A Foundation of Healing
12 February 2018 at 5:30 pm
We need to stop putting intergenerational trauma in the too-hard basket, writes Richard Weston, CEO of The Healing Foundation, on the eve of the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Ten years on from the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, and 20 years on from the tabling of the Bringing Them Home report that recommended that apology in the first place, there are still thousands of our people held back by the impact of trauma. Almost every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family is affected in some way.
As we reflect on this commemoration of the 10th anniversary tomorrow, we need to use the momentum to call for a serious commitment to tackle unresolved and intergenerational trauma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Intergenerational trauma is at the heart of most, if not all, social and health issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples including family violence, suicide and high rates of incarceration and out-of-home child protection.
To get an idea of the extent of the trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, more than 12 per cent of the people who gave evidence of abuse to the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. But we’re not just talking about events of the past. A study in Western Australia found that one in five Aboriginal children were living in families now, where between seven to 14 major life stress events had occurred in 12 months.
Many Australian often think of the Stolen Generations — and other brutal episodes in 230 years of colonisation — as something in the past. But the impacts are very much part of the here and now.
We need to stop putting intergenerational trauma in the too-hard basket.
Trauma affects the way people think and act, and overwhelms their ability to cope and engage. If people don’t have the opportunity to heal from trauma, it’s likely that their experiences and negative behaviours will start to impact on others, particularly children who are susceptible to significant developmental damage when they experience trauma at a young age.
Research continually shows that this has created a cycle of trauma, where the impact is passed from one generation to the next, creating a snowball effect of cumulative damage. The Stolen Generations and their children and grandchildren are twice as likely to be arrested by police and a third less likely to be in good health, compared to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are already at a disadvantage. Until we address the intrinsic trauma that continue to looms in our communities, we won’t make any inroads on Closing the Gap.
The national apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 was a landmark moment. It was an opportunity for truth telling which is critical when you’re trying to heal from trauma. But it was a starting point not a solution. The latest progress report on Closing the Gap shows that efforts to address appalling levels of disadvantage have made marginal improvements, in spite of billions of dollars in government funding.
Closing the Gap is complicated, but it’s not impossible. We just need to invest in strategies that have been proven to work and be prepared to invest beyond political cycles and social fads. We also need to listen to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities tell us will work.
Unless we make a long term commitment to address intergenerational trauma we will continue to waste taxpayer dollars on programs and plans that fail because they’re not focused on the long term picture or the specific needs of our people.
The Healing Foundation is finalising the first full analysis of current needs for the Stolen Generations, particularly as they enter the aged care sector, and to address issues like national reparations. When we talk to members of the Stolen Generations, they tell us over and over again that re-building families through culture and healing is a key priority.
Why? Because a traumatised person can’t benefit from programs around education and training. Healing strategies must be implemented alongside enablers like employment, education and economic empowerment, otherwise we will keep wasting taxpayer dollars focusing on symptoms alone.
The Healing Foundation has shown that investment in the right programs will create long-term change and reduce the burden on public funds. Over the last eight years we’ve seen reductions in violence, juvenile justice rates and out-of-home care for children where healing programs have been implemented. For example, our men’s healing programs have led to a 50 per cent reduction in contact with Corrective Services and a drop in family violence, while programs for young people have potentially reduced contact with the protection system by 18.5 per cent and the juvenile justice system by nearly 14 per cent.
To replicate these successes across Australia, we need to scale-up our healing efforts and focus on families and communities, rather than individuals.
Tomorrow will be a day to commemorate a major step forward in the process of healing and reconciliation. But it’s also a day when we need to take stock of what’s working and what’s not. Over the past few weeks I’ve been reminded by young people in our communities that the future holds a great deal of hope. Despite the wrongs of the past, many of them are optimistic and motivated to create change. This gives me hope that we will have something more positive to report after the next decade — and a different future, built on a foundation of healing.
About the author: Richard Weston is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. He has worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for more than 20 years, 14 of these in Indigenous controlled health services in Far West New South Wales and Queensland.
As CEO of the Healing Foundation since September 2010 Richard has overseen the strategic development of the organisation, which has supported more than 135 culturally strong, community led Indigenous healing projects around Australia. During his 13 years at Maari Ma Health in Far West NSW including nine years as CEO (2000-2009), Richard led the delivery of high quality health care and improved health outcomes for adults and children alike in a remote region known for the poor health status of its population. During this time Maari Ma won five NSW health awards and a national health award. Richard is a member of the National Health Leadership Forum and the Close the Gap Working Group. He is also an advisory committee member for the National Empowerment Project and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project.
The Healing Foundation was formed, following feedback from the community, to mark the first anniversary of the National Apology. Since then it has been working with communities to address the impact of ongoing trauma for the Stolen Generations and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.