Indigenous and non-indigenous children will continue to be removed from their families if children are at risk of harm. However, improved mutual understandings may help minimise misunderstandings between Indigenous families and case workers, and possibly reduce the high over-representation of Indigenous children within the child protection system.
Working as a social worker at an Aboriginal agency, I witnessed the moments when decisions are made about our children. These took place during phone calls, through emails, at meetings, outside court, in cars, in hospitals and standing in front of someone’s home. These decisions were made quickly, with limited information, under a lot of stress and without enough Aboriginal community participation.
Case managers made decisions with their Erikson, Piaget, Bowlby and Bandura theories in their pockets, while Aboriginal mothers, not understood, cried.
Four years ago, I finished that position to begin PhD research into Indigenous Australian childrearing discourses. The unlawful doctrine of terra nullius has been abolished from Australia, but western theories still dominate child welfare practice.
Indigenous Australian concepts, theories and perspectives on life have not had the opportunity within our universities to be positioned as equal but different to western theorists. Cultural training has been embraced, but the fall of terra nullius hasn’t prompted awareness that our ancestors held long-standing ontologies which informed social systems, law, governance and fields of knowledge for every aspect of life.
All Indigenous groups are different in their teachings, languages and culture. There’s no set of Indigenous knowledges for childrearing that could be applicable for all groups. I’ve researched 10 texts written by Indigenous Australians around the country. These have been analysed for discourses, or patterns in language and similar meanings.
Indigenous knowledge stays deeply connected to the people and country it comes from, but I’ve learnt western knowledges follow a pathway of conceptualisation to gain a wider audience, thus positioning itself as a legitimate way of knowing. Through this process, western theories become a well-oiled machine ready to inform decisions.
The aim of my study is to take this pathway, to reveal and raise the status of Indigenous discourses, to create a “both ways” approach for our children. This research revealed 28 discourses about childrearing that have been re-articulated into four main concepts. Some of the principles discussed were equality between adults and children, ancestral memory, child-led development and child agency for decision making.
Findings also discussed: parenting children is the responsibility of older children, family, community, the child’s country and the child’s ancestors. Learning is through play, exploration and high participation. Relatedness is acquiring deep knowledge about human and non-human entities in our life, in turn becoming responsible to these entities as we grow older.
These findings and others encourage resilient children prepared for adulthood. The review for this study also proved a valuable resource, demonstrating similar Indigenous childrearing discourses revealed through studies with people from New Zealand, Canada, Norway and Africa.
I hope my findings will help encourage Indigenous childrearing discourses to be applied to child protection practices for improved outcomes for our children.
Mishel McMahon is a Yorta Yorta La Trobe University PhD candidate.