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Aboriginal children’s wellbeing and the role of culture: outcomes of an Australian research project into measurements and assessment tools for Aboriginal and Islander children


Background. A critical issue for vulnerable Aboriginal children is understanding the key role culture and cultural resilience plays in their wellbeing. The report into past policies of Aboriginal child removal in Australia (Hreoc, 1997), demonstrates separation from culture and disregard of self-determination is an underlying factor in Aboriginal disadvantage. The paper explores social and emotional wellbeing and assessment approaches for Aboriginal children who have experienced maltreatment and how it can build the evidence-base for intervention with vulnerable Aboriginal children and families.

Purpose. The paper explores the cultural issues in assessing Aboriginal children's wellbeing. The project's purpose is to develop culturally specific, holistic and useful assessment approaches to accurately and sensitively describe the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children who have experienced significant maltreatment and who are clients of Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (Vacca, lead Aboriginal child and family welfare organisation in Victoria), and Take Two (therapeutic service for maltreated children, 18% of whom are Aboriginal). It also aims to develop frameworks to guide appropriate therapeutic approaches within the two services. The first year of this project was funded by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (Aiatsis).

A secondary aim is to demonstrate an authentic and effective partnership between an Aboriginal child welfare agency, a mainstream child welfare agency and a university.

A critical conceptual issue explored is how to match Aboriginal methodologies for research with Western styled evidenced based research methodologies. Our methodology included a literature review, interviews and consultation with Aboriginal community members, and an analysis of existing measures.

Key findings. Engagement. An emergent theme from the interviews was the importance of engagement. The relationship formed with the client was of the highest importance in any therapeutic work. It was often mentioned that the relationship dynamic was established early in the process and that engagement with Aboriginal children may require a different approach.

Culturally competence. Many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers stressed the importance of cultural competency training. Currently, it was felt that child protection workers were inconsistent in their level of cultural awareness. Interviewees stressed that such training did not mean that the non-Aboriginal person would be an 'expert' on culture and that co-working with Aboriginal workers was always preferable.

The literature also supports the recommendation that the 'system' around the child be fully trained in cultural competence. As one worker shared, it is challenging to work with any child if they are from a different culture. There needs to be more awareness of:

  • impact of colonisation,
  • intergenerational traumas suffered by Aboriginal people,
  • diversity across the 500 Aboriginal nations,
  • cultural differences leading to misdiagnosis,
  • differences in parenting styles,
  • importance of cultural connection in enhancing wellbeing. Culture is not a 'tack on',
  • spirituality's influence on wellbeing; definitions and approaches that promote spirituality are meagre in the literature.

Cultural work. Both the literature and the interviews promote cultural connection as a factor in improved wellbeing. The literature review does not define what 'cultural' work might be. Aboriginal workers will have a natural advantage in facilitating cultural work with their clients. The Atsi tool (Take Two), and the Atsi Cultural Support Plan (State Government) document the cultural connectedness of the child and suggest areas of enhancement.

Outcome Tools. In exploring assessment and outcome measures used by Take Two and Vacca a number of conclusions were drawn:

  • there is no current measure readily available specifically for Aboriginal children that can be used within the Victorian context. Some measures have been developed for Aboriginal children in other parts of Australia which have informed this project (e.g. Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist - Youth (Westerman, 2002),
  • some mainstream measures can inform assessment, some of which also measure change over time. Each has limitations, especially for Aboriginal children. These include Looking After Children (Parker, Ward, Jackson, Aldgate, & Wedge, 1991) and Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (Briere, 1996),
  • some measures can or have been adapted with Aboriginal children in mind. Some of these, such as the Social Network Map (Tracy, & Whittaker, 1990), are being piloted.

Arising from the interviews were key areas in the lives of Aboriginal children that denote concrete, tangible changes in children's behaviour and hence wellbeing. These are being included into checklists that are being completed at regular intervals by workers as another way of measuring wellbeing.

Recommendation. Enabling the voice of Aboriginal children to speak directly to the question of their social and emotional wellbeing and the relationship with culture is a current focus of this project. Another challenge is to develop a tool that measures the impact of cultural work.

Key references

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997) Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, AGPS, Canberra.

Contacts: Jane Harrison, La Trobe University, Victoria, 3086, Australia, E-mail: j.harrison@latrobe.edu.au, Phone + 61 3 9479 2854.

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