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Friday, May 31, 2013

Leigh Swift says please let me keep Mikala

Tennant Creek is a small, isolated, mainly Aboriginal town in a remote part of the Northern Territory, 1000 kilometres south of Darwin.  It's surrounded in the east by the Barkly Tablelands - a vast expense of lands that supports some of Australia's most successful outback cattle stations.  The properties are huge, generally company-owned, and very productive.

Tennant Creek front street

Leigh Swift 56, is the local fire chief at Tennant Creek.  He and his partner, who works for the Health Department, want to adopt a 4 year old Aboriginal girl called Mikala, but authorities say he is too old and the wrong colour.

When Mikala was six months old, her parents who lived over the road, asked the white couple to babysit their daughter while they went out on drinking sessions.  The baby had scabies and ringworm.

The mother had already lost two children to relatives and the baby's father was sent to Alice Springs Correctional Centre on domestic abuse charges.   FACS intervened and she was removed and placed in the care of her aunt who lives in Alice Springs, 500 kilometres south of Tennant Creek.

When the aunt asked the couple to come and see her, they agreed, but when they arrived at the house in Alice Springs, it was a crime scene - there had been a homicide in the house the night before.

When FACS ruled that Mikala must return to her aunt, the couple went to the mother and asked if she could stay with them and she agreed and said they could "grow her up."  Authorities know about the informal arrangement with the fire chief and his wife, and they also know there are many other informal arrangements in Tennant Creek.

Last year, the birth mother wanted Mikala back.  Mr Swift's new posting will be either to Alice Springs or Darwin and she told the couple they could keep her if they moved to Alice Springs, only 500 kilometres away, but she wouldn't allow them to take her to Darwin, as it was too far away to visit.  However, FACS have told her many times that she has no hope of getting any of her children back until she completes an alcohol rehabilitation course and so far, she has refused to take part.

There is an important reason why authorities are reluctant to place Aboriginal children with white guardians.  After the 'stolen generation' debacle, a decision was made that all Aboriginal children must be placed with their own people, no matter what, they must stay within the environment of their culture.  This rule virtually eliminates whites from fostering or adopting neglected children.

On Christmas Day, Mikala's mother was allowed custody of her two older children and she turned up at the Swift household for a visit.  Her older girl, aged 7, arrived with a shaved head, the result of lice treatment her relatives gave her, and was wearing clothes much too big for her.  She also smelled of urine.  She started crying when she saw her little sister had been given Christmas presents.

Even though Mr Swift and his wife know that it's unlikely they will get custody of the little girl they have come to love, he's extended his posting in Tennant Creek, hoping for a miracle.  

"I want her to grow up in society where she won't have the outcomes of her family which is alcoholism - abuse - jail.  "It's the grog" he said.  "We'll go away broken hearted and she'll grow up like a sister, handed around the family."