Caring for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (Aboriginal) family member can be an enriching and enjoyable experience for your family. As First Peoples of Australia, Aboriginal culture is rich with traditions, ceremony, art, stories, music and dance.
Raising strong and healthy Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care can only be achieved with the active support of carers who acknowledge the importance of culture to their wellbeing.
All Aboriginal children and young people have the right to:
- identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, without fear that they will be ridiculed or seen as less than others
- an education that strengthens their culture and identity
- maintain their connection to their land, waters and Country
- maintain strong kinship ties and social obligations
- be taught cultural heritage from respected members of the community, including Elders
- receive information in a culturally sensitive, relevant and accessible manner.
If you are informed or believe that the child or young person may be Aboriginal, you should advise their child protection worker or agency case manager as soon as possible, or their manager. Child protection will consult with the Aboriginal Child Specialist Advice and Support Service to ensure the Aboriginal child placement principle is followed, the child or young person’s right to culture is upheld and cultural planning occurs.
If you are a non-Aboriginal carer looking after an Aboriginal family member, you may need to develop your cultural awareness so you can raise them in a culturally safe and supportive home environment.
You will be required to undertake mandatory cultural training. Cultural competency is fundamental in promoting and strengthening resilience, and healing through connection to culture. This will help Aboriginal children and young people develop in a positive manner, so they can meet appropriate developmental milestones and develop a positive self-image.
You may be aware that there are additional roles and responsibilities in caring for Aboriginal children and young people, which can include:
- fostering their Aboriginal identity by ensuring that you prioritise and support activities and relationships that keep them connected to culture and community
- contributing to the development and review of their cultural plan
- understanding the significance of the cultural plan and your responsibilities in implementing the plan
- referring to their parents and family in a manner that is accepting and respectful of their ongoing role in their life, cultural identity and spiritual beliefs
- understanding their family’s rights in decision making, through supporting the actions agreed to in Aboriginal family-led decision-making meetings
- being aware of significant cultural events throughout the year, and what activities are occurring in the Aboriginal community for them to participate in.
Culture defines who we are, how we think, how we communicate, what we value and what is important to us. For Aboriginal people, land, the kinship system and spirituality are the foundations on which culture is built.
For an Aboriginal child or young person to grow into a strong adult, they must be supported to learn about, maintain and grow in their knowledge and connections to land, family, community and culture. If these elements are not present in their life, it will significantly affect their social, emotional, health, educational and psychological development and wellbeing, throughout their childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Aboriginal children and young people not supported to maintain cultural connections experience poorer life outcomes than those who grow up strong in culture and identity. Past government policies that include forcible removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, the forcible removal of children from their families, and penalties imposed on Aboriginal people practising culture, have denied many Aboriginal people their culture and had significant impacts on life outcomes.
Aboriginal children and young people in care are reliant on their carers and workers to understand the importance of culture and to commit to ensuring their connection to culture is a priority.
Torres Strait Islander culture
Torres Strait Islanders are not mainland Aboriginal people who inhabit the islands of Torres Strait. Torres Strait Islander culture has a unique identity and geographical territory, although the culture and people are often homogenised with Aboriginal people.
While Torres Strait Islander people have their own distinctive culture and languages, they share many disadvantages with Aboriginal people, such as reduced life expectancy and economic hardship due to the negative impacts of colonisation. See useful resources for more information.
Promotion of cultural and spiritual identity
As a carer of an Aboriginal child or young person, it is critical for you to show them you value their culture and recognise that this isan important part of who they are. This will give them positive thoughts about cultural and spiritual identity, and will foster:
- the development of a positive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity
- confidence in themselves
- interest in knowing what Aboriginal nation they belong to and visiting their traditional Country, as part of the cultural plan
- encouraging and maintaining positive contact with their extended family.
Aboriginal spirituality is characterised as ‘…the core of Aboriginal being, their very identity. It gives meaning to all aspects of life, including relationships with one another and the environment. All objects are living and share the same soul and spirit as Aboriginals. There is a kinship with the environment. Aboriginal spirituality can be expressed visually, musically and ceremonially’.1
Aboriginal children and young people who are strong in their culture and spirituality, and see that their culture is valued by others, are more likely to develop a positive self-image. Aboriginal children and young people must be supported to continue to develop their cultural and spiritual identity, and maintain ties to culture and community, while they are in care.
Connection to community and culture
Many important aspects of Aboriginal culture are shared from generation to generation, through storytelling, songs and dance. For these reasons, it is important for Aboriginal children and young people to remain connected to other Aboriginal people and Elders in the community, so they do not miss these important teachings.
Through connection to community and culture, children and young people learn who they are, where they fit within their kinship system and community, their history and cultural practices.
Ways you can help to keep Aboriginal children and young people connected with their culture while they are in your care, include:
- recognising and fostering the importance of culture and maintaining their connection to culture
- celebrating and promoting Aboriginal cultures in your home (this can be done by taking an interest in traditional and contemporary culture and people, by identifying and discussing past and present Aboriginal role models, taking an interest in Aboriginal art and displaying this in your home, listening to Aboriginal music (3KND radio station – 1503AM), and watching films made by Aboriginal people and Aboriginal television, such as NITV)
- supporting them to have contact with Aboriginal people, services and events, such as using Aboriginal health services, attending Aboriginal playgroups, early years services, homework clubs or youth groups
- attending Aboriginal celebrations and community events with them, such as NAIDOC events, National Aboriginal Children’s Day and sporting carnivals
- supporting them to visit their land or Country, develop relationships with Aboriginal community members and Elders, identify and organise an Aboriginal mentor, and learn about their Aboriginal culture and history
- increasing your awareness and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, in order to be more supportive
- providing them with lots of support and positive reinforcement, to enhance their view of themselves, their culture and identity
- being accepting of their family, background, lifestyle and culture, and encouraging them to discuss their family in a positive, yet realistic way
- helping them to discuss and appreciate differences, and teaching them resilience, including strategies to deal with people who are not accepting of differences
- encouraging them to keep an ‘Aboriginal life book’ or special journal to store information or photos about themselves and their family. This can include a story about their dreamtime, or spending time with family, photos of family, and participation in cultural events.
Children and young people’s everyday experience should be of feeling culturally safe, which includes respecting Aboriginal culture, values and practices. You may need to explore ways to make sure that your home provides this environment and that you work with the school to promote cultural safety.
Some of the things you can do to make your home culturally safe and to reinforce positive experiences and thoughts for the child or young person in your care include:
- taking an interest in their culture and who their mob is – learn about their Aboriginal history and talk to them about this
- supporting them if they experience racism or are exposed to negative comments about their Aboriginality.
Cultural safety requires cultural competency – the ability to understand, communicate with and interact with people across cultures.
Caring for an Aboriginal child in out-of-home care resource – developed by VACCA https://www.vacca.org/product/caring-for-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-children-in-out-of-home-care/
Cultural training for carers through your agency or local ACCO.
Growing up our way: Child rearing practices matrix available through Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) http://www.snaicc.org.au/growing-up-our-way-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-child-rearing-practices-matrix-2011-snaicc/
Indigenous Closing the Gap web resource http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/closing-the-gap
Information sheet 7: Caring for Aboriginal children and young people.
Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care: https://dhhs.vic.gov.au/publications/aboriginal-children-aboriginal-care-program
Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal Philosophy, the basis of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing on the Lowitija Institute website https://www.lowitja.org.au/
Indigenous spirituality http://www.australianstogether.org.au/stories/detail/indigenous-spirituality
Strong spirit strong mind model: informing policy and practice on the Telethon Kids Institute website https://www.telethonkids.org.au/
Torres Strait Islanders at Making multicultural Australia http://www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies https://aiatsis.gov.au/
Cultural safety for Aboriginal children on the Commission for Children and Young People website https://ccyp.vic.gov.au/
What is cultural safety? SNAICC website http://www.supportingcarers.snaicc.org.au/