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Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have revealed Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children are being placed in out-of-home care at 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, with one in five of those Indigenous children less than one year of age.

Associate Professor Catherine Chamberlain, an epidemiologist based at La Trobe University, and registered nurse and midwife, highlighted measures that could help alleviate the “unacceptable” rate of removals of Indigenous babies from their families speaking at the recent Victorian iteration of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM) Conference.

Associate Professor Chamberlain’s presentation, SAFeST Start: Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families to Stay Together from the Start, drew on her research projects to focus on the ways nurses and midwives can play a key role in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families that are negotiating “social [and] emotional complexity”.

“The outcomes for these kids [being placed in out-of-home care] are catastrophic,” Associate Professor Chamberlain, who is a Trawlwoolway woman, said, pointing out that nearly 50% of those children have attempted suicide within four years of leaving out-of-home-care.

While she said that this was due to an emphasis on ‘surveillance’ and ‘punitive coercion’ measures from government agencies, it also was because of the “completely inadequate therapeutic and practical support being provided to families.”

“We need to be doing a lot, lot better,” she observed, noting that transparency and accountability were often lacking.

“We want to really draw on that [observation] and bring that [transparency and accountability] back in, so we can see what’s happening and that the decisions are sensible, wise and made with the best evidence and expertise available.”

Among the ideas Associate Professor Chamberlain discussed was the cultivation of a sanctuary for those dealing with complex experiences, and acknowledgement of trauma that has occurred from colonial conflict.

Preventative health was described as a key plank in that process, with “community-led, culturally-responsive, trauma-integrated care”, including midwifery-led continuity of care models, and training and monitoring to ensure appropriately skilled healthcare workers in care delivery.

Additionally, the role maternal care professionals play for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was crucial, Associate Professor Chamberlain said.

“It’s a really critical time for healing the past by nurturing the future… We need to be offering a sanctuary, support and enabling that recovery from that trauma; and really doing everything that we can to avoid the re-traumatisation that’s happening for too many families.”

Titled Back to the Fire, this year’s CATSINaM conference series is being held in multiple venues across the country, with state conferences already held in Cairns, Darwin Adelaide and Melbourne.

Further conferences are scheduled to take place in Sydney, Perth, Broome, Canberra and Thursday Island (Queensland) later this year, with more information available at the CATSINaM Conference website.

More information on Healing the Past by Nurturing the Future research program, in which Associate Professor Chamberlain is a Principal Investigator, can be found here.