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Speech to Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) Conference: Fiona Petersen

Speech to Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA
Photo: Healing Foundation
The Healing Foundation CEO Fiona Petersen

Thank you to Indigenous Allied Health Australia for welcoming me today to mark the beginning of a strong relationship between IAHA and The Healing Foundation.

I’m Fiona Petersen, a proud Wuthathi descendant with family roots from the Torres Strait.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we find ourselves today. For me here in Canberra, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I pay my respects to Elders and the Traditional Custodians, those of the past and those who guide us now.

I’d also like to pay my respects to Stolen Generations survivors. We recognise the intergenerational trauma that remains and The Healing Foundation’s commitment to help build an Australia that can heal.
The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that partners with communities to address the ongoing trauma caused by actions like the forced removal of children from their families.

We work with communities to create a place of safety for Stolen Generations survivors and their families to speak for themselves and to be in charge of their own healing.

We would like you in the health field to walk alongside us, to join the conversation and be a voice for change for Stolen Generations survivors and the nation more broadly.

It is your experience with and direct contact with Stolen Generation survivors – when they seek treatment, your services and health support – and it is your stories of those interactions that will help shape solutions into the future.

Healing refers to the recovery from the psychological and physical impacts of trauma, which is largely the result of colonisation and past government policies including state and federal assimilation policies.

By healing trauma, we are tackling the source of social and health problems that are far more prevalent for our people, including family violence, substance abuse, incarceration and children in out-of-home care.

These are the symptoms of trauma, not the nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Unfortunately, negative stereotypes like this still remain, but with your help we can improve understanding about the impacts of trauma that are still being felt today.

Until recently, we didn’t know how many Stolen Generations survivors were still alive, let alone where and how they live. This made it difficult to determine their needs and plan services to address them.

In 2018, The Healing Foundation commissioned the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to provide much needed answers.

The result is Australia’s first demographic study of Stolen Generations survivors and their descendants and shows a direct link between the forced removal of children and the profound impacts of trauma across generations.

The AIHW data tells us that:

  • 67 per cent of Stolen Generations survivors live with a disability or restrictive long-term condition;
  • 70 per cent rely on government payments as their main source of income;
  • 62 per cent live in households within the three lowest income percentiles; and
  • 20 per cent have experienced homelessness in the past 10 years.

It’s important to remember that behind these statistics there are stories. There are individuals, families and communities who are often missing from the interpretation and analysis.

If people do not have an opportunity to heal from trauma, it continues to impact the way they think and behave, which can lead to a range of negative outcomes.

Living with trauma diverts a person’s energy to managing the physical and emotional impacts of that trauma.

Consider the impact of taking 50 children from one community and the devastation that is inevitably left behind.

You can imagine the distrust, anger and grief that would be caused by the removal of generations from any one community.

For many of you, and we now know through data analysis, and even without it, that you don’t have to imagine it. There are real stories in your families.

In our communities there were no children to teach, no children to tell stories to. Language was lost and culture permanently disrupted.

The removal of children has created a cycle of intergenerational trauma, where the impact is passed from one generation to the next.

Descendants of Stolen Generations survivors may experience difficulties with attachment, disconnection and high levels of stress from family and community members who are living with trauma.

It impacts behaviour and relationships and is a major driver of young people into systems like child protection and juvenile justice – not to mention in the longer term being incarcerated as adults.

It also looks like poor health outcomes, the breaking down of our bodies’ stress systems and not living up to our true potentials – the ones our ancestors had in mind for us.

Trauma aware, healing informed practice is a strengths-based approach to healing that is guided by an understanding of, and responsiveness to, the impacts of trauma.

Healing programs must be co-designed with communities to understand their unique healing needs and aspirations to create sustainable change.

The work of The Healing Foundation combines Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and knowledge with best practice western trauma theory.

When we restore culture – the things that keep us safe and well and happy – when we prioritise these and connect more closely with our Stolen Generations survivors and their descendants, we are better able to heal.

We need increased focus on positive programs that keep people healthy rather than only targeting them at crisis point.

When these programs are trauma aware and healing informed, our people are better able to live their lives from a place of strength rather than from a place of distress.

Trauma aware, healing informed practice has guided the development of our Working with Stolen Generations fact sheets for GPs, dentists and aged care workers.

The fact sheets help healthcare practitioners by providing practical tips, tailored for each profession, on the best ways to support survivors without re-triggering trauma.

Produced to utilise principles of good clinical practice, they were developed with Stolen Generations survivors and peak bodies – including the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian Dental Association, and the Aged Care Industry Association.

We know that Stolen Generations survivors already face problems accessing services, but we also know that little changes can make a big difference to how survivors feel when they walk into a healthcare setting.

Resources like these can enable people to feel safe and confident enough to get the help they need.

They show that together with community service providers and professionals such as yourselves, we can all help to ease the burden on survivors and their families.

We are currently developing fact sheets for hospitals, allied health professionals and disability services.

This year, COVID-19 has put additional pressure on survivors and their families, who already experience disproportionate social, emotional and financial disadvantage.

Communities have always had the answers for their own healing, and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of community healing initiatives that are designed locally and informed by traditional knowledge and culture.

The pandemic has had a significant effect on elderly survivors, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s and experiencing isolation and loneliness, separation from family and friends, and difficulty accessing health services.

In response to COVID-19, we provided funding to Stolen Generations organisations to deliver projects that assist survivors.

These include the delivery of care packages containing necessities like food, hand sanitisers, tissues and toilet paper, all of which became scarce across metropolitan, regional and remote locations.

The project also enabled men’s and women's groups to purchase tablet computers for survivors, allowing them to continue meeting during lockdowns.

The COVID-19 initiatives are part of a broader approach by community-controlled health organisations, who are working with our people to bring a holistic view of health care that combines traditional knowledge and culture with best-practice western trauma theory.

The Healing Foundation has recently joined the Coalition of Peaks, a representative body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations that partner with governments to drive the new national agreement on Closing the Gap.

Our country still has unforgivable gaps in the life and health outcomes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not just our Stolen Generations, in all aspects of life, including mortality, chronic disease, disability rates, housing security, education, employment and wealth.

The new agreement has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of our people and to start to overcome these gaps. This will have an impact on the health space, too.

This is the first time a national agreement has been designed and negotiated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The new national agreement commits all governments to fundamentally change the way they work with us.

I’m proud to be representing The Healing Foundation and our communities as part of this valuable and historic initiative.

This is the last chance to do something substantial for remaining Stolen Generations survivors in their lifetimes – many having already passed away.

The cost of inaction is incalculable. Think of all the failed initiatives that weren’t backed by a trauma aware, healing informed approach.

Stolen Generations survivors have told us they want to stay in community with their own families, in their own homes. They want a quality of life in the time they have left.

Referring again to the AIHW data, Stolen Generations survivors aged 50 and over are more likely to have had problems accessing services, more likely to have experienced discrimination, more likely to have poor self-assessed health, and less likely to be employed.

In addition, around one-third of Stolen Generations survivors aged 50 and over are living alone.

We’ve got the data, and we’ve always had the stories.

The Healing Foundation will release the Action Plan for Healing to call on workforces, sectors and healthcare systems to understand the most powerful steps they can take to prioritise healing for Stolen Generations survivors now.

No more intergenerational trauma, but a groundswell of all of us setting a new movement of intergenerational healing in motion.

It is essential to recognise the prevalence of trauma and its impacts on the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

We want to create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples affected by trauma to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

When more of us are equipped to contribute to successful healing initiatives, more quality healing can occur.

Colonisation and all its devastation will not define who we are. We are stronger than we think. We can see the past but must not be captured by it.

But our health and wellbeing sectors must understand this, and re-design their systems with our Stolen Generations and their descendants in mind.

From healing emerges new opportunities for our children, families and communities.

Even though we as a people have experienced great heartache and loss, we have also gained resilience – physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally.

Together with our community healing partners, The Healing Foundation will continue to reflect on our practice and contribute to the knowledge about supporting positive healing outcomes for our people.

IAHA and its networks can influence outcomes for Stolen Generations survivors by promoting awareness, sharing our resources, and developing a stronger understanding of the urgent needs of our people.

Today, I honour you and your commitment to your profession. I marvel at your families, and what has been overcome for us to be here together today.

You are healers.

I ask you all here today to consider a role as intergenerational healing champions, who speak to your own career and personal networks about the power and impact of intergenerational healing - and what can be achieved if every single Australian understands the contribution they can make to it.

Thank you for your time today. I look forward to an ongoing mutual relationship between the IAHA and The Healing Foundation in the years ahead.

The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that partners with communities to heal trauma caused by the widespread and deliberate disruption of populations, cultures and languages over 230 years. This includes specific actions like the forced removal of children from their families.

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