Newsworthy cases: Where is the 'care' for missing black children?
Blackfellas expressed relief, just like the rest of the nation, over the finding of Cleo Smith. But with that relief, came questions: why aren't our children afforded the same level of care?
WA Police find 4-year-old Cleo Smith in Carnarvon, WA.
Where is the care, concern and coverage for missing black kids?
The nation was captivated this week by the finding of 4-year-old Cleo Smith, who was missing for three weeks after being kidnapped from a camping site on the northwest WA coast. There was an outpouring of relief that Cleo was found safe, that she could be returned to her family; and a huge round of platitudes directed to the work of WA Police who found her in a locked room, only seven minutes from her family home, in the early hours of the morning.
Cleo’s disappearance was always going to be newsworthy, not only because she is seen as worthy of coverage, but also because the circumstances around her disappearance and finding were rare. The cases in which strangers are perpetrators are always deemed newsworthy cases because of this rarity, but also because of the threat posed to the safety of society. Families throughout the country imagine little Cleo as one of their own; because she could have been one of their own. The circumstances behind her disappearance could have happened to any child, and that leads to a fear justifying intense media scrutiny.
But it is ‘violence’, or the prospect of violence, that is seen as inherently newsworthy. As Stuart Hall and his co-authors write in the landmark ‘Policing the Crisis’: “The use of violence marks the distinction between those who are fundamentally of society and those who are outside of it… The basis of the law is to safeguard the ‘right way of doing things’; to protect the individual, property, and the state against those who would ‘do violence to them’. This is also the basis of law enforcement and of social control. The state and the state only have the monopoly of legitimate violence and this violence is used to safeguard society against ‘illegitimate’ uses’”.
In Cleo’s story, the WA police took on their roles in society as “its guardians”, reaffirming, in Hall’s words “the consensual morality of the society”, in which the stranger is cast out. But of course, for blackfellas, police are not the “guardians” but instead, aggressors reaffirming those who are seen as ‘unworthy’ of justice, of media coverage, of public pressure. So this week, in the same week Cleo was found, blackfellas rose up to also speak for our own missing and disappeared children, who are never heard above the white noise.
As blackfellas joined in collective relief over the finding of Cleo, we also asked questions of why the same level of care is not afforded to our own children, and not only our children but black women and men who are missing or later found murdered. Some of these questions were such an affront to a ‘positive’ news story, that white Australians urged us into silence, telling us there is a ‘time and a place’, even as blackfellas fight every single day to tell the world of the worth of our people, and even as these very same white Australians ignore these pleas.
Every month I see social media posts shared of missing black children, but the reason these children never receive coverage is that often, the circumstances of their disappearances are not seen as ‘newsworthy’. Not only is it because white Australians can not see black children as inherently worthy, but also because of the type of violence that is being perpetrated against them. These are not cases of ‘stranger’ violence, but the violence that is both highly visible to blackfellas, and largely invisible to whitefellas. Many of these cases are cases involving child protection, where black children are running away from their foster carers or homes to find their families. Often, there are no updates to these cases when black children are found, and the violence of these processes and policies are not called into question because it is doing the work of the colonial state. It is not a ‘true crime’ story; it is not a ‘newsworthy’ one. It is a situation that is normalised: the disappearing of thousands of black children into the child protection system, and then, often the child jails.
There is currently a coronial inquest into the tragic suicide of 13-year-old Aboriginal child Zhane Andrew Keith Chilcott, who had been taken away from his mother as a one-year-old. After spending years being bounced around between foster care homes, from being traumatised within them, from being taken from any form of stability and safety, Zhane was finally allowed reunification calls with his mother. On the night he died, though, he was denied a phone call with his mother because it was getting close to his bedtime.
He was later found deceased in his room, leaving a note that said: “I don't want to be in care, I want to be with you Mum. Mum, it's not your fault I did this; it's my choice. You will always be in my heart. I love you. Goodbye."
This was a child who was not ‘missing’ in state care but was missing from his familial home, was ‘missing’ from his mother, and yet the violence perpetrated against him through state processes is not seen as ‘violence’, was not seen as inherently ‘newsworthy’ and worthy of the levels of public attention paid to Cleo’s case.
When looking at cases of missing black children, it is tempting to find cases that draw an easy equivalence, but the reality is that the violence perpetrated against black children can not be compared, it would not have been ‘white children because of the space in which they are situated. There is no threat to public safety, and this is often not a situation in which white families, those in which the police and justice often act in the interests of, will ever encounter.
But that’s not to say equivalences aren’t there, because there been cases of black children who have been murdered or gone missing, in which the police failed to conduct appropriate investigations which severely hindered any chances of ‘justice’ through the white man’s courts.
In 2007, the same year that the Howard government launched its unprecedented intervention into NT communities under the guise of ‘saving black children’, a young boy in Borrooloola, NT was found murdered in the local waterhole.
The police failed to follow up leads coming from the same community; who had set out to find the boy themselves, who had gathered their own evidence, and to this day no one has ever been held accountable for his death. In an ABC article in 2018, the boy’s aunty Adrianne Raggett, said of the police: “It's like they didn't want to bother doing their job or go and look at him. We showed him this foot track and he said 'Are you sure that's his foot track? He might be just going for a walk?'
"I said 'No, he's not going for a walk, because there's another adult foot track next to him', and then they turned around and laughed and walked off.
"It was like it was a joke to them."
The police response to the murders of three Aboriginal children - Evelyn Greenup, Colleen Walker and Clinton Speedy Duroux - on Bowraville mission from 1990-1991 was also hindered by racism in which the families were told from the outset that the kids could have gone “walkabout”. The families were not believed and were even investigated themselves under suspicion that they had abused their kids. They hadn’t, in fact, there has only been one suspect in all their deaths: a white man who hung around mission. There has never been any justice for the Bowraville families, despite their continual fight.
Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup and Clinton Speedy Duroux
In these cases, the police response, their complete apathy, and ignorance, and their refusal to listen to black witnesses and families were in itself, violent, and yet it is not violence that is easily recognizable or understood. If you heard of these cases, or if media did cover them, it was not out of some final recognition that black children should be seen as worthy, but because of the sustained protest and campaigning of black families who recognised that they still held power, and that power was in the love of their children and their continual fight for them. This is not a fight that white families have to wage. White children are afforded a level of ‘care’ that is so often denied black children.
That’s not to say that there aren’t circumstances in which white Australia shows that they ‘care’ about black children, but the ‘care’ is always conditional on the way white Australia wants to view itself. The NT intervention, as previously stated', was launched on the basis that white Australia ‘cared’ about the safety of black children, but this was by denying the reality that black families ‘cared’ for their own children. This ‘care’ for black children by white Australia is based on the idea of white benevolence, protectionism and innocence, and it is focused on the idea of the black family as the site of violence; the black family, and particularly black men, but also black women as ‘unfit mothers’, as the ‘perpetrators’.
The care we hold for not only our children but all children, is not ‘conditional’, even though commentators telling black people to be silent, would say the opposite. It was the black community in Carnarvon who helped police find Cleo last week, and it was the black community who also joined in the collective relief over Cleo’s return. As black people, we care for our children as not only an act of love but also resistance against the colonial idea that they are unworthy, and that there is no one there to love or mourn for them outside of the righteous anger of white Australia. The opposite is true: We mourn for them and we love them and we fight for them even as the police and justice system refuse to.
But the white justice system and media can only see us as ‘perpetrators’, and we saw that in the swiftness this week, in the example of Channel Seven, to label the wrong blackfella as the alleged ‘perpetrator’ in Cleo’s case. Newsworthiness is not only determined due to the race of the victim, the perceived worthiness of the victim, but also the supposed ‘savagery’ of the perpetrator, and the ‘threat’ these perpetrators pose to white society.
The WA police were showered with praise this week, but the silence around whom they deem worthy of resources and investigation, who they see as a ‘threat’, is still fresh in the minds of blackfellas. Not only that, the refusal by the media to shine a much-needed lens on cases of violence they can not often recognise, is also always, there in our minds.
It has only been two weeks, after all, that a WA cop walked free after shooting Aboriginal woman, JC, on the streets of Geraldton.