Vickie Hovane is a graduate member of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association from Broome in the Kimberley region and has family links to the Yinjibarndi, Gooniyandi and Kitja groups in WA. Over the past 27 years, Vickie has advocated and promoted Indigenous social justice in legal services, social welfare, counselling, community-based offender rehabilitation programs and victim services. She has provided expert consultation in a range of areas including service delivery to victims, perpetrators and families where child sexual abuse and family violence has occurred in Indigenous communities. Vickie is currently undertaking a PhD in forensic psychology at Edith Cowan University, examining cultural constructs associated with child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. She shares with InPsych the insights she has gained through her research on ways forward to manage this complex and challenging problem.

What are you investigating in your research?

The apparent increase in the incidence of child sexual abuse (CSA) in Aboriginal communities is very concerning, and my research is a qualitative one that uses semi-structured interviews with adult Aboriginal community members to develop an Aboriginal theory for this complex problem. The impetus for the research comes originally from women in my local community who have been instrumental in highlighting this serious problem and wanting to do something to stop the cycles of abuse, as well as from working in corrections settings and looking at the application of psychological theories in rehabilitation programs for Aboriginal offenders. I am exploring Aboriginal perspectives to try to use cultural insights to improve our understanding and management of this serious problem within Aboriginal communities. 

What are your impressions about how sexual abuse of children is currently being managed within Aboriginal communities?

A number of formal Inquiries conducted throughout Australia have clearly illustrated the extent to which families, communities and the broader systems in society struggle with responding appropriately and effectively to this problem. 

In terms of Aboriginal community responses, unfortunately cultural, family and community structures have been undermined as a result of colonisation, dispossession, ongoing oppression, and the imposition of western culture on Aboriginal people and communities. Various Inquiries have highlighted the ‘breakdowns’ in families, communities and culture, which have undermined the role and authority of Elders, Law Men and Women to respond in the strongest possible way to those who sexually abuse our children. This authority is a core obligation for ensuring the survival of our people and our cultures. I don’t think the western systems acknowledge or understand the seriousness of such obligations and responsibilities. They ought to, because observance of such obligations and responsibilities is critical to responding effectively to CSA in our communities.

The biggest barrier to developing, implementing and delivering more appropriate services and programs to our people that I have experienced has been non-Aboriginal professionals and public servants who are not willing to create space for Aboriginal voices and perspectives to be heard. The landscape has changed in terms of the presence of Aboriginal professionals – there are more of us available but we are tired of having our participation tokenised and trivialised and this has got to stop if we are to respond effectively to issues such as CSA in our communities.

What insights has your research provided on ways forward to manage child sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities?

One of the keys is the approach of 'looking backwards towards the future', which comes from the idea of looking to our cultures to search for answers to the issues that we face today and as we negotiate the modern world into the future – staying strong in culture and identity. It comes from my strong belief that the thousands of years of knowledge and experience of our old people, on which our traditional systems and structures were based, have lessons for us today.

Fundamental to this is a need to draw on what I have termed an ‘Aboriginal core cultural values and principles’ (ACCVP) approach for ways of responding to this problem in a culturally secure and effective way. This is not about more of the same old rhetoric that we hear bandied about in relation to working effectively in Aboriginal communities. It does not involve going to live back in the bush and rejecting everything perceived as being western. Rather, this approach acknowledges that culture is not static, and involves looking beyond the outward expressions of culture which may have changed, to what lies beneath (core cultural values and principles), learning from the lessons of our old people about what is important (values and principles), the intent of those values and principles, and understanding what the main purpose of having these was and is – i.e., survival of our people and our cultures. 

It involves identifying and articulating these through the ACCVP approach, which is one of the most exciting things that has come out of my PhD research and has application across each of the social indicators of disadvantage that are often used to describe the circumstances of Aboriginal people today. I’m very excited about this way of looking at how we might respond effectively to issues such as CSA, and to those areas of disadvantage. 

How would taking an Aboriginal core cultural values and principle approach translate into practice?

An ACCVP approach can provide a framework for understanding the ‘breakdowns’ in appropriate responses from Aboriginal families and communities where CSA is occurring. When a community is functioning well, there is an implicit understanding of cultural values and principles, and the importance of these in helping to maintain our cultures and survival. However, in our changing contemporary world, particularly where CSA is occurring and community responses have been compromised, there is a need to more explicitly reinforce the values and principles that are central to our cultures and what we stand for as Aboriginal people. Observing these is not inconsistent with living in the modern world and they remain relevant as fundamental guidelines for living today – such as observing reciprocal obligations and responsibilities, being respectful and, above all, behaving in ways that fulfil our role in ensuring the survival of our people and our cultures into the future. 

These core cultural values and principles can inform the development and implementation of community education initiatives, Aboriginal parenting programs, Aboriginal perpetrator programs, Aboriginal leadership training, and cultural awareness programs for non-Aboriginal workers. The ACCVP approach may be used to complement participants’ cultural knowledge and confidence, motivate attitudinal and behaviour change, and ensure that CSA is dealt with appropriately by making sure that the right person is held accountable for the abuse, i.e., perpetrators (even if they feel shame), and not child victims and their parents. Whilst we may express empathy for the past experiences of perpetrators, we cannot allow this empathy to mask the need for them to take responsibility and to be accountable to their family and kin, the victims’ family and kin, and their own communities. 

The kartiya (non-Aboriginal) justice system does not currently do this very effectively. Unfortunately, there is a prevailing culture of fear that exists within Aboriginal families and communities where CSA is occurring. This is promoted and reinforced by perpetrators and their supporters through threats and actual use of violence towards anyone who discloses the CSA. Unless we take steps to turn around these circumstances, we are asking child victims to bear the burden of our historical experiences that have resulted in ‘breakdowns’ – and this is not acceptable. The ACCVP approach may also remind families about their obligations and responsibilities for bringing up their children so that they have the best chance of reaching their potential and in turn can fulfil their obligations and responsibilities in relation to cultural maintenance.

Are there particular ethical issues that arise for Aboriginal psychologists when working with child sexual abuse within Indigenous communities? 

When thinking about ethical issues, we must attend to the laws that exist throughout Australia that state that the sexual abuse of children constitutes a crime, as well as other legislation associated with mandatory reporting of disclosures of CSA. In this context, some ethical issues faced by Aboriginal psychologists stem from the different priorities between our collectivist-oriented Aboriginal cultures and the more individualistic western culture on which current ethical principles and guidelines are based. 

In instances of CSA, typically ‘breakdowns’ in family and community functioning may be observed, such that family and kinship structures do not provide environments of care, protection and belonging. So, how do Aboriginal psychologists balance their cultural obligations regarding cultural maintenance, with respecting the rights of individuals to practise their culture as they see fit? To what extent can they engage in influencing how families function if supportive community structures are not present and they risk being ostracised by being ‘different’? 

There are also issues associated with mandatory reporting where Aboriginal children may be seeking support to deal with experiences of sexual abuse whilst not wanting to go through the process of a formal investigation. So, to what extent should Aboriginal workers observe organisational policies for example, when we can see that our children need support to cope with the abuse in better ways, instead of resorting to substance abuse and self-harming? Which approach does more harm and to whom? 

Another issue that we haven’t yet worked out is the tension between what is public and what is private in a cultural context. Our traditional way of sorting out problems was often quite public so that everyone in the community knew what was going on and was reminded about standards of behaviour and the punishment for transgressions. Feelings of shame that may arise in these circumstances were used as a means of deterrence. However, our current western-based ethical principles and guidelines emphasise privacy and confidentiality which means that important culturally embedded ways of reinforcing behavioural standards have been removed. This represents yet another way that the imposition of western culture has undermined our cultural mechanisms for dealing with transgressions. 

The reality is that we, as Aboriginal people, haven’t yet sat down and had a dialogue about our cultural values, principles and practices and how these fit within a contemporary context, and importantly, how these fit with current ethical principles and guidelines, if at all. 

What are the main things you would like your psychology colleagues to understand about this complex and confronting area?

What this requires is that non-Aboriginal professionals/people must be willing to step aside to create space for us Aboriginal people to take our place in driving change within our families and communities. Associated with this is the need for some form of protocol which require that where non-Aboriginal professionals/people wish to comment on issues such as this in our communities, they understand that they are doing so as outsiders looking in; that even though they may try to walk in our shoes, it’s still their own feet they are feeling.

At the same time, now that we have an ever increasing critical mass of Aboriginal professionals, we have to be willing to step up and claim our place in this space, because if we don’t then we risk allowing a 'business as usual' approach to continue, to the detriment of our people. 

Thanks to Heather Gridley for arranging this interview.

InPsych October 2012