“The four children were placed in the care of their aunty, their kinship carer,” a demonstrator said. “One was taken from school, the rest were taken from their house. The kids are separated now.”
Sheltering from a blazing sun the protesters stood in small islands of shade in front of the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) office. Each said they’d had children removed from their care or that of an immediate family member.
“Just among us five people here there’s been over 20 kids taken from this town,” the demonstrator said.
A FACS spokesperson said the department was “aware that a small protest had occurred” in Moree. The spokesperson said FACS caseworkers “do a difficult, but vitally important job”.
“FACS never makes the decision to take a child into care lightly, and other options are always explored first.”
Child protection workers themselves are required to sign a contract banning any contact with the media. Last year, one anonymous worker broke that policy to speak to the ABC’s Lateline, to say that caseworkers were “heroes” working on the front-line to protect children in dysfunctional families. He said criticism of workers, who also faced limited resources and high stress, was unfair.
This was a sentiment echoed by Mayor Katrina Humphries.
“It’s extremely important that we have a Department of Family and Community Services – the health and wellbeing of children is paramount,” Councillor Humphries said. “I would not dream of interfering in the work of FACS. It is my belief they work very hard to try and keep children in the home.”
“These removals traumatise the children,” she said. “In my case they just rushed in with four police vans and took them straight away to a police office and then onto the highway. All the while the parents are screaming and wailing.”
Similar claims were documented in a recent report by the organisation Grandmothers Against Removal (GRAM), which uses the previous acronym for FACS, still more commonly spoken on the ground.
“Decisions to remove children are often not evidence-based and are premised upon unproven allegations made by community members on the reporting line,” the report read. “DOCS often do not investigate these allegations nor do they assess the integrity of the reporter and their qualifications in assessing ‘risk’.”The FACS spokesperson responded to these claims saying that while the department makes interim decisions to remove children it deems at risk of significant harm, “all decisions are overseen by the courts”.
It is a system, though, from which some community members feel they are shut out. The demonstrators expressed frustration that they were not being involved in finding solutions for their family members deemed to be at risk by the department.
“Why are they taking our children? We just want answers,” said a protester. “There are people in the town, such as myself, who don’t do drinks, don’t do smokes. There are people in the town who ain’t got a criminal record. And we want our nieces and nephews, our family. Why don’t they give them to us?
“Culturally, it’s appropriate for a sister to take care of her sister’s kids. That’s part of our culture.”
The FACS spokesperson when children could no longer live with their parents, the department assesses the suitability of other family members to care for the children as the first option.
He added that NSW parliament had passed legislation in October which he said would seek greater involvement of extended family members in child protection matters.
“At a community level, this includes FACS, family, kin, community and non-government organisations working together so the right supports are provided at the right time to vulnerable children and families,” he said.
GMAR campaigner and spokesperson Olivia Nigro, however, said the problem was not in legislation but how it was implemented on the ground.
“It is a requirement under the existing legislation that Aboriginal communities and families are direct participants in the decision making process around the care of their children,” Ms Nigro said. “There is a clear and unacceptable discord between what is written on paper and what is happening in practice.”
GMAR founding member, Aunty Hazel, said she was proud of the families in Moree who organised the protest and hoped to join them in future to demand a seat on the table.
“This impacts on all our people in a devastating way,” she said. “We don’t want sorry, we want change. We need them to sit down at the table and listen to us, not this token effort, not this sitting in their high towers and making decisions about us, which affect us.”
The demonstrators in Moree said they were planning future protests and would join the GRAM national rally in front of Parliament House in Canberra on February 13.