Australia: The National Obscenities of Starving Rural Aboriginal children & Feminized Homelessness Print E-mail

 London ~ Thursday August 05 2010

Children found starving in rural Australia

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

  Child protection officers said children from remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory were 'failing to thrive' (REUTERS)

Aboriginal disadvantage has not rated a mention during the Australian election campaign – there are few votes in it. But as the party leaders criss-crossed the country this week, shocking evidence emerged at a government inquiry: children in remote indigenous communities are starving.

The claims were made by child protection workers, who said the situation was so dire that an international aid-style programme was needed – an extraordinary state of affairs in one of the world's most affluent nations. The workers called for essential food to be delivered by an organisation such as Oxfam or the Red Cross to ensure that children got enough to eat.

The inquiry was established by the Northern Territory government, with the aim of strengthening the child protection system. It has already heard a series of disturbing allegations, including that children in remote communities are left to wander unsupervised at night, or are abandoned when their parents go on drinking sessions.

It was the Northern Territory that was targeted by a federal government "intervention", initially aimed at tackling child sex abuse. The intervention, which began three years ago during the conservative reign of the then prime minister, John Howard, continued under his Labor successor Kevin Rudd, albeit in a slightly watered-down form. In 2008, when Mr Rudd apologised to Aboriginal people for historic injustices, he pledged to "close the gap" between black and white Australians – the yawning gulf relating to their health, life expectancy, education and employment opportunities.

Little has changed, however. Indigenous people are still dying up to 20 years earlier than their white counterparts, and the mortality rate of babies born to Aboriginal mothers is twice that of other Australian infants.

Claims that children are starving, or "failing to thrive", were contained in a submission to the inquiry in Darwin by child protection staff from the Northern Territory. They said resources allocated to indigenous communities were "grossly inadequate" and the spectacle of children who were failing to thrive was, to them, familiar.

The Darwin-based team covers a vast area and looks after 14,000 people, but has to make do with four welfare workers and four Aboriginal community workers. That level of staffing, combined with a "fly-in, fly-out approach", allows for "little more than superficial child protection responses", the inquiry submission said.

It called for specialised child protection officers to be placed in Aboriginal communities, and for more support for parents, including intensive parenting classes for schoolchildren from the age of 13. In these areas, a high number of young people aged between 15 and 24 have one or more children.

Demanding immediate help for the starving, the child protection workers said: "This could simply be a foreign aid (Red Cross, Oxfam, etc) type feeding programme that does nothing more than deliver essential food to starving children while other programmes address the underlying issues of poor parenting, poverty, overcrowding, violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling etc."

Staff also complained about the "incredible" volume of paperwork they had to plough through, saying: "We spend more time sitting at a computer than we do with our clients and their families."

The inquiry, which is expected to report next month, has heard that it is "normal" for Aboriginal children to be left to wander alone at night, or to be placed in the care of "reluctant" extended family members.

Meanwhile, Alice Springs Hospital has told the inquiry it is used by child protection workers as a "storehouse" for children awaiting foster placement. "[We are] an acute care facility, we are not able to provide appropriate supervision of children and their families," the hospital's submission said.

Dan Baschiera, a veteran social worker, told the inquiry he had seen child protection staff fresh from years of study and training "burn up" after a few months working in Aboriginal welfare. He accused the Northern Territory government of starving the child protection system of funds.
 Tuesday August 3, 2010

Indigenous children in remote centres 'starving'

 Natasha Robinson
CHILD-PROTECTION workers have called for aid to be delivered to starving Aboriginal children in remote communities.

The Darwin Remote Office of the Northern Territory Department of Families and Children -- which is responsible for the protection of children in Top End communities -- said a foreign aid-type program was needed to deliver essential food supplies to children who are failing to thrive.

In an explosive submission to the Territory's child protection inquiry, the workers also accused the NT government of contributing paltry resources towards child protection in remote Aboriginal communities.

The Darwin Remote Office said its team, which covers Aboriginal communities with a combined population of 14,000, was critically understaffed, with just four community welfare workers and four Aboriginal community workers servicing fast-growing remote towns.

"The staffing resources that the NT government allocates to provide child-protection services to these and other remote communities is grossly inadequate and allows for little more than superficial child-protection responses," it said.

The office questioned why the NT had not followed the example of Western Australia, which, after retired magistrate Sue Gordon's report into child protection in the Kimberley, placed child-protection officers in remote communities.

They said the "fly-in, fly-out approach adopted by NTFC to service remote communities" was not providing an adequate child-protection response.

The damning submission also calls for the creation of an unborn infant-at-risk category of child protection to monitor high-risk pregnancies.

And the child-protection workers recommend the introduction of intensive parenting classes for students in remote communities, beginning in Year 8, given the high number of babies born to teenage mothers.

The workers claim that children identified as failing to thrive in communities were "victimised" under current child-protection practices. They demanded an immediate response that "stops victimising the children who are subjected to starvation".

"This could simply be a foreign aid (Red Cross, Oxfam, etc) type feeding program that does nothing more than deliver essential food to starving children whilst other programs address the underlying issues of poor parenting, poverty, overcrowding, violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, etc."

In a separate submission to the inquiry, the NTFC's Barkly region team spoke of the "incredible" amount of paperwork child-protection officers were required to complete, threatening their ability to perform core duties.

"NTFC staff are now so caught up in justifying our actions on paper that we spend more time sitting at a computer than we do with our clients and their families," the submission said.

The child protection inquiry will report next month.


The Feminine Face of Australia’s National Obscenity

By Dr. Lynette J. Dumble

Back in 2008, Labor's White Paper on the subject of homelessness, which was described at the time as "A National Obscenity", prominently exposed the full extent of the problem and articulated the urgent need for wide-ranging responses. This was the first time since Federation that a Government of any persuasion had disclosed the scandalous truth of the number of Australians who spend their lives without a safe roof over their heads.

Although the overall rate of homelessness has remained relatively stable over the past 12 years, increasing numbers of children, families and older Australians today find themselves in this situation, with our Indigenous over-represented in the population without a home. Entitled "The Road Home“ (1), the White Paper estimated that on any given night 105,000 Australians were without a home due to multiple factors: the shortage of affordable housing, long term unemployment, mental health issues, substance abuse and family and relationship breakdown, while amongst homeless women, domestic and family violence [read *men’s domestic and family violence *] was the chief reason for their tragic plight.

Labor's "Road Home" made a unique commitment to respond to the nation's homelessness via three strategies: First, by Turning off the tap via early intervention services aimed at preventing homelessness; second by Improving and expanding services which provide sustainable housing, improve economic and social participation, and end homelessness for their clients; and thirdly by Breaking the cycle for those who become homeless by moving them quickly through the crisis system to stable housing with the support they need so that homelessness does not recur.

Decades of neglect mean that solutions will not be instantaneous, but Labor’s three strategies aim to halve overall homelessness, and offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers in need, over a period of 12 years.

A recent survey conducted by Homelessness NSW (2), an NGO working to achieve an Australia where no one experiences homelessness and affordable housing is available to meet demand, confirmed what feminists have long suspected, i.e. Australia’s National Obscenity has a feminine face. To quote Sue Cripps, CEO of Homelessness NSW, "Workers in the sector are increasingly seeing that the face of homelessness is older and female. Older women are invisible  - on the streets, parks and public spaces they keep a low profile to avoid both the law and lawlessness" (3).

The older homeless woman's invisibility, unseen on the male-preferred park bench, means that she doesn't count in the national statistics. A range of reasons account for her homelessness - often disadvantaged by caring for children, she faces an interrupted work career, and as a result a reduced income and superannuation, and fewer job options. Divorce too frequently leaves women financially worse off than their former male partners, while, as confirmed in The Road Home, escaping male domestic violence and abuse is a fundamental driver of women's homelessness.

Back on June 24 when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, she praised her predecessor Kevin Rudd's determination to health reform, combat homelessness and close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As our  elected-Prime Minister we can therefore anticipate her continued determination to pursue justice regarding these issues, and for homeless women that means the creation of special services which cater for their needs. In Sue Cripps' words "Homelessness is no picnic for anyone but older women do it particularly tough. There are few services designed for older women. There are no female-only boarding houses. Women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are forced to become nocturnal, grabbing sleep during the day to stay awake and avoid the rape, violence and crime that often comes at night".

Labor’s Minister for Housing, Tanya Plibersek, also demonstrated the Gillard Government’s ongoing efforts to address the nation’s homelessness with an August 5 announcement of the building of 1170 new homes across the State of Victoria, which though not women-specific, will cater for those on low and moderate incomes who are struggling to find a home within their budget (4)

In contrast, while Labor's strategies for reducing the nation’s homeless were supported by former opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, the current Liberal leader Tony Abbott has failed to commit to the targets, and appears unwilling to do so. On that note, a win for Labor on August 21, and Julia for PM, will be a positive step for the nation’s homeless, and an urgent requirement for our sisters who find themselves without a place to call home.

1. The Road Home - The Australian Government White Paper on Homelessness .

2. Homelessness NSW

3. Cripps, Sue. Homelessness has a female face. The Age, Melbourne, Tuesday August 3, 2010.  [Scroll down to read the complete article]

4. Williams, Erin. New homes for Ballarat's low income earners. The Courier, Ballarat, Victoria, Thursday August 5 2010.
THE AGE ~ Melbourne ~ Wednesday August 4 2010

Homelessness has a female face

Single women who find themselves homeless will also find they have few support services to draw on. (Tamara Voninski)

If you were to picture the face of a typical homeless person, whom would you conjure? A teenager in a hoodie? An old man with a brown paper bag? Maybe a single mother with two kids in tow? All reasonable guesses, but you'd be better off picturing your grandmother.

Workers in the sector are increasingly seeing that the face of homelessness is older and female. Older women are invisible – on the streets, parks and public spaces they keep a low profile to avoid both the law and lawlessness.

We recently studied 31 women in NSW who had become or remained homeless past the age of 45 and uncovered risk factors such as leaving school and having children at a young age, employment in low-income jobs, living alone, renting or sharing, a crisis such as eviction, illness or losing their job, and the family unable to help.

Most of the women interviewed reported that it was their first experience of homelessness; a third of the women had been in home ownership, most had worked all their lives and most had had to sleep rough owing to a lack of safe accommodation services. These statistics reveal that homelessness is not pre-ordained. There, but for the grace of God, go many of us.

The official statistics have a hard time backing this up. If you don't have services on the ground, in the refuge system, women don't get counted. No services for older women means there's no one counting older homeless women. There are 380 beds reserved for single males in Sydney on any one night – only 62 specifically for single women.

So why are older women in danger of being the new face of homelessness? It's important to remember that these women aren't born and raised homeless, they become homeless for a range of reasons – caring for children interrupts working lives, reduces income, lessens job options and shrinks superannuation. Divorce leaves these women worse off than their partners – especially when they are the ones literally carrying the baby. Adult children don't necessarily support ageing parents as they might once have. Fleeing domestic violence and abuse is a fundamental driver of homelessness. These are all women-specific reasons.

Homelessness is no picnic for anyone but older women do it particularly tough. There are few services designed for older women. There are no female-only boarding houses. Women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are forced to become nocturnal, grabbing sleep during the day to stay awake and avoid the rape, violence and crime that often comes at night. It's hardly the senior years we are all promised. We need homeless responses that cater for older women.

We need more services for women, located more broadly. The near total absence of crisis accommodation for women outside inner Sydney draws them to Kings Cross and Surry Hills seeking help from overburdened services. Women from outer suburbs are separated from what little social and family support they had but are no better catered for. Many form poor relationships in exchange for shelter, some become sex workers to survive and others fall deeper into drug and other destructive habits.

Our Lady of the Ways in western Sydney is the only crisis service outside the city catering specifically to older, single women. Even then it has only a few beds and receives no government funding.

Homelessness NSW is working with funded homeless services in Sydney to find ways to get better results for older women. The answer has to be housing solutions that stop people becoming homeless in the first place. We need simplified council regulations, federal funding and sympathetic tax laws to help older women who have a home to create a secondary dwelling within their existing abode. This will create rental income and keep people ageing in place.

For those without a home we need to create safe, female-only boarding houses and bring not-for-profit community organisations into running these boarding houses – this is something we can do right now.

But any new effort or strategy will stumble about in the dark if we don't underpin it by getting our policy and resource allocations in order to recognise and understand what's happening to women in this country. If we don't make the effort to research, understand and document the fundamental differences between men and women and why they become homeless then we are heading for a social disaster.

Sue Cripps is chief executive of