“Sorry means you don’t do it again”: Grandmothers Against Removals

A look at the grandmothers who are fighting the system and getting their grandchildren back.

Originally published in Honi Soit, 30th January 2017

Image courtesy of Jennifer Swan and John Janson-Moore

 

Most people don’t know that more Aboriginal children are being taken from their families today than in the ‘Stolen Generations’. We spoke with Aunt Deb Swan from Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR). Aunt Deb started GMAR in 2014 with four other Gomeroi grandmothers, Aunt Jen, Aunt Suellyn, Aunty Hazel, and Aunty Patty, to fight the systematic removal of their grandchildren.

“We always knew it was about racism. My sister, Jen had her grandkids removed. She made complaints, and was already looking after them.”

Another woman from Gunnedah, Suellyn Tighe, applied to be the legal carer of her grandkids. “Suellyn was assessed, supposedly by ‘independent people’, but her grandchildren were placed with their white grandparents who weren’t even assessed”, Aunt Deb said.

Aunt Deb believes that the kids should have been placed with Suellyn, “They had more contact with her — a stronger bond.”

“We worked out this was happening to other grandparents and parents in Gunnedah, so we joined forces.” That was the beginning of GMAR.

“Sorry means you don’t do it again” is a refrain often heard at GMAR rallies. It has been nearly a decade since Kevin Rudd’s apology, yet child removal rates have increased by 400%. “The apology was a meaningless thing,” says Aunt Deb. “A lot of people thought the Stolen Generation had finished. The apology was to the older generation but it’s a continuing Stolen Generation.”

The “Apology” implied that the removal of Aboriginal children from their communities has stopped. Despite how strongly this idea is embedded in our national consciousness, it is false. Aboriginal children are placed in out-of-home care at a rate ten times that of non-Aboriginal children, with a placement rate of 52.5 children for every 1000 compared to 5.5 for every 1000. Tonight, there will be more than 14,000 Aboriginal children sleeping away from their families.

The mechanisms of removal and relocation are coordinated by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). Aunt Deb emphasises that FACS often removes children because of “unconscious bias”. Asked whether this bias is rooted in individuals or the organisation itself, Aunt Deb says it is both. “It’s a continuation of the APB [Aborigines Protection Board]… management wants to prove their power and control, and the caseworkers and managers prioritise [that] power and control over what’s best for the kids”.

“What they should be doing”, says Aunt Deb, “is following the Bringing Them Home Report”.

The Bringing Them Home Report (BTHR) was commissioned by then-Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, after years of pressure from Aboriginal organisations. It examined the trauma inflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through forced removals. The report, which was largely in response to the Stolen Generation, made recommendations to address the continued practice of removals and informed Rudd’s decision to issue an apology.

The report was released 20 years ago. Aunt Deb says government agencies have done nothing since.“The only recommendation that was implemented was the ‘Aboriginal Placement Principle’, and yet they don’t do it!” Aunt Deb says. The Placement Principle states that, if Aboriginal children are to be removed, they should be placed within their family, extended family, language group or broader Aboriginal community in that order. Only if none of those options are available should children be relocated to a white family. She refers back to Suellyn’s case. “Aboriginal relatives weren’t even considered, despite the Placement Principle.”

Aunt Deb asserts that “when FACS are assessing Aboriginal families, they never look for strengths”. According to Aunt Deb, “FACS gives excuses” for their ineptitude such as being “overworked’”. She points out that “they would have less work if they didn’t take our kids!”.

She recounts how some children have been taken away due to “reports about stupid things like playing in the front yard with no shoes on”. Innocuous things can add up to a justification for removing kids.

Aunt Deb also recounts instances of blackmail from solicitors “if you don’t sign the papers they won’t give contact to the grandparents or the families.”

A significant issue is that FACS’ policies allows for “interpretation of the best interests of the child”. Rather than clearly setting out what children’s’ best interests are, FACS allows individual caseworkers to ‘tick the box’ without having to adhere to a strict policy. Aunt Deb reminds us that “the Bringing Them Home Report states the best interests for the child are to be with their family.”

Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, a Gamilaraay Maari (man) and Birriwaa (warrior) from Collarenebri, supports the work of GMAR. He and Aunt Deb acknowledge that “there are still issues” and agree that kids in immediate danger should be removed and placed with other family members, but tell us that the number and conduct of removals indicates there is a problem with the current system.

One way of understanding the scale of the issue is through its financial cost. Child removals are exceptionally expensive. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, $3.6 billion was spent on ‘child protection and out-of-home care services’ in 2014-15.

“Most kids are removed without early intervention.”

The “government should be refocusing the funds”, Aunt Deb says. She argues that the government could use its money more efficiently by offering preventative care to families.  According to Deb, that would make “the family unit stronger so the kids can stay at home”.

Indeed, the Human Rights Commission notes that similar problems existed during the Stolen Generation. “Many people have said that Indigenous children were removed from appalling living conditions. However, nothing was being done by government agencies to improve these conditions for Indigenous families.”

Underpinning the issue of forced removals is intergenerational trauma. As Bubbly points out, “Aboriginal families have been broken up so much.” The BTHR notes that “The laws, policies and practices which separated Indigenous children from their families have contributed directly to the alienation of Indigenous societies today.” There is a cruel irony in the fact that the circumstances from which FACS removes children were often created by the past removal of Aboriginal kids. With the continued removal of Aboriginal children, the cycle of intergenerational trauma is likely to continue.

A complicating factor in child removals is that, according to Aunt Deb, FACS workers “don’t understand how Aboriginal families work”.

“Their cultural plan is to give [removed children] books”, said Aunt Deb, which she sees as inadequate and wilfully ignorant. “The cultural plan should always be that you return them to family. They need to be living [culture] with their family – that’s how they learn. Taking them away from their family and culture is the most traumatic thing.”

Aunt Deb says that FACS workers have told her that “no program could give us what we’ve [GMAR] told them.”

In light of this, Aunt Deb emphasises the need for FACS to listen to Aboriginal families and communities in order to do what’s best for the kids. She points to FACS workers not “mixing with and seeing Aboriginal people in their own personal life” resulting in a bias against Aboriginal families drawn from popular media and opinion.

But Aunt Deb says GMAR will not accept “reduced by 2020”, a date drawn from a Department of Social Services publication titled “National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020”. “We want the kids back with their families immediately, not setting dates”.

Aunt Deb has called for the whole system to be overhauled with a focus on greater accountability. “How long do these kids have to wait to get back with their families? These kids are still being traumatised every day they’re away from their families.”

The BTHR was released twenty years ago. “I’ll probably be dead in 20 years, the kids will be over 18, if they do another research report, and you keep telling us to go through a process”.

“Sue’s grandkids are now placed with her. They came back just before Christmas.” Nonetheless, Aunt Deb says that Sue will still have to “apply [for] guardianship and get them out of [FACS’] hands.”

There are some indications of progress, however. Aunt Deb recounts one long term Aboriginal activist saying that GMAR was the “quickest movement to produce change” that he had seen. Some of that change is coming through work that GMAR is doing with FACS on new guiding principles on caring for Aboriginal children. “We’re working on that with them now (…) Implementing has already started. [We’re] starting local Aboriginal advisory groups – going around getting people to start their own local groups. Then going to focus on [how to] getting the kids back, so it’s a shorter and more appropriate process once they’ve found suitable relatives to get them to.” Aunt Deb and GMAR’s demands echo the BTHR’s principal finding “that self-determination for Indigenous peoples provides the key to… eliminating unjustified removals of Indigenous children”.

When asked what students can do to support GMAR, Aunt Deb said, “Turn up to rallies and support us that way, that’d be really good.”

Becoming aware, listening to Aboriginal people and believing them is the first step to addressing the issue. Otherwise, Aboriginal people will keep facing the reality that  A.B. Original describe  in “Jan 26”: “I turn the other cheek, I get a knife in my back / And I tell ‘em it hurts, they say I overreact”.

 

AI, automation and the future of work

By Andy Mason. Originally published by Pulp, 4 Dec 2016.

 

Three weeks on and the world is still reeling from the news that a bright orange cartoon supervillain will be the next president of the world’s leading economic and political power.

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As predicted by The Simpsons 16 years ago. Pic source: The Guardian

Most media coverage and left-leaning discussions on social media since have focussed on the role of sexism and racism in paving the way for Trump’s victory. The connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and job losses in the US due to outsourcing and low-cost immigrant labour, is a deeper story which has mostly been ignored or glossed over. Warning: shitloads of hyperlinks because we don’t fuck around.

In order to appeal to middle (white) America, who are supposedly pissed off at the decline of US manufacturing, Trump is promising to end illegal immigration into the US and abolish trade deals that have allegedly caused job losses in the USA. In the end he is tilting at windmills. US manufacturing is actually more productive than ever, and the previous trend of offshoring is being replaced by one of ‘re-shoring’ as more efficient robots are making it cost-effective to invest in American factories again. Automation has been the source of most of the job losses in US manufacturing, rather than international outsourcing. So in addition to being racist garbage, no amount of Trump’s tough border policy or anti-free trade sentiment will make America great again.

While previous waves of technological development have made industries and jobs redundant, new ones have been created in their place. Thus, countries like the USA and Australia have seen a decline in the share of employment in manufacturing and agriculture and an increase in employment in the service sector.

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As the global economy enters a 4th industrial revolution based on AI and automation, there are some very real questions about the future of work and the capacity of the economy to provide jobs for everyone. General purpose robots, such as 3D printing technology, are likely to displace manufacturing jobs even more, self-driving cars and trucks will completely transform the transport industry, and robot tractors and drones will further reduce the need for agricultural labour.

However, it isn’t just blue-collar work which is on the chopping block. New programs utilising machine learning, while still experimental, stand to replace even high-skilled professional jobs in law, as shown by a bot which successfully challenges parking fines,  and medicine, with programs in the pipeline that will be able to diagnose illness more reliably than a person..

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Pic source: Sam Spratt, Gizmodo

If you’re thinking we’ll all be safe in service work, care work and creative work, these sectors also stand to be taken over by robots. General purpose robots are already being implemented to replace fast-food workers cooking and serving food, while humanoid and friendly-faced robots are being developed to serve functions in the sex industry and nursing. And this year, a program created by Google started making its own music.

AI may also perpetuate, rather than free us from, social prejudices. This year Microsoft built a bot to learn from public tweets which promptly regressed into a computerised version of a neo-nazi 14 year old.There was also a program designed to judge a beauty contest which decided it didn’t like dark-skinned people.

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Globalisation (aka neoliberalism) over the last couple of decades has created an increasingly polarised world, where unprecedented productivity and wealth in rich countries exists alongside enduring poverty in poor countries. It’s a world in which Australians have the second-highest per-capita water usage in the world while 1 in 10 of the world’s population have no reliable access to safe drinking water. While this reflects a history of colonialism, technological change is also implicated, as access to information and communications technology and the most advanced machinery determines access to the benefits of the global capitalist economy.

Inequality within countries is also rising, even in wealthy countries which have benefited from globalisation as a whole. Urban Australia, where new service industries and informations & communications technology have concentrated, has benefited at the expense of regional and rural Australia. In those areas, the long-term loss of agriculture, manufacturing and mining jobs has led to permanent structural unemployment and economic decline which may be worsened by automation.

The prospect of the 4th industrial revolution leading to large sections of the world’s population becoming not only unemployed but unemployable, has led to calls from high-profile tech pioneers like Elon Musk for a Universal Basic Income. This would cushion workers from the effects of displacement from AI and automation and allow people to pursue other things. However, these proposals remain below the radar of mainstream political discourse. And while many on the left embrace robots as a pathway to economic abundance and freedom from the drudgery of work, conjuring visions of ‘fully automated luxury communism’, asa utopian future is by no means certain.

At Standing Rock in North Dakota, Indigenous people are engaged in a bitter struggle to assert their sovereign territorial rights and prevent the construction of an oil pipeline through their land. Largely ignored by the media during the frenzied coverage leading up to the US election, the Standing Rock Sioux have been met with a hugely repressive response from government authorities. Federal intelligence agencies have used digital surveillance and jamming against protesters, while drones and heavily militarised police are a daily presence and have led to serious injuries among protesters.

Meanwhile, cutting-edge new private settlements using new technologies are being built in poor countries like Nigeria to shield local elites from the effects of climate change. The dystopian future is already here, a future where those with access to resources and technology are seeking to wall themselves off from the majority who will have to go without.

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Humanity is facing a monumental choice. We cannot separate the issue of technological change from the need for social, political and economic change. Either we can create a world in which machines are owned by everyone and used for the benefit of all, or we face a bleak future in which the rich leave us to rot while they destroy the planet, merge their rapacious consciousness with super-intelligent AI, and sail away to colonise Mars.

 

Doomsday preppers: paranoid nutjobs or eco-visionaries?

By Andy Mason, originally published in Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit, 26th May 2016

Recently, in order to avoid doing any actual study about environmental issues, I’ve been binge watching National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers. It follows US families who’ve devoted themselves to preparing for any number of doomsday scenarios – everything from natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes to a nuclear attack or economic collapse. Many have invested tens of thousands of dollars or more in any number of elaborate schemes to protect their family from catastrophe – underground bunkers, home-made tanks, surveillance systems, booby-traps, you name it. Of course, most are also obsessed with stockpiling as many guns and as much ammunition as possible so they can defend themselves and their families from the hostile masses should society go belly-up.

It’s easy to dismiss the “preppers” as paranoid nutjobs, and I suspect this spectacle is the primary appeal of the show. Preppers seem like the ultimate proof of the absurd individualism of American culture – so convinced that the government is either incompetent or out to get them, and so distrustful of everyone else in their communities, that they have become obsessed with total self-reliance. Most of the protagonists are suburban white men, and I’m sure you could write essays for gender studies about prepping as performative masculinity, a macho façade which hides a deep sense of insecurity.

However, there is more beneath the surface. Many preppers are interested not only in defence, but in ensuring they can provide for themselves after the collapse. This has led many of them to ingenious DIY green designs in their attempt to ensure self-sufficiency. There are lots of examples of excellent home gardens built along organic/permaculture principles, rainwater collection or water purification systems and home-made renewable energy setups. One guy has even built an apparatus like a giant magnifying glass using the screen from an old television, which enables him to cook and even melt steel using only sunlight.

One of the most interesting examples I found was in season 3 episode 3, where Arizona family man Chad demonstrates both sides of the prepper universe. Chad is convinced that the US government is eventually going to wage nuclear war on its citizens, so he is building a bunker in his backyard and giving his young daughters firearms training.

However, Chad has also developed an aquaponics garden which easily produces enough food for his family. Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming and vegetable gardening, where the water (containing nutrient-rich fish crap) is pumped through the garden beds and then waste plant material is fed to the fish, forming a closed system that requires no other inputs. This allows fish and vegetables to be grown very quickly and efficiently. The only waste produced is algae, which, in a further stroke of genius, Chad is able to convert into a natural fuel called biodiesel, enabling his family to be self-sufficient not only in food but in fuel as well.

As environmentalists, I wonder if there isn’t something we can learn from people like Chad. Ultimately the environmental movement must focus on broad social change, not just celebrating people who’ve cut themselves off from society, but the preppers have many important lessons to share about how to do more with less. They show us that other ways of doing things are possible – maybe if we can convince them that Bush didn’t do 9/11, we can get somewhere.

The dinner table

Sometimes we sit around the dinner table. Bre has cooked a vegan meal, Ruby has made a good dessert. I brought some strawberries. Kitty has just set up  a new table in the living area. It’s right by the window.

Marco comes home from catching them all. Ed is over for dinner, as well. This house is full of history.

Poppy gets home from work. Tim has just spent an hour teaching Ruby the saxophone. There’s a potluck on Sunday, when we’ll all get together again. Andy and Bre will come for the meeting, before going to visit a relative on Father’s day. I am thinking of inviting Maushmi to sleep over, because she lives far away, and getting home at night is hard. Amelie is happy our house will have people in it. She says it will feel warm.

ASEN is a funny little group. All its members have lives outside of the group. All its members are involved in things farther and more wide-ranging than ASEN. ‘What is ASEN?’ One time Bre pointed out the question to me.

The kind of person who decides that their time is well-spent working pro-bono to build, create, care for a community’s well-being and future: that’s the kind of person I want to be friends with.

There are so many of these people all around us. I’m glad they’re there. I’m glad for activists, for writers, scientists, parents, friends, carers, gardeners, performers, film-makers, community organisers, project coordinators, facilitators, givers and giving people. You don’t need to be anyone special to decide to put your talents, energy and time to good use. You don’t need to be well-educated, clever, rich, impressive or popular. When I think that we all come from so many different backgrounds, with diverse life experience, and that we all have something unique to contribute, it makes my heart warm.

ASEN NSW citizen science roadtrip!

ASEN NSW citizen science roadtrip!

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This mid-semester break, ASEN NSW are heading up to Vickery State Forest on Gomeroi country to take part in citizen science efforts and learn from traditional owners and community about the effects of coal mining on livelihoods in the New England area.

It’ll be happening from 24-28 September (Saturday to Wednesday) with ASEN organising carpooling and food in exchange for attendees chipping in to cover costs.

Find out more on the facebook event, at the info night happening at UNSW (Tuesday 6 September 5pm Quad G027) or by emailing nswact[at]asen.org.au . And don’t forget to register at tinyurl.com/asen-citizen-science ! All welcome, including non-students.