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Partnering for safety with families

In Queensland, there are very few Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander-specific services to address mental health and wellbeing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can experience further exclusion and oppression because of:

  • programs or services that are built from a ‘white perspective’—they have had experiences of racism, of being approached in a culturally insensitive way, of feeling judged, and of having their confidentiality breached
  • actions that isolate them from their community and make them feel pressured to do things they are reluctant or are unable to do
  • inflexible visiting hours, lack of access to telephone and long waiting lists

These all contribute to further disadvantage and increase the likelihood of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples not accessing mental health services.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents need to know that you are an ally for them and their children in a system that has a history of forced child removal and of failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Culturally safe engagement

When working to understand a family's culture, values and beliefs, practice is more responsive and tailored to the child and family's needs. Be mindful to respect cultural protocols and be culturally considerate in the way you work, speak and get other services or people involved.

Practitioners are in a position of power and privilege. Think about how to use power in a safe way and what structures safety with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

Here are some conversation ideas:
Take collective accountability for past pain and suffering that has been caused by past practices of child removal.
  • I am sorry for the pain and suffering that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have felt because their children were stolen.
  • I understand talking with me today (as a non-Indigenous person or as a worker from Child Safety) must be really hard.
  • I am keen to hear how I can make this any easier.
Find safe spaces to yarn (hold discussions).
  • Let’s talk about who needs to know what and why.
  • Is there anything I need to know about that could stop you from talking with someone about it?
  • Who is appropriate for you to talk to about your health and wellbeing? Would you prefer a man or a woman?
  • I know privacy is important to you. How do we make sure this is respected?
  • Is there anyone you do NOT want to know about this?
  • What worries you about them knowing?
Be aware of lateral violence—community backlash.
  • How might others respond to knowing some struggles you’re having with your mental health?  How might other people you’ve spoken to respond?
  • What will this be like for you? For your child? For your family?
  • How might you respond to that? Who in your community would be helpful?
  • Who can be of help to you?
  • How can I be of most use to you?
Engage Elders and other important people who make decisions.
  • Who are the Elders of your community?
  • How do decisions about children get made?
  • What are the views on mental health and wellbeing? What would they say needs to happen?
  • How can you connect with them?
  • How can they help us make good decisions here about what needs to happen?
Be guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Listen deeply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as experts.
  • What can you tell me about your culture and traditions and how they may help your mental health and wellbeing?

Self-determination and participation

Principles of self-determination (having control over their own lives) and participation guide Child Safety’s work with families and communities. Do not replicate past oppressive practices when you interact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

Ask parents where they would like to meet and who can support them:

  • What will help you feel safe while we talk today?
  • How will you let me know if you feel like I am using my power as a CSO in ways that are unhelpful or controlling?
  • It is important to me while we talk that I don’t offend you or say things that are culturally inappropriate. If this happens, how can you let me know?
  • Who can come and support you while we are here?

If a person’s mental health is making it unsafe for children, talk to parents about who in their family and community could help them. With the parents’ agreement, involve these people as part of the safety and support network and in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family-led decision making process.

Show up for the hard yarns

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents need to know they can rely on Child Safety to be up-front and honest about what is happening. There may be times when uncomfortable and hard yarns are necessary. Show up for these conversations with compassion, curiosity and courage.

If practitioners do not show up, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents may be left confused and may feel they’ve been lied to or things are underhand. This repeats feelings about past injustices and has a flow-on effect within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Acts of protection

Look for a parent’s ‘acts of protection’ or steps already taken. These may look like:

  • distancing themselves from family and kin who are contributing to their mental health and wellbeing being compromised
  • re-engaging with cultural practices; looking to connect to country and land
  • seeking support from a trusted family member, friend or Elder.

Try to support a parent’s acts of protection and build on their strengths, as it takes great strength for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person to go against what may be the family/community norm.

Understanding shame and mental health

In some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, talking about or getting help for mental health issues can cause people to feel shame. For example, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people might be afraid to go to hospital because being admitted for a mental health issue may have caused shame on their family or community in their past.

It is critical to understand the family and community’s notion of shame. Without understanding how shame works within a family and community there can be huge barriers to collaborating to keep children safe. Use skills in cultural capability to understand the community’s experience of mental health and shame and apply this understanding to discussions with the family.

As with all families, try to avoid labels such as ‘depression’ or ‘psychosis’ when talking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their mental health. Be aware of taboo language, topics or behaviours in the community. This does not mean these conversations should be avoided completely, especially when it relates to a child’s safety, but this understanding will help guide decisions on the best approach to these discussions.


‘The concept of shame used by Aboriginal English speakers is broader than the non-Indigenous use of the word. The meaning of shame extends to include embarrassment in certain situations … and is often due to attention or circumstances rather than as the result of an action by oneself ... The feeling of shame can totally overwhelm and disempower a person.’

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