Mitzi Nam spent almost a decade helping pregnant First Nations women prepare for birth.

The senior Kaurna woman and former Aboriginal family support officer used to visit expectant mothers at home, drive them to antenatal appointments, and give them advice.

Despite her efforts, some never got to see their babies grow up.

“The mothers were birthing these babies, you’d get that skin-to-skin contact, not to mention carrying them for nine months — not knowing it’s plotted along the way that they won’t even have these children once they’re born,” Ms Nam said.

“Probably about 50 per cent of the babies were taken and that was either at birth or within weeks after.”

Ms Nam said most of the women she supported were unknowingly the subjects of so-called “unborn child concerns” — notifications filed to departmental authorities.

Ms Nam left her job at an Aboriginal community-controlled health service five years ago.(ABC News: Steve Opie)

They were accused of being unfit to parent, living in inappropriate housing, or not showing up to antenatal appointments.

According to Ms Nam, SA’s Department for Child Protection (DCP) never notified support workers or expectant mothers of its intentions to remove newborn babies at birth.

“There was a horror story … a couple of years ago where social workers and DCP workers actually entered the delivery room to notify the mother straight after giving birth that her baby was going to be removed,” she said.

“They [the mothers] are just left grieving because it’s another form of loss.”

Ms Nam left her job at an Aboriginal community-controlled health service five years ago feeling culturally unsafe and distraught.

She said she often felt blamed by members of her community after babies were removed, despite having no knowledge of the department’s intentions.

“It was a horrible feeling because we were also no longer able to contact the mothers to see how they were, where they were, how they were travelling,” she said.

“They were left with no support services at all.”

Commissioner investigates ‘terribly cruel’ practice

SA’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, April Lawrie, says she has spoken to several mothers, as part of an ongoing inquiry into the removal of First Nations children in SA, whose babies were removed at birth.

April Lawrie is the SA Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

She said mothers and their families were “unaware of the actions of the department in planning a removal throughout the duration of the pregnancy” and were “denied” opportunities to be involved in planning for their babies’ care.

“There are things that occur that one can only explain as being terribly cruel,” she said.

“All the things that should be joyous moments of a childbirth — and having your family around you — become an event that is highly traumatic.”

Ms Lawrie described the way in which authorities serve child removal notifications to new mothers as “appalling” and “disgraceful”.

“Letters are left on the hospital bed,” she said.

“Others are encouraged to go out and have a cigarette, only to come back to the hospital to find that their baby has been removed.

“This is insidious behaviour to ensure that mum is the last to know, to ensure there is no disruption to any plan by the statutory agency to conduct the actual act of removal.”

Department deputy apologises

During a public hearing in November, Ms Lawrie’s office questioned officials from the department about evidence it had received about the removal of newborns.

Ms Lawrie’s Counsel Assisting, Denise Rieniets, said the inquiry had received evidence that decisions to remove newborn Aboriginal babies were made “in advance with no notice whatsoever to the families or even to the service providers and the hospital staff”.

She said the inquiry had also heard that in some instances, “hospital staff are told not to tell the new mother that her baby is about to be removed”.

Departmental data for 2023 shows that of the 24 SA babies who were removed within 31 days of birth, one quarter were Aboriginal.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

SA Department for Child Protection deputy chief executive Adam Reilly said the evidence was “alarming, but in some ways, not surprising”.

“All I can say is that I’ll always defend the work of our staff, but I’ll never defend the indefensible,” he told the public hearing.

“What you’ve described, I can’t find a rational response to support that action.

“It’s disempowering, it’s traumatising and it’s not necessary in compliance with the legislation.”

Mr Reilly, who last year became the first Aboriginal person appointed deputy chief of department, said he would “gladly look into those matters more”.

“I would genuinely apologise to those families for that experience,” he said.

“It’s unacceptable.”

In a statement to the ABC, the department’s chief executive Jackie Bray said notifications could be recorded for unborn children from 20 weeks’ gestation if there were “risk factors present that are likely to impact on the safety and wellbeing of an infant when born”.

The department’s deputy chief executive has expressed alarm at current practices.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Ms Bray said the department had partnered with Relationships Australia SA and Aboriginal Family Support Services to provide family group conferences to address unborn child concerns.

“Reports made about unborn infants that identify risk provide opportunity to intervene early with the family including referring them for a family group conference, undertaking pre and post birth planning, having ongoing contact with the expectant mother and linking the family to other support agencies,” she said.

“The family group conference process helps families develop a plan to keep the child safe; a plan that is led and supported by family.

“If risk factors are unable to be addressed and it is assessed that a newborn will be in danger, DCP develops a planned response after birth.”

Ms Bray said if it was determined that a baby needed to be removed at birth, the department would place them with a carer.

“The baby may be able to be safely returned to its parent(s) once the issues have been addressed,” she said.

Hospital staff ‘uncomfortable’ with baby removals

SA Health’s acting chief child protection officer Heather Baron said the practice of removing a newborn baby at a birthing hospital wasn’t “necessarily always best practice”, adding staff felt “uncomfortable” when it occurred. 

“I think from a health point of view, we would probably prefer those removals not to happen in a birthing hospital,” she said in November, during an earlier public hearing for Ms Lawrie’s inquiry.

Ms Lawrie said that unless changes to current practices were made, Aboriginal children could again be entering state care at rates similar to those of the Stolen Generations.(ABC News: James Dunlevie)

Ms Baron said SA Health had commenced an audit of cases where infants had been removed at birth.

In a statement to the ABC, a spokesperson for SA Health said the audit was due by the end of the year.

“As part of the audit, individual medical records are being reviewed against SA Health’s policy,” the spokesperson said.

“This includes a review of the documentation made in each particular case, ensuring those records satisfy the SA Health policy, and consideration of any improvements that may be made to the standard practice.”

Aboriginal babies represent a quarter of removals

Department for Child Protection data provided to the ABC shows of the 24 South Australian babies who were removed within 31 days of birth in 2023, one quarter were Aboriginal.

Aboriginal children represent 5.5 per cent of the state’s total child population.

Ms Lawrie said that unless changes to current practices were made, Aboriginal children could again be entering state care at rates similar to those of the Stolen Generations.

She has called on the DCP to mandate family group conferencing for every Aboriginal child where there is departmental intervention.

“We know there are things that are happening that are at odds with best practice and at odds with what is in the best interests of the child,” she said.

Ms Lawrie is expected to hand down her final report later this year.