How The Foster Care System Continues The Stolen Generations, From Someone Who Survived It

vanessa turnbull-roberts speaks to PEDESTRIAN.TV about the foster care system and how it continues the stolen generations into the modern day.

It’s become a commonly-quoted statistic that in the decade after Kevin Rudd‘s 2008 momentous apology for the Stolen Generations, the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care doubled. This, along with a myriad of other forms of violence by the state, has become evidence that colonisation in this country never actually ended — it just evolved and manifested itself in practices and institutions we’ve come to accept and not question. And it’ll take an overhaul of the way we actually think about and approach justice to change that.

Bundjalung Widubul-Wiabul woman Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts was 10 and a half years old when she was removed from her family by welfare and child protection — or “family policing”, as she calls it — and she’s only a couple of years older than me.

Now a human rights lawyer in her mid-twenties, she’s on a quest to challenge a) the claim that colonisation is a thing of the past, and b) just how much “welfare” is really at the centre of why the state removes predominantly low socio-economic status (SES) and non-white children from their family’s care.

“As a survivor, my own experience of going through the family policing system and being removed allowed me to be completely aware about what was going on,” Vanessa told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“It also allowed me to reflect in my silence because my voice was so denied.”

For Vanessa, and countless other First Nations children, being removed from her family was obviously deeply traumatic.

In many ways, it was also completely unnecessary, because other forms of support (like welfare payments, community support, therapy, etc.) could have been available. But they weren’t even considered by agents of family policing when Vanessa was removed from her family, and in the way the foster “care” system is designed, how could they be?

“In my TEDxSydney talk, I challenge people to reflect on what it means to enhance our relationships and remember what it means to come from place and community. And that’s what non-Indigenous people don’t understand. They don’t understand that actually, coming to a place and community is about doing things collectively,” she said.

“Whereas when the state intervenes in family policing, or your life, or removes you [from your family], they see it as ‘this is the situation, this is what’s going on, and we’re not going to look around [and consider], could we potentially put this child into kinship?’

“Could we have potentially, in my situation, instead of waiting 10 and a half years to remove this child, [consider] how have we been involved in this kid’s life for 10 and a half years?

“[The state] completely failed to provide any support. And then they take the child in the middle of the night with tall police officers.”

The important thing we, and the wider Australian population, need to understand is that things don’t have to be this way. We don’t have to have systems in place that only further dehumanise and alienate vulnerable people. We don’t need to maintain a system that has created a pipeline between foster care and prison for young Indigenous people.

Instead, Vanessa says there should be a focus on community when it comes to supporting struggling Indigenous families and their children, who she says are better off around those that care about them than in the clutches of the state.

“I’m just such a big believer in call on community, not call on the state,” she said.

“Reflect critically about what you are reporting. I acknowledge that people are mandatory reporters and they are required to do so under the law. But we need to reflect about how we respond as a system.”

According to Vanessa, the foster care system doesn’t acknowledge the needs of Indigenous communities on purpose. It was created in the context of invasion, colonisation and deeply entrenched racism. Basically, it’s not broken — “it’s a system intentionally designed and it’s working perfectly”.

Instead, she’s calling for systemic changes where the state prioritises self-determination and support for First Nations communities, so they can finally heal from colonisation — which was more recent than anyone is willing to accept — without having to worry about losing their kids, too.

“You never hear that the parent didn’t want the child. It’s that nothing was provided to support the situation between the parent and the child,” she reminded us.

“And that’s what I see all the time in my work. You know, we we criminalise and we pathologise addiction. We pathologise and over medicalise Aboriginal women who come to the hospital.

“We need to stop criminalising poverty, and we need to stop criminalising victims and survivors of domestic and family violence.”

Acknowledging that Australia’s child removal system is a remnant of colonialism and the Stolen Generations that is rooted in racial violence is the first step in tearing it down and building a better future.

“We have so much to answer to with our own laws, particularly the 2018 [law to] dispense parental consent when it comes to adoption,” Vanessa told PTV.

“It disproportionately targets Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care, who can be adopted out without the consent of their parents. And what we tend to see is the fast tracking of this process, because there’s this narrative, which was the objective of pushing through this legislation, that children deserve to belong, implying that Aboriginal children don’t.

“It’s a lot of white people adopting our babies. And it’s harmful, because it’s another Stolen Generation, and it’s another generation of our children being completely missed and [losing] that access to culture and identity and community.

“So yeah, we’ve got a long way to go. But in terms of reimagining child protection and family policing, we need to abolish it because it does not work.

“Reform implies that some things are working, but it’s not working. So I believe we need to not be so scared of abolition, not be afraid to visit it, and recognise that there’s actually small ways as a community, and also big ways structurally where we can work towards that. It’s not scary.”

You’ll hear more about her proposals of how “welfare and child protection” needs to move away from being a vessel of colonisation and start empowering Indigenous communities in her TEDxSydney talk, but here’s the forward sizzle she gave us.

“Imagine we built a mansion, we built and liberated communities,” she suggested.

“Imagine every community that was identified as high need had a local community centre, fully funded with psychiatrists, psychologists and support and I spoke about this. And instead of calling the department, often waiting three hours to get through to someone, you could just go down, and you can go speak to a local elder. And you would be welcome. Welcome to Community. Welcome to place. Welcome. Thank you for coming to us.

“Imagine we built communities and not the colony.”

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts is writing a book on this matter if you want to know more — it’s called Long Yarn Short: We are still here and it highlights the stories of the children who didn’t get to come home, and those still waiting to.

You can learn more about this crucial issue by checking out Vanessa’s TEDxSydney talk on September 1.

Image:  Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images