Sunday, 20 September 2009

How best to "intervene"?

This post has been updated to rectify some factual inaccuracies pointed out to my by a reader – thank you Bob.

I’ve just read an article from the UK about a comment made by the CEO of Barnardo’s that we should think about taking more children into care when they’re babies, to prevent them being damaged beyond repair by people who don’t want to, or can’t be effective parents. This appears to be at least partially in response to the recent case of torture, assault and sexual abuse of two boys by two other boys aged 10 and 12, who apparently come from a “terminally dysfunctional” family.

The issues this raises are similar to, at least in part, to those raised by a feature of Australian society that doesn’t get talked about much, but is quite startling when you find out about it – “The Intervention”. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while…

The Intervention was / is an ‘emergency response’ by the Australian government to a report into child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT). By way of a quick overview, the NT covers a vast area and has a small and scattered population. It’s six times the size of Britain with a population of only 220,000 (about the same as Aberdeen or other small cities). Following European ‘settlement’ 200+ years ago and the resulting dispossession, mass slaughter and general destruction of way of life of the indigenous population that had lived there for the previous 40,000 years, some redress of a kind took place when vast tracts of land were granted back to their traditional communities, and aboriginal townships and settlements now dot the NT. (As a side comment, it’s worth noting that around a third of indigenous Australians live in remote and rural areas, compared to 14% of all Australians, but that almost a third live in urban centres – not relevant to this discussion, but a little known fact…)

Anyway, skipping ahead to a few years ago, and the emergence of major allegations of widespread child sexual abuse, coupled with concerns about levels of welfare dependency and alcoholism, and the breakdown of traditional cultural norms and values in indigenous communities. The resulting report, The Little Children are Sacred, catalogued some very horrible and disturbing stuff, which seemed to indicate that many of the concerns were justified. So the question then was what to do about is? (Which is where I’m reminded of the issue by the Barnardos comments).

The then government’s response has been widely reported as ‘calling in the army’, although what this means in practice has been unclear and has apparently been restricted to logistical support rather than a ‘policing’ function. In addition, anti-discriminiation legislation has been suspended to enable ‘welfare quaranting’ of benefits paid to indigenous people in around 70 proscribed communities’ in the NT. There have also been bans on the of alcohol in indigenous communities, and pornography filters placed on public computers. On a less punitive note, there has been additional investment into, and policy prioritising around increasing school attendance rates and providing new community-based services.

I’d love to say that the Intervention has been controversial in Australia, but in truth, I’ve barely heard an Australian mention it. The outback of the NT might as well be on a different planet to urbanised Sydney and I’ve blogged before on the, at best, amazing levels of indifference to indigenous Australians, and at worst, blatant racism.

The Intervention has, however, been controversial to the indigenous population (numbering nearly 500,000 in total), with some polarised views on both sides. Some indigenous leaders and spokespeople have welcomed aspects of it, mainly it seems because some action is better than nothing, and there has been some extra funding for projects and programs as a result. Female community elders have been quoted talking about the benefits of alcohol bans (although note that many indigenous communities had become ‘dry’ through self-determination anyway), and have welcomed the ‘income management’ policy of quarantining welfare payments for use on food and essential items only. Others, however, including many indigenous people, Amnesty and the UN, have heavily criticised the whole approach, condemning it as racist and as a blunt tool to try to shape new community developments.

It’s a thorny set of issues, but I think the following from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) sums it up well:
“ANTaR has no problem about governments intervening when children are at risk – indeed they would be negligent not to (and have been ignoring the problems in Indigenous communities for decades) so we want to see the national government stay engaged, commit far more resources to the Northern Territory, and across the nation, to help address the massive problems confronting Indigenous communities, to address the huge backlogs in housing, health programs, education and other community services which other Australians take for granted.

But we want to see this engagement on a different footing: one which respects the human rights of everyone; one which engages Indigenous people in a partnership of equals, not a disrespectful dictatorial situation; we want to see measures which respond to behaviours, not racial categories (so case-by-case income management may be legitimate, but not as a blanket policy); one which builds Indigenous capacity for genuine self-determination and sustainability of better functioning communities.

Governments must work with communities for the long haul, to explore with them the options for their development, opportunities for their young people, and for enabling them to stay on their country with a reasonable range of services and some hope and sustainability for the future.”

Which brings me back to Barnardo’s CEO and his views that removing children from their homes and, presumably either plonking them into nice middle class families or looking after them in one of his charity’s homes, would be a good way to tackle the problems of poor parenting and damaged children.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the kinds of communities I suspect he has in mind when he talks about families that can’t be fixed – this isn’t explicit in his comments, but I think we can all assume he doesn’t see a great problem with child protection and ‘broken families’ in the middle classes. I know first-hand how desolate ‘disadvantaged’ communities can be. Two or three generations of people in families who’ve never had a job, or any expectation of one; no money coming in apart from the dole; drugs everywhere; no shops apart from the chippy, the bookie, the offy and the corner shop, not a bit of fresh food for miles; crap schools and crap housing. Kids being born to people who are still kids themselves and haven’t had any role models to help them be parents.

It isn’t really a surprise that we’ve got dysfunctional families in places like these, but is taking children out of their homes on a bigger scale than we already do, really the answer? Are we just going to write off a whole generation of new parents because they didn’t have the parenting or education or chances that most of us take for granted and are simply repeating patterns they’ve learned? How about we actually get in there and try to do something a bit more useful, like creating new jobs for people living in communities where there’s 50% unemployment, instead of weeping and wailing about the Global Financial Crisis and how much value it’s wiped off our nice pensions and houses? How about we invest in high quality childcare and education, how about we start designing social housing so that we don’t just dump all the poor people in huge, out of sight, out of mind, peripheral housing schemes with no transport, no fresh food, no jobs nearby, no decent schools, no nothing. How about we stop punishing people for being born poor. How about we try to give people some hope, something to aim for, some ambitions?

Of course, children need to be protected and of course, sometime, that means removing them from their parents. But that has to be a last resort and surely, as with the Australian NT Intervention, we need to be getting a lot more inventive about preventing yet another generation being lost to poverty instead of resorting to blunt social control tactics which are just a slippery slope to a nasty, nasty world where we’ve de-humanised whole swathes of the population.

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