Family Violence in the Torres Strait (with special emphasis on causal factors)

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[He] thus argued that the concept of a Council of Elders is not a T.S.I. model, and therefore inappropriate to apply in contemporary times. The Elder’s role is about being a teacher and a caregiver for children, not as a leader.

Torres Strait Islander Customary Adoption

As indicated earlier, traditional adoption in the Torres Strait was first documented by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition at the turn of the 19th Century. The key literature on customary adoption were outlined in Chapter 1. Adoption is an important component of the traditional social organization of the Torres Strait, together with descent, marriage, and land and sea ownership. Adoption was said by a range of consultants to be an underlying customary structure where non-observance or only partial observance could lead to Family Violence. Before discussing how this might happen, it is necessary to provide a brief profile of this customary practice.

The definition of ‘traditional adoption’ – Kupai Omasker

The term ‘Kupai Omasker’ refers to the practice of traditional adoption that is widespread and integral to Torres Strait Islander society, both in the Torres Strait and on mainland Australia. The word is derived from the Western Island word Kupai meaning ‘umbilical cord’ and the Eastern language word Omasker meaning ‘children’. Used together Kupai Omasker conveys the meaning ‘the caring of all our children’. Kupai Omasker is the permanent transferral of a child from one family to another, with the child usually remaining within the extended family. The practice of Kupai Omasker is by mutual consent and creates the development of strong and lasting bonds between the two sets of families. (Aust, FaHCSIA 2008.)

There are no reliable records available on the number of adoptions that occur each year as the practice is both confidential and private between the families involved. The status of the child involved is usually kept private and children are generally told of their adoption when the family believes that the ‘time is right’. (Aust, FaHCSIA 2008.)

The available literature reports that Torres Strait Islander people have a strong desire to maintain their unique cultural identity and Kupai Omasker is often cited as an example of how Torres Islander culture is seen to be still being practised today. The current author came to the same conclusion.

Functions of Customary Adoption

Adoption has long been practiced in T.S.I. society in one shape or another, including straight out adoption, fostering, surrogacy, and custody among others (Iina 1996:11). However, while the permanence of the resultant relationship is similar to that intended by adoption in the Western world, the reasons for and functions of adoption are far more complex than simply the product of infertility and children born out of wedlock (Ban 1993c:12).

According to Iina, a central reason underlying the practice of T.S.I. customary adoption, was to maintain the family ‘bloodline’ (as well as its name) by adopting a male child from a relative, and so ensuring continuity in the inheritance of traditional lands in the islands (Iina 1996:11, also see Ban 1993c:12,19). Beckett reported that adoption also enabled parents to space their children and redistribute part of the overall burden among childless couples, but his genealogies revealed that families of ten children were by no means uncommon (Beckett 1987:120).

Another reason why Islanders give their children to close friends is to make friendships stronger. In such circumstances Beckett states that it is better to regard Island adoption not in terms of reciprocity but as the creation of a common interest, to be shared by the two sets of parents who are already related. The adopted child grows up respecting both sets of kinfolk, the two families are drawn closer together, and the adopted child can count upon help and friendship from a larger circle than the ordinary child. Beckett sees adoption as an expression of continued good relations between two families, but not necessarily a guarantee of them. There is a sense of fragility in adoption agreements. (Ban 1993c:11,12.)

Other reasons which are at times behind a customary adoption for T.S. Islanders are listed by Ban as follow:-

To keep the family name by adopting a male child from a relative or close friend into the family;

To give a child to someone (either a single person or another couple) who is otherwise unable to have one, perhaps due to infertility, so as they can experience the joy of raising a child;

To strengthen alliances and bonds between the two families;

To distribute boys and girls more evenly between families who may only have children of only one gender;

To replace a child who has been adopted out to another family – this may occur within the extended families;

To replace a child into the family once a daughter has left home, so that the grandparents still have someone to care for; and

To provide company and care for an older relative – this usually is an older child. (Ban 1993c:12.)

McDonald argues that adoption stabilizes the social order by allowing for relations of greater depth with dependency and commitment both within and beyond the relationships which usually occur between immediate biological and affinal kin. The children are never lost to the family of origin as they have usually been placed with relatives who are within the family network. The adopter is placed in a position of indebtedness to the birth parents and the latter are able to activate those obligations when desired. There is also a sense of maintaining social harmony and balance (Ban 1993c:10,11,13,19).

Customary adoption involves all Islander families in some way, whether children have been adopted in or out of the family.

The principle of adhering to the permanency of the adoption relationship

Haddon (Cambridge 1971 [1935] IV:III) observed that a child’s adoptive status did not imply any sense of reduced attention or affection from within the family. All children, including adopted ones, were uniformly well treated. According to the current author’s consultants, the preference was for the child not to find out he or she was adopted. Traditionally, adoptive parents did not tell children of their adoption. Oral agreements prevailed, and the child remained part of his/her family, having simply moved elsewhere within the family structure (Ban 1993c:24). We can refer to this value as the principle of adhering to the permanence of the adoption relation.

One of the author’s consultants explained that once your child is adopted according to traditional custom, “he never comes back” to re-claim his biological parents. When he goes visiting the islands, they know who he is, but do not say anything to him about his biological parents. The adopting father views his adopted son as having “become part of my body…Teach him [in same] way I was brought up”

A concern amongst traditionally-oriented Islanders, is that if children are told about their adoption when young, they will want to go back and live with their natural family. This can spark tension, disharmony, and conflict; it violates the principle of permanency. However while some individuals believe that children should not be told about their adoption until they are adults and ready for marriage, others argue that children have a right to know about their origins and that they should be told the truth upon reaching an age “when they have sense”. Islanders thus want to have some control within each family as to when and how to tell children. (Ban 1993c:24.)

Summary of customary adoption practices

Drawing on the research of Paul Ban (1993c:11,12), Hunter et al (1999:43) have produced a useful summary of the salient characteristics of customary adoption as follows:-

it occurs frequently in Islander society, both past and present;

it provides stability to the social order of Islander society;

it is characterized by reciprocity and obligation;

it is a fragile social arrangement and can sometimes be dissolved;

it generally occurs within extended families, but can occur between close friends;

its intention is one of permanence of care rather than temporary care;

there are a variety of people who can adopt, for example either single or married, and not necessarily infertile;

there exists a reluctance to tell the child about his/her adoptive status; and

adoption practice among Islanders is similar on the mainland of Australia to the practice in the Torres Strait. (Ban 1993b.)

The author’s consultants for this study described three categories of adoption:-

Adoption type (i): After a couple are married, they make a gift of their first child to the wife’s parents. A man marries a woman, then the couple give their first child back to the wife’s family, as a type of inter-family ‘square-up’. Either a daughter or a son may be given back. This is still practiced. [The consultant] this type of adoption as a gift of love, paying back to the parents; giving back a life.

However Ban has noted a converse category, saying it is the ideal for a married couple to have children and it is common for a baby to be adopted by newly-weds (Ban 1993c:11).

Adoption type (ii): A single woman’s first child is given back to her parents for rearing and becomes a younger sibling of the biological mother. An example was given to the author of a 16 year-old girl who fell pregnant, and her boyfriend deserted her. The girl’s baby was adopted by her parents as a brother to his young mother. The mother and child become siblings. It was said there are many families with such structures.

“When a woman has her first child she is usually single and it is expected that this child will be given to a close family member if the mother chooses not to keep the child. Most commonly the child is adopted by the girl’s own mother and father, and when this happens the girl ceases to become the child’s mother and relates to it as a sister or brother.” (Ban 1993c:11.)

Another case of such an island adoption was cited in the “Growing up in the Torres Strait region” report:-

“I have the best of both worlds. My upbringing was with my grandmother and later with my parents. I come from a family of 14 children. My real mother is my big sister. She had me when she was 18 years old—a daughter and granddaughter to my grandparents, but I was a daughter to them [grandparents] not a granddaughter. I didn’t accept my birth mother as my mother, my true mother was grandmother. My mother tried to take me back but I said no, you are not my mother. I became rebellious child because of the conflict. I didn’t want to have anything to do with her though she and my Dad often visited.” (CRC et al 2006:91.)

There is an insight here as to how tensions can arise when the adopted child discovers who their real parents are. This will be discussed further below.

Ban also stated that a girl’s married sister or brother may also adopt her child, and on occasion her unmarried brother may ask to have the child. Subsequent children are not as much adoption out by their single mothers, and boys in particular are often retained by their biological mother. (Ban 1993c:11.)

Adoption type (iii): The third category of adoption described to the current author was for one couple to give a child to a childless couple, often related through a sibling link. ci

Within this category, [another interviewee] x distinguished giving a child to a family who could not have children, so as to keep the passing of land within their family. x x


We thus see in the above two examples, the principle of adhering to the permanence of the adoption relationship.

Ban (1993c:11) also noted that on occasions, a married couple will give one of their children to the husband’s brother. It is often common for a newly-married couple to adopt a baby as it is considered ideal for married couples to have children. This may occur when such a brother and his wife have no children.

(iv) A fourth related category that was defined to the author but that was said to be not strictly adoption, was that of just looking after a child temporarily. It was reported that disputes about such relationships had been occurring in recent years, usually in relation to land claims Ban also mentions this category, saying that the term ‘adoption’ has been applied to differentiate permanent care from temporary arrangements where children were likely to be returned to their original parents (Ban 1993c:12).

We shall return to a further discussion on the relation between adoption and Family Violence in the next chapter.


Documented findings on violence generally, and on Family Violence in particular in the Torres Strait in the pre-contact period, are not substantial. The literature survey provides only a limited number of passing references with a bias to Meriam ethnography. Two broad sets of findings pertain to the local Island cluster level and the inter-island cluster level. At the more local level it was not dangerous to travel between proximate islands and villages if one had known ties of kinship, marriage, clan membership and totemic affiliation. Marriage practices were quite institutionalized within a ‘gift economy’. Although there was an acceptance of disputation over a proposed marriage, the practice of negotiated gift exchanges (including parcels of land for gardening) was usually able to resolve any such grievance or quarrel which were usually in the category of verbal (or psychological) violence than physical violence. A sense of social morality pervaded, reinforced through male initiation, as well as through kinship duties and roles, including for certain relatives to intervene and prevent fights with respect to particular relatives. Nevertheless if a dispute was serious enough and a proponent could gain sufficient support from relatives, a physical fight between clans sometimes occurred on an island. Within marriage, wives were subordinate to their husbands, but at the same time marriage was mediated through the wider network of kin reinforced by gift exchange throughout married life between the husband’s and wife’s families. There were thus supporting kin for both partners. According to Beckett, divorce was possible, although this may have been confined to only certain Island clusters (e.g. Eastern). Closer to Cape York there are anecdotal reports of more brutal treatment of wives by their husbands.

The literature mentions one offence that could definitely attract capital punishment; that of women or children trespassing into a sacred men’s ‘kwod’ or ritual ground. In this respect Torres Strait Islander culture is not dissimilar to certain mainland Australian cultural blocks where religious sacrilege was the only crime punishable by capital punishment (e.g. in Central Australia – see Strehlow 1970). A second form of violence, one of psychological violence mentioned in the literature was that of terrorizing individuals by magic.

Turning to the inter-island level, there are occasional references in the literature to warfare between men of different islands occurring, and in conjunction, the taking of both wives and heads (head-hunting). When inter-island warfare intensified, the leadership qualities of certain warriors resulted in their becoming a warrior leader for their particular island during the period of the conflict. However the frequency and extent of such war events is vague and not readily discernible from the literature. One senses there is a tendency to exaggerate the warfare. Beckett’s findings on the Meriam suggest this and he noted that the Meriam were “not particularly warlike”; however he also noted that there was some evidence the Central Western clans came together for war under the leadership of a chief. Indeed there was a mythical hero warrior and headhunter named Kyoiyam identified with this Island cluster. However countering the impacts of such war events, was the maintenance of a system of inter-island trade and exchange between all the islands and with Cape York and the Papuan coast. Thus whilst periods of conflict may have prevailed for times, the quest for goods and foreign materials and artifacts necessitated the management of good relations with at least a proportion of neighbouring islands.

Whilst initiands were encouraged to display ferocity in warfare, at the same time positive values were encouraged towards immediate community and kin, said to have been upheld during male initiation, including respectful behaviour generally, kindness to relatives, discretion towards women, quietness of temper and restraint from abusive behaviour.

New patterns of violence were introduced to the Torres Strait in the mid-19th century with the regular visitation of marine traders and trepangers whose ruthlessness was accompanied by forced labour, abductions and gun warfare (new motivations and technologies for violence). Attempts to stop this exploitation and warfare were made by the newly arriving missionaries in the 1870s through to 1890s. With the advent of the Queensland Government’s new Indigenous Protection Policy at the turn of the 19th century (the ‘Act’ of 1898), forms of island theocracy emerged involving the government appointment of Mamoosees (local island chiefs) under the moral control of the Missions. Islanders received punishment for moral offences such as polygyny and wife beating. However the authority of husbands over wives, and of parents over children was generally sanctioned by the mission churches. An individual’s life stages and life changes were articulated with feasting and gift exchange (especially food), although these practices were transformed by and integrated with Christianity in certain ways, but nevertheless continuing and facilitating the maintenance of kinship networks. (Beckett also outlines the rules of feasts in resolving land disputes in the Eastern Islands.) During the Mission era of the early and mid 20th century, the traditional values of the extended family system, kinship roles and duties, sharing and respect for others in the community, all continued.

However social organization did transform in particular ways with the combined influences of the Mission and Protection eras. A regional marine economy was institutionalized under the Act, which to some extent generated bonds between men from different island clusters. Support in periods of conflict was at times conscripted by T.S.I. leaders from boat crews, but kinship remained the dominant active social structure, combined at first with island leadership through the Mamoose and then later through the Island Councils established by the Queensland Government. Island Councils were eventually supplemented with courts and island police (however these island police, although uniformed, were unsworn and with minimal training). Social links between islands appear to have minimized in the mid 20th century, but re-developed in the 1970s with greater freedom of travel and access to welfare payments. The increase in alcohol consumption throughout the Torres Strait in the late 20th century resulted in feasts and tombstone openings which at times resulted in Family Violence incidents. The evidence is insufficient to understand the exact nature of the changing role of shaming as a customary punishment, but it was (and still is) obviously an important ingredient of social psychology in the Torres Strait.

An understanding of how customary kinship has persisted and whether certain aspects have weakened is critical to not only analyzing the causes of Family Violence but also for understanding how certain kinship practices might be supported, adapted and strengthened in guarding against Family Violence. A number of critical kinship duties in protecting against potential Family Violence have been highlighted as persisting, albeit to varying extents eroded e.g. the roles of the Awa, the elder sibling, the grandparents, of classificatory kin in general and that of adopting parents. Although it is not possible in a short study of this type to gauge the precise extent of the erosion of these practices, they are still widely understood and appreciated as ‘norms’ that should be respected, followed and supported. The impact of the erosion of these kinship norms on Family Violence is further examined in the following chapter.



This chapter addresses four key questions of the consultant’s brief, which are as follows:-

1. What are the structural, community and individual risk and protective factors for victims and perpetrators of domestic and Family Violence in Torres Strait Islander communities?

2. What are the unique factors contributing to domestic and Family Violence in Torres Strait communities as compared with mainland Aboriginal people?

3. What are the barriers to access existing services, particularly for those living on outer islands?

4. What are the prevailing cultural and community attitudes towards family and domestic violence in Torres Strait Islander. communities?

All of these questions are aimed at understanding the causes and circumstances which either directly or indirectly contribute to the occurrence of Family Violence in the Torres Strait region, or in some way exacerbate it or mitigate against its resolution. They are thus addressed together in this chapter under the broad label of ‘causal factors’. Information on all of these questions was collected through interviewing expert consultants, running a number of workshops and supplementing with literature findings.

In the literature on Indigenous Family Violence, the causal factors underlying such violence provide the focus for a large proportion of the published qualitative studies. While a number of different theories are presented, the overwhelming evidence supports the position that the various forms of Indigenous violence each have multiple originating and/or exacerbating causes. Memmott et al argued (2001:1) that the causal factors are often best considered in three categories: (i) catalysing causes, (ii) situational factors, and (iii) underlying factors. These can be defined as follows.

1 The ‘catalysing’ or ‘precipitating’ causes can be defined as one or more particular events that ‘trigger’ a violent behavioural episode by a perpetrator;

2 The ‘situational factors’ can include such aspects as substance abuse, other people encouraging one or both of the antagonists to act, conflicting social differences between the antagonists, etc and thereby constitute secondary exacerbating circumstances in the social environment of the antagonists;

3 The ‘underlying factors’ are the deep historical circumstances of colonial and post-colonial Indigenous existence that place contemporary Indigenous people in a circumstance of vulnerability, leading to their perpetrating becoming the victim of violent behaviour.

In analyzing the various contributing ‘causal factors’ in relation to Family Violence in the Torres Strait that were generated by the research, the author has categorized them under the following six sub-headings in this chapter, each of which will be seen to reveal unique aspects particular to the geographical, historical and cultural contexts of this region.

Geographic barriers to family violence prevention.

The underlying economic factors.

Substance abuse as a situational factor.

Breakdown of traditional culture as a set of risk factors for family violence.

Misapplication of customary values and rules.

Lack of appropriate service infrastructure.

The remainder of the chapter is structured using these categories as sub-headings.

The geographic barriers to family violence prevention in the Torres Strait Region

The unique geographic character of the Torres Strait region provide a distinctive set of ‘situational factors’ that exacerbate those initiatives and aspirations aimed at preventing family violence from occurring. The natural geography of an archipelago of dispersed islands at a remote end of the continent, combines with the relatively high costs of subsistence in a remote region and the unique nature of the Torres Strait Treaty and its permeable border conditions for local people. We shall consider individually a range of factors arising from this regional character that work against resolving or preventing Family Violence problems.

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