Aboriginal Family and Child Care Arrangements

230. Bringing up Children in Aboriginal Communities. Aboriginal child-rearing practices are generally very different to those of the wider Australian community and contrasting assumptions underly them. According to Hamilton:

Aboriginal child-training practices are on almost all points “permissive” … [A]uthoritarian practices are entirely absent. No demands are made for unquestioning obedience or externally regulated development: adults expect little of children, while child ren can demand all from adults, at least up to a certain age. The father is not chastising and demanding but is more likely to protect an unruly child from a mother’s exasperation.[51]

The differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian society are apparent not only in the structure of responsibility for child care, but also in the way children are in fact brought up. Compared to the general Australian community, Aborigines place less value on material comfort, discipline and training for their children: rather the emphasis is on values such as the expression of warmth, affection and acceptance.[52] It is quite common for Aboriginal children within Aboriginal communities to be fed and to sleep at the house or camp of a number of different people. It may be that for periods of time often extending over a number of years primary responsibility for a child’s upbringing may rest with an aunt or grandmother. Members of the extended family may have particular roles in child rearing prescribed under the kinship system. Persons other than the parents will play, and be expected to play, an important part in ‘growing-up children’.

Among Nyungar [Aborigines in the south-west of Western Australia] and in the Darwin region the business of ‘watching for’ and ‘worry for all them kids’ is the business of groupings of ‘close up’ people. This is to say that care for kids and expression of concern for their respective destinies falls with a weight of obligation on a set of people and adults of the extended family made up not merely of nominal kinfolk, but of those who are recognised as effective kin because the placement of children and the allocation of responsibilities for guardianship are things that ordinarily belong within the ambit of ‘close up’ kinship, special problems are encountered when a grouping of ‘close up’ kin fail to accommodate and care for a child.[53]

231. Arrangements for ‘Substitute Care’ of Children. Long term substitute care of Aboriginal children with different relatives in different homes is common.[54] Sansom and Baines describe the consequences of such intervention for Aborigines in and around Darwin in the following terms:

Following any act of taking a child, the issue of future prime guardianship remains to be determined. Delinquent guardians may in the end be given ‘nother chance’. However, if the child has been taken on the grounds of hunger this is unlikely. Delinquent family members will either have to modify spendthrift ways or, if without sufficient money, will have to find new sources of income. After an act of taking there is an interim, a period of uncertainty when the child is in temporary care. This period comes to an end when, with communal approval, the child is ‘given’ to a new prime guardian who is accredited as such by mob members. Furthermore, such allocations are subject to discussion among the population of Countrymen. Before the act of giving is accomplished in a mob, sufficient time must pass for those of the child’s close up kin who are in other mobs to be appraised … The procedures by which allocation of blame is made, status determined and disputes settled … allow bids for guardianship to be made.[55]

Sansom and Baines distinguish the dynamics of substitute care arrangements practiced by the Nyungar of South-Western Australia. They have clearly defined rules as to who should bring up children, as to the correct way in which this should be done and as to who should take over the child care function if there is a failure to care for the child in the right way.[56] The quality of the care a child receives is subject to strict scrutiny by those who have a watching brief. In cases of neglect the child is given to specified members of the mother’s extended family. Thus the paternal side has the primary responsibility for the watching brief and the mothers extended family has the primary child rearing function.[57] There is relatively little formality, by European standards, to Aboriginal child care arrangements and it is rare for Aboriginal persons to seek to regularise the relationship with children by legal means such as adoption or legal guardianship. Problems have arisen where welfare officers, operating with their own perceptions of child care, remove children from communities on the basis that these were ‘neglected’ because they were not in the care of their own parents.[58] This can lead to a direct conflict between opposing notions of child-rearing, and op posing views of what constitutes the best interests of the child.

[51]A Hamilton, Nature and Nurture: Aboriginal Child-Rearing in North-Central Arnhem Land, AIAS, Canberra, 1981, 149-50, and see CH Berndt & RM Berndt, ‘Aborigines’, in FJ Hunt (ed) Socialisation in Australia, Australia International Press and Publications, Melbourne, 1978, 126, 126-9; HC Coombs, MM Brandl, WC Snowdon, A Certain Heritage, CRES, Canberra, 1983, 42-50.

[52]Hamilton (1981), and cf E Sommerlad ‘Aboriginal Children Belong in the Aboriginal Community: Changing Practices in Adoption’ (1977) 12 Aust J Soc Issues 167, 172.

[53]B Sansom & P Baines, ‘Aboriginal Child Placement in the Urban Context’ in Commission on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism, Papers of the Symposium on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism, XIth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. Vancouver, Canada, August 19-13, 1983, Ottawa, 1983, vol 2, 1083, 1086. See also Bell & Ditton (1984) 96-7.

[54]See generally para 383.

[55]Sansom & Baines (1983) 1091.

[56]id, 1092.


[58]See further para 344-5.