by Tileah Drahm-Butler
In the current conversations about sexual abuse in Indigenous communities, we are hearing a lot about how ‘children are sacred’. While this is true, it may also be important to consider the real effects of this understanding – as they can be positive or negative depending on how this phrase is evoked and what actions it informs.
There is a particular tradition of thinking within the health/welfare field called ‘child-centred practice’. While this sounds like a very positive idea, for marginalized communities it can be more complex. Sometimes, child-centred practice leads to health and welfare practitioners seeing the wellbeing of children as somehow separate from the wellbeing of adults, families, and communities. Sometimes, it leads to health professionals becoming the experts on the lives of children from marginalized communities (rather than the parents and communities themselves having a meaningful say in the lives of their children). Sometimes, ‘child-centred practice’ can be informed by racism and class-based discrimination that implies that what would be best for children is if they were raised according to white, middle-class standards and by white, middle-class families.
In Australia, there are long histories of health professionals separating Aboriginal children from their families and communities in the name of the children’s ‘best interest’. This best interest was defined by white bureaucrats and white social workers.
Now, when there is once again a focus on the safety and health of Aboriginal children, how can we be sure we have learnt the lessons from the past? How can we ensure that the notion of ‘children are sacred’ does not once again lead to the separation of children from families and communities? More significantly, how can we ensure that communities are able to take on the responsibility for their children, rather than outsiders defining the problems and the ‘solutions’?
Perhaps one way for us to try to learn from the past is by ensuring that we constantly reflect on the language we use. Perhaps we can ensure that we never forget that it is not only Aboriginal children who are sacred but also their relationships to family, community, culture, and land. Protecting Aboriginal children from sexual abuse, violence, and the effects of alcohol in communities is vital. So, too, is protecting them from being separated from their families, communities, culture, land, and history. We must find ways to do both.
As we do so, I hope we can find ways to honour the sacredness of children, young people, adults and elders, women and men. People do not stop being sacred at a certain age. Honouring the sacredness of our own lives, and the lives of others, may be a step towards protecting our children, our families, and our communities.
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