Supporting Aboriginal children in care to be proud of their cultural roots is a key focus for Les Wanageen, as he works to connect young people to community.
Les Wanganeen was looking forward to retirement when caring for his cultural grandson sent him in a new direction.
“It was an interesting turnabout to look after a young child,” says Les.
“The day I finished work was the day I picked him up from hospital.”
Les is drawing on a long career in child protection – and his own experience raising his grandson – in his role as Aboriginal Cultural Consultant at Centacare.
Working in reunification and foster care, Les supports birth parents and foster carers to nurture, normalize and maintain connections to culture and community.
My hope for the future is that there are less Aboriginal children in care, and that those who are have a strong connection to culture and sense of identity
– Les Wanganeen
This can include linking carers and parents to Aboriginal services, communities and cultural events, researching a child’s background, and providing lingual support and other advice, such as how to normalise Aboriginal cultural obligations, practices, traditions and beliefs into the child’s everyday life.
“Culture is a living thing, so it’s important an Aboriginal child or young person, and even their parents, understand and know where they come from,” Les says.
“A lot of the kids we see today have identity issues – they have an idea they are Aboriginal but the general public doesn’t perceive them as Aboriginal because they might have fair skin and blue eyes, so they start to deny their own cultural identity.
“Culture should not be pigeonholed – it’s a part of life.”
One of 13 children, Les was raised at Point Pearce Aboriginal Station on the Yorke Peninsula.
His family moved to Adelaide’s western suburbs in the early 1970s after the 1967 Referendum to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Census results for the first time.
“We felt as though we had everything,” Les says of his childhood.
“When I think about it now, I think of what we didn’t have but I also think about the things that made up for that as well: family gatherings, exploring, family support, and the freedom.
“Everybody looked after everybody.”
Les is proud of his Narungga and Kaurna heritage and is committed to supporting Aboriginal children in care to feel the same about their cultural roots.
“It’s everybody’s right,” he says.
Through Centacare’s Foster Care Program, children on a reunification plan with their birth family are placed in households for up to 12 months while they are unable to live at home.
One-third of the children involved in the program are of Aboriginal descent, and many have a background of trauma and neglect.
Les says more Aboriginal foster carers are needed as the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care continues to grow, at almost 33 times that of non-Indigenous children.
The causes of over representation are complex and include the legacy of past policies of forced removal, inter-generational trauma and cultural differences in child-rearing practices.
The assessment process for becoming a foster carer takes about five months to complete.
Foster carers receive cultural awareness training and ongoing professional development, and are supported to nurture all areas of a child’s life including family access, education, personal achievement, emotional and physical health, social relationships and cultural supports.
“It’s not easy but it’s an investment in the future,” Les says of choosing to foster care.
“I’d encourage Aboriginal families to see it in the same way; to invest in the next generation by contributing to young people’s lives.
“Culture is a huge part of that.”
Les is currently developing resources to support young people who “don’t have a sense of where they come from”.
“I try and anticipate what non-Aboriginal workers and carers might need,” he says “and we work very hard with the child’s birth parents to get the best outcomes for the family”.
“My hope for the future is that there are less Aboriginal children in care, and that those who are have a strong connection to culture and sense of identity.”
*For more information about how we can support you to support a child through foster care, visit fostercare.centacare.org.au, phone 8159 1400 or email firstname.lastname@example.org