Evaluation of the Bringing them home and Indigenous mental health programs
1.8 Effects and consequences of removal in the Australian context
The literature on the effects of removal policies and practices in Australia demonstrates that:
- there have been numerous negative and severe effects and consequences for SEWB, including loss, trauma, grief, offending behaviour, adverse life outcomes, substance abuse, higher rates of mental health problems, suicide and violence, parenting problems, poorer physical health
- these effects and consequences are trans-generational ie they impact not only on those directly removed but also their children, families and communities.
1.8.1 Impacts on those directly affected by removalVarious reports have documented the negative impacts of removal on those directly affected by forcible removal practices (ie first generation Stolen Generations members). For example, one key source of data is the report by MCATSIA (2006) which uses large datasets collected for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey to compare outcomes for Aboriginal people removed from their families, versus those who had not been removed.
The effects on first generation members documented in the literature include:
- Loss, trauma and grief – Swan & Raphael (1995) identified loss, trauma and grief as 'overwhelming problems, both related to past history of loss and traumatisation and current frequent losses with excess mortality in family and kinship networks'. Trauma and grief are identified as 'amongst the most serious, distressing and disabling issues faced by Aboriginal people – both as a cause of mental health problems, and as major problems in their own right' (Swan and Raphael 1995). Furthermore, Koolmatrie suggests that the actions of removing children have 'left a powerful residue of unrecognised and unresolved grief that [have] pathological effects on Indigenous communities' (Koolmatrie & Williams 2000, p163).
- Criminal offending behaviour – Edney (2003) suggests that there are links between childhood separation and contact with the criminal justice system, noting for example links between the findings of the RCIADIC and the BTH Report, and that 'childhood separation and removal often figured in the life story and deaths of the 99 Indigenous people who were part of the RCIADIC brief' (2003, p10).
- Adverse life outcomes – the range and type of adverse life outcomes experienced by those forcibly removed (compared to those who had not been removed) include lower employment, significantly poorer health, greater contact with the criminal justice system, greater alcohol consumption, and greater experiences of physical violence (ATSIS 2003, p71).
- Problems caused by the overuse of alcohol or gambling (WAACHS 2005).
- Greater contact with mental health services (WAACHS 2005).
- Higher likelihood of offending – eg in the MCATSIA (2006, p9) study 14.6% of removed Aboriginal people had been arrested more than once in a five year period versus 8.8% of non-removed Aboriginal people.
- Higher rates of criminal victimisation – for example in the MCATSIA study 33.5% of removed Aboriginal people had been a victim of physical or threatened violence compared to 18.1% of non-removed Aboriginal people (MCATSIA 2006, p9).
- Poorer outcomes on educational and employment indicators compared to Aboriginal people not removed from their families, for instance in the MCATSIA study lower rates of completion of Year 10-12 schooling (28.5% versus 38.5%), lower rates of retention to Year 10 (28.5% versus 38.5%), and lower rates of full-time employment (17.8% versus 24.8%). Top of page
1.8.2 Impacts on subsequent generationsThe BTH Report highlighted a number of intergenerational effects of removal, and found that 'the overwhelming evidence is that the impact does not stop with the children removed. It is inherited by their own children in complex and sometimes heightened ways' (HREOC 1997, p189). This was reiterated by the findings of the recent West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS), which reported that 'significant associations exist between the SEWB of Aboriginal carers and their children (aged 4-17 years) and the past policies and practices of forced separation of Aboriginal people from their natural families' (WAACHS 2005, p465).
The WAACHS is the most systematic and direct investigation of the inter-generational effects of past government removal policies and practices, however it is limited in that it only covers WA. (In order to establish a more comprehensive picture of the inter-generational effects, research of this nature needs to be undertaken on a national scale.) To date replication of this research has been restricted due to the significant cost involved.
A wide range of adverse intergenerational consequences of Stolen Generation experiences are highlighted in the literature, including:
- high rates of depression and mental illness (HREOC 1997, pp189-194), clinically significant emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, self-harm and contact with mental health services
- denial of being parented or cared for by a person to whom removed children were attached, which is the very experience people rely on to become effective and successful parents themselves; this was the most significant of the major consequences of removal reported in the WAACHS (2005) study
- ongoing symptoms and effects of unresolved trauma, loss and grief (Koolmatrie & Williams 2000)
- lesser likelihood of having someone with whom to discuss and share problems (WAACHS 2005, p474)
- higher levels of substance abuse (eg petrol sniffing, alcohol problems), smoking and gambling problems
- lower self-reported health status
- higher rates of offending, including domestic violence
- higher levels of stressful life events
- over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child welfare system (HREOC 1997)
The most recent report analysing national child welfare data for 2001-2002 through to 2005-2006 indicates that Aboriginal children are clearly over-represented. For example, Aboriginal children are almost five times more likely to be the subject of substantiated child protection notifications, more than six times more likely to be on care and protection orders, and over seven times more likely to be in out-of-home care, compared to other children (AIHW 2007).
While the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle sets out an order of preference for the placement of Indigenous Children in practice the application of the principle has seen varying rates of placement of children with Aboriginal caregivers (AIHW 2006, pp51-53).