Removing children from their families: Polly Dunning

What kind of country, knowing the terrible consequences, is willing to remove children from their families?

I finally finished the final season of Orange is the New Black and I literally sobbed watching the depiction of migrant women being taken away from their children and deported.

Watching the character of Karla Cordova call her young children while holding back her tears, knowing she was being deported without them and might never see them again was one of the most gut-wrenching pieces of television I’ve seen.

I had to hold my head in my hands to quiet the sobs in an attempt not to wake my own children. My response was not merely triggered by the arresting performance given by actor Karina Arroyave. It was the visceral knowledge that this snippet of Trump’s America isn’t historic. The detention, deportation and dehumanisation portrayed is  happening to families right now. And not just in America.

Last month, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute released a report into the outcomes for Indigenous families following domestic violence, which found that the woeful support for DV survivors has led to Aboriginal women being forced to choose between remaining in a dangerous situation or risk having their children removed if they are unable to find secure accommodation.

That’s right, women who have survived a violent partner and managed to leave are then punished by having their children taken from them. And let’s not forget that Aboriginal women and girls are up to 35 times more likely to experience family violence.

What a disgusting trauma to inflict on women and children already traumatised. When a woman cannot find appropriate accommodation for her family, the obvious solution is not to take her children: it’s to help find or give her a home.

It seems we are again (or is it still?) okay with removing children from their families.  BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) children that is.

Three weeks ago, when Tamil asylum seekers Priya and Nades, and their daughters Kopika (4) and Tharnicaa (2) were removed and put on a plane with the intent to deport them, the parents were taken in a separate van to their children.

A two and four-year-old taken in the middle of the night and put in a car without a parent. Can you imagine how terrified they would be? How Priya and Nades must have felt?

Those little girls are about the same age as my children and it makes me feel sick to think about it. I am white and rich and privileged, so I can avoid thinking about it too deeply. But I have to confront that this was done in my name. It was done in your name too.

It makes no difference logistically to transport one child and one parent in each vehicle, so the only reason I can see to separate them is for the sake of being cruel. How do we sleep at night when we are purposefully inflicting pain on little children and their families?

We all cried and felt proud when Kevin Rudd delivered the parliament’s apology to the stolen generations, but I fear we are now just finding more palatable ways do it all over again.

I am reminded of the Netflix documentary “13th”, about the 13th Amendment to the US constitution which outlaws slavery except when an individual has committed a crime. Cue the war on drugs and mass black incarceration (something we’re guilty of in this country too – just last year every single child in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory was Aboriginal).

Just as Americans can say slavery is a thing of the past while finding more socially acceptable ways to lock up African Americans, we teach our children about the stolen generations in their History classes, while continuing to take Aboriginal kids from their families.

We justify it to ourselves by making racist judgements about those it affects: the African Americans in prison are “bad” African Americans, “criminals”, the Tamil family from Biloela are “boat people”, “illegal immigrants”, just like the people from Latin America crossing the US border, the Aboriginal women having their children removed are “bad” mothers, unable to properly care for their kids.

Just last week it emerged that an Ethics teacher at a primary school in Sydney’s Inner West told their students that the stolen generations were a result of “bad, lazy parents”, and who could forget that infamous 2016 racist cartoon by Bill Leak portraying Aboriginal parents as neglectful?

We need to confront our racism. We need to stop willingly hurting little children and their families. What kind of country, knowing the terrible consequences of child removal policies, can willingly do it all over again?

A child should only be removed from their family when remaining with their family will do them more damage than the trauma of removal, and when all other options (like giving them somewhere safe to live!) have been exhausted. Casually moving a two and four-year-old separately to their parents is wilful cruelty.

So is punishing Aboriginal women for leaving dangerous home situations by taking away their children when they cannot access safe housing due to the failures of our housing system. It fails to recognise these families as human beings and strips them of their dignity. If we can do this and feel okay about it, I despair for the kind of country we are.

Frankly, we should all be ashamed. We should be writing letters and ringing our MPs until the post boxes overflow and the lines are clogged. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept. This standard is shameful.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox