Skip to main navigation Skip to main content
Up-to-date information on how we are responding to COVID-19
Stay informed

Respect for cultural protocols and practices

To understand a family's culture, values and beliefs, you need to ensure your practice is tailored and responsive to the needs of the child, family and community. Respect cultural protocols and be culturally considerate in the way you work and speak and involve other services or people.

Tip

When organising to meet with community members, seek advice from your cultural practice advisor regarding cultural values, protocols and practices, and about who the best person is to consult with first.

If possible, and within the particular community protocol, provide opportunities for men to speak with men and women to speak with women, prior to a group discussions taking place. This is especially important when you are not known to the person or community.

Sorry Business and tombstone unveiling

The end stage of life and the time following the death of a family member is a very sacred, sensitive and significant time for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and communities and is known as ‘Sorry Business’. Sorry Business can also apply if a family or community member is ill or imprisoned, or can occur to mourn the loss of cultural connection to land.

This is an important time of mourning, and it involves responsibilities and obligations to participate in cultural practices, protocols, ceremonies and rituals associated with bereavement and funerals for a deceased person.

In Torres Strait Islander culture, the ‘tombstone unveiling’ is a significant ceremony. It marks the completion of the tombstone of a deceased loved one and represents the family’s final goodbye to their family member. The ceremony is usually performed about a year after the loss, and the tombstone and gravesite are extensively decorated. The ceremony, which can take many days of preparation, lasts a whole day, includes the whole family, and ends with feasting and traditional dancing.

The participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Sorry Business and tombstone unveiling ceremonies is highly important. Not attending or participating could be regarded by the grieving family members and community as a sign of disrespect and could result in public shunning.

Practice prompt

To show respect to the grieving family members, some communities, businesses and services will close from the time the person has passed until some time after the funeral is held.

Before visiting or conducting business with an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander family, it is important to know if their family or community has any Sorry Business. To find out, consult with cultural practice advisors, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff, practice leaders or community members to ensure cultural protocols are respected.

Attention

When a family is experiencing Sorry Business, it is important and respectful for practitioners to provide space and time for the family’s grieving process.

Any protocols and processes that are not respected can hinder relationships between the community and Child Safety staff, including Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff.

The following steps can be taken by practitioners to help support and reduce stress on the child/young person, family and community during Sorry Business:

  • Try to avoid going into the community during Sorry Business time, unless absolutely necessary for ensuring the safety of a young person.
  • Cancel prescribed home visits and meetings for at least 2–3 weeks. If you need to re-schedule, ask the family for a time and location that suits them.
  • Find out if there is a family member who is best placed to be the family spokesperson with Child Safety staff.
  • Respectfully ask how much time they might need and support them in this.
  • Listen carefully and offer support where possible.
  • Explain the significance of Sorry Business to others (especially the carer) and promote cultural awareness.

How long is Sorry Business?

There is no set time period for Sorry Business. Ceremonies and mourning periods can vary depending on community customs. Some periods of mourning could be for weeks after the funeral and some may continue long after the death of a person—perhaps even for months.

The time period for Sorry Business depends on the status of the person being mourned as well as the nature of the relationship between the person taking part in Sorry Business and the person who died.

Conducting urgent business during Sorry Business

While Child Safety recognises the importance and significance of Sorry Business, there may be instances when urgent business will still need to be conducted in order to meet statutory requirements. This work needs to be undertaken in a respectful way and with minimal disruption to the family.

Consult with Cultural Practice Advisors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practice leaders and staff and consider the following when meeting with family during Sorry Business:

  • Are there people working in community organisations who have a close relationship with the family members? Can we work with them in a planned approach (so that work can still be undertaken)?
  • Can staff from the community service meet with us and cultural practice advisors? If the children need to be sighted every day, can the person/service do this and liaise with us?
  • Are there key family members we can liaise with regularly who can ensure the safety of the children during this period? (That is, are there people within the family with whom we can develop safety plans?)

Tip

We need to be aware that the following cultural practices and circumstances could be occurring during Sorry Business in the home and community.

What we may see in the home during Sorry Business.

  • family members from multiple generations living together
  • multiple families living together
  • family members meeting to discuss and plan funeral arrangements
  • ceremonies taking place
  • men’s and women’s business occurring, depending on who has passed
  • large groups of people gathering throughout the day in family homes or community locations
  • families sharing resources, such as bedding, food and finances to spread the household load.

What we may see in the community during Sorry Business

  • Family members may be travelling in and out of community to attend Sorry Business.
  • Some family members may be unavailable for meetings or family contact time, as they are attending Sorry Business within their own community or travelling.

There may be people in communities and homes who are not safe people for children. There is a high chance the family are already aware of these people. It is important for us to have conversations with parents and family members about their plans to provide safety to children and young people in these circumstances.

Saying a name or displaying images

In some communities, when a person passes away, it may be considered disrespectful to say that person’s name or to even refer to them directly in general conversation. In cases such as this, a different name may be used to refer to the deceased person. Additionally, a young person who has the same name as the person who has passed may have to use their middle name or cultural name. We need to respect these protocols and understand this may last for some time—even years.

Generally, it is disrespectful to display pictures or images of people who have passed away. This is particularly the case when the images may be seen by the family or community of a person who has passed away. You need to seek permission from the family or local community if you need to display the image of a deceased person.

Further reading

SNAICC: National voice for our children—Sorry Business

Identity

Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining ones language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves.

Source: Brooke Joy, Boandik descendant (cited in Marmion, Obata, & Troy, 2014).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity is based on the way people see themselves and how they are perceived by others. The identify of an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person can be linked to their connection to kin, culture, and country, although these connections could look different and have different meanings for different people. For instance, where a person is born or connected to through the history of their family, where they were raised and their life experiences could be interwoven into their identity.

Colonisation and interactions between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people have also had profound impacts on notions of what identity is.

We need to consider this wider sense of identity—including a collective view of being connected to kin, culture and community (in contrast to individual and immediate family in western cultures)—when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

Practice prompt

It is important to talk with the family and find out how they wish to identify and what their family story is around their identity. The family members have the right to self-determination about how they identify themselves.

To support the development of the identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people who are not living with their family, kin or on country, we (as practitioners) need to help them to maintain their connections. Disconnection from cultural practices, traditions and roles has caused enduring hurt to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ identity and belonging to family and community.

Tip

We are required to correctly record the cultural identity of a child and family in Child Safety documents and systems. Refer to cultural support plans  to learn how to record information.

When a person identifies as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and has limited knowledge about the cultural history of their family, we need to record this. We also need to include information about what support the family needs and who can provide that support, so they are able to gain further information about themselves.

When a person wishes to de-identify themselves as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, their wishes need to be respected. (This is part of their self-determination.) Provide an opportunity to the family member to meet with cultural practice advisors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practice leaders to talk about the reasons why they choose to de-identify themselves. This gives space and time for the family member to also consider what supports they or their family need in future. Any conversations or consultations that are undertaken in regards to de-identifying a person need to be recorded accurately on department records.

Note

‘The very fabric of what it means to be Aboriginal [is] that being, living and breathing the journey, walking the land as proud Aboriginal people, knowing the importance of being respectful within our community and wanting with all your heart and ability to make positive change.’

Paul Ralph, CEO KARI Aboriginal Resources Inc.

Practice prompt

Working with and across difference

When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other people of difference, think about the following:

  • What are the groups you identify with and how are these different from the people you are working with?
  • How do you behave and feel in the different groups to which you belong?
  • How does belonging in many groups reflect and shape your identity?
  • How much do we shape our own identity and how much is it shaped by others?

Further reading

Child-rearing practices

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is based on a ‘collectivist’ kinship system, meaning there could be many people who share in the care and wellbeing of a child.

The kinship system provide an opportunity for family members to bond with and build their own attachments to children and contribute to their care and nurture. Members of the kinship system may also participate in or influence decisions made regarding the daily care needs of a child, such as sleeping and eating routines, medicinal needs (that is, when to use natural remedies and when to see a doctor), and who will teach them cultural knowledge.

There may be many people in the child’s kinship system who will be responsible for providing care for a child, such as aunties, uncles, grandparents, older siblings or cousins. This could for a short period of time on an ad hoc basis, or as part of a regular routine, or it could be for longer periods. It could be for numerous reasons, such as to provide support to new or overwhelmed parents, help with care arrangements for working parents, or help parents who have obligations to provide support to other family members.

The people who are part of the kinship group may also make decisions on where the child is cared for and by whom. For example, a parent may assume their child is being cared for by their grandmother, but during this time, the grandmother may visit an aunty and the child may wish to stay with her. The parent may not be aware of this but they trust the grandmother and the kinship system as a whole to make the right decisions for the child while they are looking after them.

Practice prompt

To find out about the child rearing practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, we can ask parents:

  • Who will help them to make decisions about their child?
  • Who do they talk to when they need help or support with their child?
  • Who will play a role in their child’s life?
  • Who will regularly see their child?
  • Who will have cultural responsibility for the child?

Traditional adoption for Torres Strait Islander peoples

Customary (traditional) adoption is a part of Torres Strait Islander culture. It involves the permanent transfer of care responsibilities for a child, and it is considered to be a ‘social arrangement’. It is generally considered taboo to talk to a child/young person about this arrangement without the permission of the receiving parents. Refer to the practice kit: Care arrangements for further information.

Further reading

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (Qld) Ltd, Torres Strait Islander Traditional Adoption(fact sheet), (2018).

Women’s business and men’s business

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, certain customs and practices are performed by men and women separately and are referred to as men’s and women’s business. These practices have very strict rules that can incur harsh penalties when they are not followed, and some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities continue these segregated practices.

Practice prompt

We must ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families about any protocols that need to be followed when we are working with them. This could mean that only people of the same gender are able to talk about certain subjects, such as discussing sexual abuse. To not follow this would be culturally insenstive.

Women's business

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are mothers, teachers and nurturers and are influential in their families and communities. Young girls have mothers, grandmothers, aunties and Elders (community ‘aunties’), who nurture their spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing throughout adolescence, when they are involved in rituals and ceremonies that are colourful and socially significant.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women continue their support and nurturing of a young girl until she becomes a woman, when she then provides the same role to younger generations of girls. Their special knowledge is preserved through women’s business.

Note

'Being a mother and grandmother is very important in our communities. Men don't have babies and they need women to take care of them, and grow them strong. Our men have their own ways in The Dreaming, different to us. They have corroboree and ceremonies, and ways we don't know; men's business. We know what we have to do, we have our women ways. We never speak their business. That'd be shame.'

Shirl—Stories from the Aboriginal women of the yarning circle: When cultures collide, Robertson, Demosthenous and Demosthenous, 2005

Men’s business

Traditionally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are leaders, hunters and mentors for young men. Once boys reach a suitable age they join the men (fathers, grandfathers, uncles and male Elders) to start their initiation to become a man. This is a series of rites throughout a young boy’s youth as he undergoes his gradual acceptance as a man, practising the traditions of his traditional group. Boys, when they then grow up and become men, take over responsibilities for the next generation.

Sexually and gender diverse young people

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, those who traverse gender lines are often referred to as ‘sistergirls’ (women who were born biologically male) and ‘brotherboys’ (men who were born biologically female).

Brotherboys, sistergirls and other sexually and gender diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience a number of significant and intersecting points of discrimination and marginalisation in Australia. As a result, some may have difficulties in maintaining cultural ties, receiving family support, and having their diverse sexual orientation and gender identity recognised by family members and in their community. There are particular difficulties in areas where gendered cultural initiation processes are not able to accommodate an individual’s gender expression.

Some transgender young people may feel the need to move from their community of origin due to rejection or exclusion.

Note

‘My family is from the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland … My elders, when I came out as transgender said you're not welcome, you have to go. Which is why I've spent most of my life in NSW. I found other brotherboys and they took me in.’

Brotherboy Zac, as quoted in Burin (2016).

This rejection can lead to depression and other mental health concerns, including the worry of suicide. Although there is limited data on suicide rates among LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), and intersex) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, statistics do show high suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and much higher suicide rates amount the LGBTQI community compared to the broader community. Burin (2016).

This video on Tiwi Islands Sistagirls attending the Sydney Mardi Gras , also touches on suicide within their community.

Watch this video of Kai and Dean’s stories and experiences about what it is to be a Brotherboy. It talks about how they have navigated, with the help and support of their Elders, their transition from women’s business to men’s business.

Resources for gender diverse sistergirls and brotherboys

There is a private Facebook support group called Sistergirls & Brotherboys  that invites family and supporters as well.

The Black Rainbow  website provides support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who identify as LGBTQI.

Beyondblue’s Families like mine is a resource that has been developed by two sistergirls (Brie and Rosalina Curtis, from the Northern Territory) for families of LGBTQI youth.

Sistergirls & Brotherboys: transgender and queer Aboriginal people is a resource provided by Creative Spirits.

Role of Elders

In many communities, Elders are leaders who support and influence the community. Elders are the holders of their mob’s stories and way of living, ensuring it aligns with spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing. Many Aboriginal people acknowledge Elders and leaders as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’, even if the person is not blood-related or kin. This is a sign of respect in Aboriginal culture.

Elders and community leaders not only hold important community knowledge, but they also have a great deal of influence over when, how and if a community will work with those from outside. Their role can include supporting families through decision-making processes with Child Safety.

This is also true for other representatives of the local community. An Elder or leader may not necessarily be an older person. They may be a younger person who is well respected within their community and who holds significant community knowledge.

Tip

Seek permission from the family you are working with prior to interacting with their Elders. Ask the Elder how they would like to be addressed or referred to. It would be disrespectful to assume that just because your colleague refers to a person as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ that you automatically have the same permission to do so when a relationship has not been established.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families may link to their community in varying ways and on different levels. While the assumption is that families engage and connect regularly with the Elders in their family or community and find this connection a source of strength, this may not be the case for all families. Some families may be new to an area or have fractured and/or severed relationships between family members.

For Child Safety purposes, a significant Elder is someone who has:

  • a connection to the child through blood in the hierarchy of the family system (for example, a grandmother/grandfather, aunty/uncle)
    or
  • someone who has a personal connection with the child or family and who the family has accepted as part of their family structure due to long-term association and respect, although they may not be related by blood. 

A community Elder is someone who may be part of a local Elders group, such as traditional owners or a historical group. Community Elders may work with Child Safety Service Centres for generic ceremonies such as performing Welcome to Country.

The family may not want members from these Elder groups to be involved in discussions, as they may not necessarily know the child or family or have any connection with them. To include these Elders without the agreement of the family would be disrespectful and culturally insensitive and would breach confidentiality.

Practice prompt

Have you consulted with your cultural practice advisor or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to strengthen your practice on best approaches for engaging and working with Elders? They may be aware of the Elders and their roles within the family structure, know who the community Elders are, and be aware of the intertwining connections between the two.

Other people in the community may not feel comfortable in providing this information if you have not consulted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in the first instance.

Ask the family who are the Elders in their lives and be curious about understanding the roles the Elders play in the family (for example, decision-making, having knowledge of family connections or relationships, or providing connections to service providers in the community).

Consider if the person you are talking to is a significant Elder or a community Elder.

Are you talking to the right Elder before sharing information or discussing family business with them?

Intergenerational trauma

People can be affected by traumatic events that they directly experience and they can also be affected by witnessing or hearing about traumatic events. This trauma is then passed down to subsequent generations, affecting children, families and communities. When people have not healed from trauma, it is likely their experiences will be passed on to others, creating a cycle of trauma passed from one generation to the next.

For example, some Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who were subjected to forced removal from their families (the Stolen Generation) may pass the trauma they’ve experienced onto their children and children’s children in a cyclic process through the sharing of stories, family history and experiences.  As a result of their experience, a parent might find it difficult to know how to nurture and parent their own children, because they were denied the opportunity to be nurtured and parented themselves and have been disconnected from their family, community and culture.

Practice prompt

Develop an understanding of why a child, parents and family are demonstrating the behaviour they are, rather than trying to label the behaviour. This could be the family’s way of expressing their frustration at yet another generation being involved with Child Safety.

Further reading

The Healing Foundation (a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation) has developed a Timeline of Trauma and Healing in Australia showing events that have contributed to the intergenerational trauma and pathway to healing.

They also provide a suite of resources that explain intergenerational trauma and guide trauma-informed practices through videos, timelines and factsheets.

Also read Milroy (2018), A call on practitioners to play a stronger role on intergenerational trauma.

Understanding the concept of ‘shame’

The concept of shame for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has a broader meaning than it does for non-Indigenous people. ‘Shame’ can signify that someone is feeling either embarrassed or ashamed in/by certain situations—often because of attention received or circumstances rather than as a result of something happening.

It is critical for practitioners 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 communicating and working with families to keep children safe.

Practice prompt

Ask the cultural practice advisor, regional practice leader and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff about their understanding of the community’s experience of ‘shame’ and the taboo language, topics or behaviours to be aware of that could be ‘shame’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. This supports you in building your knowledge and strengthening your cultural capability.

This does not mean you should avoid any conversations that relate to a child’s safety, but this understanding will help you to decide on the best approach to these discussions.

For example, it may be considered ‘shame’ for a female or male young person to talk to practitioners of the opposite gender about topics of a sexual nature. However, if a conversation needs to go ahead, it is appropriate to check with the child and parents to see if there is someone of the same gender as the child who could support the child through the process (such as a relative, Elder or worker from a community service known to the child).

Tip

When someone says the word ‘shame’, do not assume you know what they mean. If you are unsure, and it is respectful to do so, find out why they are ‘shame’ by asking them:

  • When you say you are ‘shame’ can you tell me a bit about that?
  • Now that I know why you are feeling ‘shame’, what are some of the things I can do to help you not to feel so ‘shame’?
  • Who can help you with the ‘shame’ that you are feeling?

Feeling ‘shame’ may prevent parents from letting family members know about their involvement with Child Safety and asking for helpful. It is important to be respectful of who the child and parents wants to know about their involvement with Child Safety.

This may mean having a conversation with children, parents and family members—before meetings or interviews—to let them know what will happen during the meeting and to stress the importance of their participation in the conversation as the experts in the child’s life.

Some people may be more comfortable being silent than raising questions or clarifying the information given. If, during a meeting, there is little participation from family members, it might be useful to take a break and use this time to allow cultural practice advisors or staff from community organisations to check in with the family about how they are going and if they need to clarify any information.

Lateral violence

Note

‘Lateral violence is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves.

Lateral violence is believed to occur worldwide in minority groups and particularly Aboriginal peoples.’

Korff, Creative Spirits (2019) Bullying & lateral violence

It is critical to understand the concept of, and damage caused by, lateral violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Australian Human Rights Commission defines lateral violence (also known as horizontal violence or intra-racial conflict) as a product of a complex mix of historical, cultural and social dynamics that results in a spectrum of behaviours including:

  • gossiping
  • jealousy
  • bullying
  • shaming
  • social exclusion
  • family feuding
  • organisational conflict
  • physical violence.

Practice prompt

We need to ask children and parents who they feel safe to involve in their safety and support network.  We also need to ask them how they can talk about their life (and with whom) without it being used against them as part of lateral violence.

Lateral violence can also make accessing local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services complicated for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents. Privacy and confidentiality is extremely important in order to minimise lateral violence for the children, parents and communities.

Practice prompt

Practitioners need to ask families to identify the community services they are willing to engage with and be supported by prior to making any referrals to services.

Note

‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face many challenges and sadly some of the divisive and damaging harms come from within our own communities. Ask any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and they will tell you stories of the back stabbing, bullying and even physical violence perpetrated by community members against each other. When we already have so many of the odds stacked against us, it is tragic to see us inflict such destruction on ourselves.’

Mick Gooda—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2010

Note

‘Lateral violence is the expression of rage and anger, fear and terror that can only be safely vented upon those closest to us when we are being oppressed. In other words, people who are victims of a situation of dominance turn on each other instead of confronting the system that oppresses them. The oppressed become the oppressors.’

Korff, Creative Spirits (2019) Bullying & lateral violence

Version history

Back to top

Published on:

Last reviewed:

  • Date: 
    Page created