“I was one of the lucky ones”: Cody’s story
Wednesday 29 May 2019
Cody McGrady Miller can still clearly remember the day he was removed from home, eight years ago.
“I’m still traumatised from it and I know I’m traumatised, because I can recall the date of removal,” he says.
“I can tell you the day. What the weather was like. Where I was going. What I was doing. What colour jeans my sister was wearing, down to the last detail. The type of car that pulled up.”
Cody and his younger sister were headed off to youth group on a Friday afternoon, rushing to the car in the pouring rain. As Cody’s sister ran, she slipped over and got mud on her clothes, so she went back inside to change while their mum kept the car running in the driveway.
It was as she stepped back outside that the other cars pulled up: a paddy wagon followed by a white Camry, holding child protection workers and police officers. And then chaos broke out.
Cody’s mum told him to stay in the car and hide, but the 12-year-old boy didn’t listen. Curious, he jumped out of the car, and the police officers identified him.
“They gave us a total of two minutes to go in and get our stuff and say goodbye to Mum,” Cody recalls.
“We didn’t stick to the timeframe so it got a bit rough. The police put my pregnant [older] sister up against the wall and restrained her, and I remember them grabbing us by our arms and throwing us in the back of this car and being escorted back to FACS [the Department of Family and Community Services office] by police, with Mum following in the car behind us, and not knowing where we were going.
“We sat in this office for hours in a little room by ourselves, just me and my sister. No one told us what was happening or what we were doing. There was a window in the room and I could see downstairs, and I could see Mum and my sisters arguing with these workers.”
It’s not the first time Cody has told this story; he’s a proud Aboriginal youth advocate, and is used to speaking out so that today’s kids don’t go through what he experienced. But even now, he gets choked up when he recalls that rainy Friday.
Childhood with Mum and Dad
Cody was born in Bowral in regional New South Wales, the second-youngest of eight children to a Kamilaroi and Guringai man and a non-Indigenous woman. His mum had been very young when she began having kids, and both parents had their fair share of problems.
“Dad had a real issue with alcohol and it made him very violent towards Mum,” Cody says.
“Growing up, it was good that I had my brothers and sisters, but now I realise that my situation growing up wasn’t the same as everyone else. I thought that the things I went through and the things I saw and experienced were just normal, and that was happening in other kids’ homes too, until I was old enough to start going to sleepovers.”
When Cody was three years old, the family relocated to Liverpool in south-west Sydney. It was a move that changed his life in many ways: most significantly, it put him in contact with his Aboriginal aunt and grandmother.
Cody bonded strongly with his aunty and nan right from the beginning, spending almost every day in their company.
“I was lucky. My grandmother played a big role in my life; I used to lay back with her in bed and she would teach me language. She taught me culture and family. So I had a different upbringing to my brothers and sisters. I was always connected to Nan and my aunty, so I was different,” he says with a laugh.
“I was very proud. I spoke my mind and said what I wanted to.”
Cody’s close relationship with his aunt and grandmother drove a rift between him and his mum, who didn’t understand the role of kinship in Aboriginal families and felt her role as mother was under threat. Unfortunately, it also led him to grow apart from his older siblings.
Cody’s grandmother told him stories of her childhood, growing up on the mission in Euraba, now known as Toomelah.
“When people don’t understand intergenerational trauma, well, we see it with our Elders and it impacts us,” Cody says.
“I remember Nan expressing that fear with me of people knocking on the door and to be wary of who I let into her house and things like that, because she was worried about the role of government and what they could potentially do. So yeah, she carried that fear with her forever.”
That family history was front-of-mind when Cody had his first encounter with FACS – then known as DOCS, the Department of Community Services.
It was another occasion where the adults and authorities in Cody’s young life let him down. Instead of discreetly pulling him out of his Year 5 classroom, child protection officers and the school principal came to the door and announced to the entire class: “Cody, can you come out here? DOCS are here to see you. They want to interview you.”
Cody knew who DOCS were and what their visit meant. He was intimidated by the two women who came to interview him, dressed in formal business attire.
“I sort of understood what I would say in that interview would potentially have me removed, so I didn’t really give them much information about what was happening at home,” he says.
“I was protecting myself because of what I thought: DOCS remove you and then you go to a white family, and that’s it.”
Teenage years in kinship care
The next time child protection authorities visited Cody at school, he was in Year 8. A lot had changed: his dad had left the family after another fight with his mum, who soon had a new, non-Indigenous partner.
This time, the people who pulled him out of class were more sensitive to the situation, and Cody was willing to talk. It wasn’t much longer until the paddy wagon and the Camry arrived on that rainy Friday.
As Cody and his younger sister waited in the little room at the FACS office, their aunty was desperately pulling strings to bring them home to her place for the night. At the time she worked for the Department’s Child Protection Helpline, but it wasn’t until she asserted her position that she was given the chance to care for the kids.
A temporary care arrangement was made while Cody’s mother and her partner went through court proceedings. Cody’s mum was given an ultimatum: leave her partner (who was determined to be a risk to the children’s safety) or lose the kids. She chose the latter.
“So it was set in stone then we were going to be in the care of the Minister [of Family and Community Services] until [we turned] 18. I was in the care of my aunty and uncle. I was so lucky that I wasn’t taken,” Cody says.
“I always say I was one of the lucky ones to be placed in kinship care because I was able to stay with family. When I do get sad, it’s because I know that there’s so many of us [other Aboriginal kids] that didn’t get the opportunity that I did.”
Cody’s younger sister also came to live with their aunty and uncle, and one of his older sisters joined them for a while. The other siblings were young adults by this time and went on with their lives independently.
While Cody enjoyed a great relationship with his aunty, uncle, grandmother and cousins, his relationship with his mum started to deteriorate. He continued to have contact visits with her, but there was no going back after her decision to give up the kids.
“We don’t have a mother-son relationship, which is sad,” Cody says. “I do wish it was different, but she made the choices she did. And hopefully one day she’ll be able to see that, and see that all we wanted was our mum.
“I felt that she didn’t want me. So that’s our relationship.”
These days, Cody is repairing his relationship with his dad, who he’s also still in contact with.
“I always had a good relationship with Dad. I was frightened of him, of course, because he was Dad! But we had a good relationship outside of his drinking and drug use,” he says.
“Now that he’s got grandkids and things like that, it’s sort of his second chance at it, and he’s an amazing pop to them. I appreciate him for that and what he does for them.”
Coming home to country
Cody is 20 now and lives in Tamworth, on the traditional lands of the Kamilaroi people.
“I’ve been back and forth from Tamworth since I was a young boy,” he says. “When I started school, I went there on holidays because it’s on traditional Gomeroi country. It was always somewhere where I felt that I was safe and I had good family up there.”
(Gomeroi is a shortening of Kamilaroi, which is also often spelled Gamilaraay.)
When Cody was 18, he travelled to Narrabri, a bit further north, to attend a family funeral with his grandmother.
After the funeral, his nan didn’t want to come back to Sydney. That was unusual. A few days later, she was admitted to hospital in Tamworth, where passed away a few months later – at home on her country.
Before her passing, the family had one last, big Christmas around her deathbed. Cody recalls gathering in the hospital with aunts, uncles and cousins across five generations.
“Spending Christmas in the hospital at Tamworth Base was probably one of my most memorable Christmases,” Cody says. “We all brought up curries and cooked dampers and all that sort of stuff.
“The staff of the hospital said they’d never seen so much mob, ever. We were sleeping in the interview rooms and sleeping in foyers at the hospital. Hundreds of us.”
After that experience, Cody moved to Tamworth to live on country. Being an active member of the community is important to him; he’s now a Youth Ambassador with AbSec, helping to inform youth-led policies for a better child protection system. One of the Youth Ambassadors’ recent projects has been to talk with NSW Police about their involvement removing kids from their homes – because Cody doesn’t want any other young person to go through the traumatic experience he had.
“[The child protection system] still has a long way to go. It still resembles a lot of past history within the removal process,” he says.
“I remember becoming so emotional the first time I watched Rabbit-Proof Fence because even though that happened so many years ago, the similarities between what happened there and what happened with me and my sister and that process of removal, it’s still the same. The quick ‘snatch and grab’, throw them in the car and away they go.
“I don’t think the system is changing. I think if anything, it’s going backward.”
Cody staunchly opposes changes to legislation introduced in November 2018, which give NSW child protection authorities additional powers to dispense with parental consent for adoption of kids in out-of-home care. The amendments also make it harder for families to make necessary changes in order to safely bring their kids back home after removal.
These reforms follow a national trend in child protection toward looking at adoption as a way of dealing with kids in out-of-home care.
“When I think of adoption, that’s where you turn white, basically. Because it’s never been a part of us, and we’ve had things in our families around if a certain family member can’t care for their child, another family member would, and that’s how it’s always been.
“Government is the one who sets the criteria. They’re the ones that say, these are the reasons why a child should be removed, so they say that the parents are unfit. Basically what adoption says to me is that they don’t believe that our families are capable.
“Even though they say they do, they don’t acknowledge our kinship systems and respect the roles that our Elders have in community.”
So what needs to change? How do we build a better future for the next generation of Aboriginal kids in the child protection system?
“Listening to us! The ones that have lived it, that have gone through it,” Cody says. “And it’s not just young people of today, it’s our Elders, our Stolen Generation Elders that have been through it.
“At the end of the day, the ones that are the leaders of today in our governments, eventually they’ll go off wherever they want to go, and we’re the next ones and I think that they shouldn’t be building a future world around what they want.
“It should be about what the next generation wants, because that’s the world that we’re going to be living in.”
Please help AbSec to fight forced adoption of Aboriginal children and defend their rights to kinship care, community and culture. Sign our petition today: https://absec.org.au/sign