of promoting the child’s ongoing contact with their family, community and culture
- living near the child’s family or community if family reunion or continuing contact with the child’s family, community or culture is a consideration in their placement.
In regards to adoption, the Act outlines specific considerations concerning adoption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. However, it is CYPS and ACT Together policy that adoption will not be included in any proposal for the long-term placement of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child. Instead, the preferred permanency placement is through an Enduring Parental Responsibility order.
CYPS and ACT Together recognise the importance of culture to the wellbeing of children and will work with you as their carer to make sure their culture is accessible to them. The highest priority is for children to be cared for within their extended family and community networks. It should not be underestimated the significant benefit this connection makes to the child’s wellbeing and life outcomes.
It is recognised many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been disconnected from their culture because of past government policies that fractured family structures and traumatised whole communities. For some, this has resulted in knowing little about their cultural and family identities.
Culture plays a key role in a child’s development, identity and self-esteem. To support this, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care will have a Cultural Plan developed by their case manager in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff from either CYPS or ACT Together.
The purpose of the Cultural Plan is to:
- ensure the child’s identity is preserved by facilitating and maintaining their connection to family, including extended kinship networks, community and culture
- support the child to remain connected to their culture, including but not limited to language, cultural values, lore, beliefs and practices, country, extended family, clan, community and totem, history and stories, symbolic and cultural expressions, and events.
CYPS and ACT Together strive to ensure children are connected with their culture and are offered access to appropriate services and support. Both agencies have cultural staff who provide advice to your case manager about the development of the child’s Cultural Plan, as well as culturally competent ways to engage with members of the child’s community. A referral to engage with cultural staff occurs as soon as possible after the child enters care.
The Cultural Plan is separate but aligned to the child’s Care Plan. You will receive a copy of the child’s Cultural Plan from your case manager. It will provide you with information about the child and their family, their cultural history as well any objectives and actions that will help the child to stay connected in a day-to-day way with their community. If you have any questions about how to best work with the child’s Cultural Plan, touch base with your case manager.
CYPS and ACT Together endeavour to place all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in need of care with their family, kinship network or community, recognising the significant benefit cultural connections make to a child’s wellbeing and life outcomes. However, there are times where it may be necessary to place children outside their family networks, that is, with adults usually not known to the child. In these situations, children are cared for by foster carers while ongoing effort is made to find a suitable kinship carer for the child.
For children placed in the care of foster carers, the transition to their new home can be especially difficult. They not only need to adjust to a new home, but often also to a new cultural environment that values different things from their own community, expects different types of behaviour, has different social rules and views the world differently to their own family.
As the child’s carer, you are not expected to know everything about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture – this is why the Cultural team is involved and a Cultural Plan is developed. These will ensure the child in your care (and you) have planned opportunities to learn about and experience their culture. However, you are encouraged to expand your own knowledge and be in the best position you can to help and support the child to be proud of, and feel part of their culture. This is an opportunity for you to gain new understandings and skills. Both you and the child can start on a journey together of learning more about Aboriginal culture and community, and getting to know and respect each other.
Here are some tips that can help you:
- Explore and support the goals in the child’s Cultural Plan.
- Give the child a positive view of themselves and their culture so they can develop pride in the richness of their cultural background.
- Learn as much as you can about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and the child’s specific culture and language.
- Respect the cultural rights of the child’s family and community. Be aware of cultural terms of address, for example ‘Aunty’, ‘Cousin’.
- Show an interest in the child’s cultural identity, including an interest in their role models like sports people, actors and community leaders.
- Support the child to have possessions that connect them to their culture, such as photos, music, toys, books and games that might look like them and their family. Speak to your case manager about how to access such items.
- Develop an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life book where the child can collect cultural and personal information and help develop a sense of who they are (see ‘Identity and collecting memories’).
- Participate in community and cultural events, including with their family if possible.
- Develop a positive relationship with the child’s family – talk to your case manager about cultural protocols that show respect.
- Understand culture can be private. There are times when cultural information is private and sacred to family and the community they belong to. This isn’t an attempt to keep you out of the process, but about the way the family works – some share information, others may not.
- Be clear with the child that you are in the role of carer and are not seeking to replace their birth parents or community, taking into consideration the age of the child and their circumstances.
More tips are available from the free resource, Foster their Culture: Caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in Out-of-Home Care developed by SNAICC. You can access the resource by:
As their carer, you have an important role in raising a strong and healthy Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child while they are in your care, but this can only be achieved by acknowledging the importance of culture to their wellbeing and by making sure their culture is accessible to them. You should not underestimate the significant benefit this connection will make to their wellbeing and life outcomes, and the opportunity it provides for you to explore and experience another culture.
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