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These Community Elders Are Fighting To Keep Indigenous Children Out Of The Welfare System

Trying to save a "lost generation".

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Gomeroi elders distraught at the high rates of Indigenous child removals in northern New South Wales have created a program designed to keep families together and keep children out of the welfare system.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

"We need the families to come together in an environment where there is no distrust or nervousness about child welfare services," Gomeroi elder Yvonne Kent told BuzzFeed News.

The Aboriginal Mediation Service, run by the Tamworth Family Relationship Centre, is a voluntary program that was designed by Gomeroi elders in the area to encourage Aboriginal families to resolve their problems before the intervention of the department of Family and Community Services (FACS).

Kent points to Australia's history of forced Indigenous child removals, called the Stolen Generations, as the main reason why families don't seek help, which means children are at a higher risk of being removed down the track.

"Over the years our mob have lost that trust of these services, whether it’s FACS or other government organisations, the barriers go up straight away with the Aboriginal community," Kent says.

The mediation service will allow couples who are separating or fighting to receive advice, counselling and to work out a plan to ensure children are cared for and protected with the help and guidance of Indigenous elders.

In the past two decades the number of Aborignal children in out-of-home care has more than tripled.

Neda Vanovac / AAPIMAGE

In 1997, according the Bringing Them Home Report, there were 2,419 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in out-of-home care. In 2014, the number had risen to a shocking 14,991 kids.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Janet Terry, who launched the initiative last year, told the ABC that incorporating elders and allowing Aboriginal families to sit down and mediate could free up the clogged court system.

"If they can be encouraged to use mediation as an alternative way to resolve their disputes they might get an outcome that's better, they might get an outcome that's quicker and they might get an outcome in a place where they feel more comfortable," she said.

"The model is another option for people besides our courts, to try and make sure families reach an agreement about what's to happen to children," Judge Terry said.

"Then an outside organisation like the Department [of Family and Community Services, now FACS] doesn't need to step in and take action to protect the children."

Program manager, Brian Humphries, says that prior to the program beginning, the local Koori community was reluctant to approach the centre for help.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

"We service a large area with a high Aboriginal population and we need to make sure that’s reflected in our statistics. Our job is to help everybody, and unfortunately, we were only really helping the non-Indigenous community," Humphries said.

While it's too early to tell what kind of impact the service will have on child removal rates in the region, Kent wants similar initiatives rolled out across the country.

"The system is broken. The government should be working with those families to keep the children within their homes or with extended family, and connected to culture," she says.

"The money spent on taking kids away should be invested in mediation. The money should be spent on keeping the family intact, doing home visits once a month, working with that family until they can step away and say, 'we saved a child and he or she now has a safe loving home environment,' rather than that child being disconnected from their community."

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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