Social Work Practice for the Empowerment of the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander Communities

Social work practice covers a broad scope, making it relevant in all communities and contexts across the world. Social workers operate within the micro (focusing on the individual), mezzo (focusing on families and both small and large groups), and macro (focusing on societal issues) levels. Due to its capacity to focus on different levels of application, social work practice can find wide applicability within the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities. These communities have specific issues that have existed for ages and are consistently addressed through interactions with human services. Issues, such as education, access to healthcare, social cohesion, and inclusion, all play significant roles in determining the quality of life of the people. Social work, on the other hand, influences community progress in each of these aspects through individual, family, and community-level interventions, hence improving the quality of lives of the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Social work practice can unite members of these indigenous communities, coordinate resources, and engage in interventions that eliminate the challenges of communities while facilitating empowerment and improving their overall well-being.

This study explores how social work practice can facilitate the empowerment of minority groups, particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. The research question is formulated as follows: How does social work practice facilitate the empowerment of the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities? The study is organized into three major sections namely, the introduction, which gives the context of the paper and provides a roadmap for navigation; the analysis section, which builds on existing literature on the role of social work practice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ empowerment; and the conclusion, which recapitulates the findings of the study and presents its limitations.

Social Work Practice and Community Empowerment

Addressing Discrimination

Indigenous Australian communities, such as the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander people, consistently face discrimination. This discrimination, which is comparable to racism, continues to create and sustain the prevalence of low socioeconomic status among the indigenous communities through exclusion from access to economic opportunities as well as opportunities for property ownership (Lavoie 2014). A wide scope of literary evidence shows that racism is the main determinant of health among the indigenous communities in Australia. Moreover, the communities consistently face challenges in access to social services, which compound their difficulties in attaining better socioeconomic status (Baldry, Green, and Thorpe 2006). Various other studies have described the challenges posed by racism within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which hamper their access to social services and economic growth (Kelaher, Ferdinand, and Paradies 2014; Paradies and Cunningham 2009). Empowering such communities requires going beyond what social workers would conventionally do among other communities by considering the challenges that are unique to the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander people.

Empowerment through Social Services

Social work practice covers a wide scope of services about different sociological aspects of life. Accordingly, the contributions of social work practice to community empowerment are realized through its effects on different aspects of social life, such as in education, healthcare, and culturally aligned intervention practices. The specific mechanisms by which social work contributes to empowerment in these disparate aspects vary widely, and the choice of social work interventions depends on situational factors. Through all the dimensions of social life, social work practitioners aim at supporting the application of standards similar to those applied among the larger population to realize improvements in family welfare and on the provision of the children’s needs.

Social Work and Racism Issues

During social work practice for community empowerment among the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander communities, complex relationships have been reported to exist between social workers and clients from the indigenous communities. Some of the reasons behind the complexities include the statutory nature of social work among indigenous communities (most of the clients are involuntary) and on-going racism and cultural misunderstanding between these communities and others in Australia (Harms, Middleton, Whyte, and Anderson, 2011; Kowal 2012; Awofeso 2011). The institutionalized racism that has existed in Australia following white colonization has created an environment of suspicion between the indigenous communities and any social work practitioner. Effectively moving towards community empowerment thus requires the implementation of strategies that heal the already strained relationships, which may be transferred to the link between social workers and the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients. Social workers play an essential role in developing this healing relationship through a partnership with aboriginal communities and educational preparation (Kuipers, Harvey, Lindema, and Stothers 2014). However, the current social work education programs have limited content relating to social work among the indigenous communities, and there has to be continuous engagement in a culturally-sensitive environment to foster community empowerment.

Social work practice uses various multifaceted interventions to address the challenges of racism among the aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia. Most of the approaches used are based on the assumption that the challenges faced by the communities are a result of the deliberate pursuit of privilege perceived to arise from differences between other populations and the indigenous communities (Afoweso 2011). Establishing effective interventions can only be achieved by eliminating the perception of privilege that has continued to exist among many people in Australia. Such prejudice can be hurtful and emotionally disturbing among the recipient and could be blamed for the perceived strain in the relationship between the aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and the social workers, most of whom they have no direct negative experiences with. Social work practice eliminates the perception of privilege and thus fosters the development of a new perception of empowerment among communities.

Social Equality and Addressing Social Injustices

When working with the indigenous Australian communities, specific focus has to be placed on discriminating aspects, such as access to healthcare. Markwick, Ansari, Clinch, and McNeil (2019) mention that the indigenous communities have a life expectancy lower than that of the other communities by approximately 9.5 to 10.6 years. This shorter life expectancy indicates lower health quality compared to those of other communities in Australia, hence indicating the need for social work practice to establish ways of improving the experiences of the communities in various aspects of life. Barriers to healthcare access, racism in mental health care, low income among the aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people contribute to the low life expectancy levels, and intervention towards eliminating these factors can help in enhancing the quality of life of the communities (MacRae et al. 2013; Saethre 2009). The social workers’ role in this context is to identify existing gaps in access to healthcare services and connect the communities with the federal government departments responsible for ensuring service delivery to the people.

Addressing social injustices is another way through which social work practice can foster empowerment among the communities. Social injustices among the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander communities mainly stem from racism and are experienced in a wide variety of social contexts, including schools, where social injustice is manifested through bullying (Priest et al. 2014; McDonald, Bailie, Grace and Brewster 2010). Social work practice identifies strategies for handling such issues through individual-level interventions that take into consideration cultural differences. Cultural sensitivity fosters effective alignment of the individual experiences with the societal factors for the good of the minority groups (Price-Robertson and McDonald 2011). According to Williams, Priest, and Anderson (2016), there is a need to build a science base for the identification of interventions that can be implemented across multiple levels for holistic enhancement of health, especially among the minority groups. This proposal can be tweaked to fit within the context of social welfare in general, where effective micro, macro, and mezzo level interventions are required to develop a sustainable solution for enhancing social justice among communities of the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders.

Marginalization and Dispossession

Marginalization, on-going dispossession, and the history of policies among the communities, such as that of forceful cultural assimilation, are some of the factors that have been mentioned to have resulted in negative outcomes among the indigenous communities in Australia. Children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been shown to demonstrate poor educational, health, and even social interaction outcomes compared to children from non-indigenous communities in Australia (Price-Robertson and McDonald 2011). They are also more likely to exhibit substance abuse disorders and violent behaviours compared to children from non-indigenous communities. The children are, therefore, likely to develop mental health issues, such as stress and depression, which can only be solved through a focus on individual strengths and weaknesses. These outcomes imply that there have to be deliberate efforts among social workers practising among these communities to intervene on the children at both the micro and mezzo levels. At the micro level, interventions to empower the children have to involve parents and be focused on the specific case issues.

Child Protection and Community Cultural Beliefs

Social work practice targeting children is one of the ways through which community empowerment among the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander communities is realized. The legislation specifies the additional principles that have to be applied in decision-making, particularly when working with the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander communities. These principles focus on the need for protection and promotion of the cultural identity and spiritual beliefs of the communities in the development of the children from those communities (Bamblett and Lewis 2007). Adherence to the community cultural and spiritual beliefs is mandatory when working with such children to ensure that connections with their aboriginal families are maintained and built for the long run (Long and Sephton 2011; Ivec, Braithwaite and Harris 2012). Social work practice achieves this through the practice of cultural sensitivity and knowledge during the delivery of social work services. In modern society, cultural sensitivity is an essential aspect of practice not only among social workers but also across the entire healthcare sector. Social work practice has to embody cultural sensitivity through working in ways that recognize the values of other people’s cultures and ensure respect to those cultures (Sousa and D’Almeida 2016). The regulation is, therefore, aligned with social work practice requirements for cultural sensitivity.

Social Work Regulations and Child Protection

The other practice through which social work empowers the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is by adhering to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (ACPP). The principle outlines the order of priority that has to be adhered to during placement of aboriginal children under out-of-home care environments. The principle recognizes the value of child participation in contexts that foster connections with their families, communities, and cultural practices. Five elements constitute the principle namely, prevention (respecting the right of the child to be brought up in their own families); participation (involving the family members and parents of children in decision-making on issues that relate to child welfare); partnership (participation in decision making in significant contexts, such as under the Child Protection Act of 199 whereby the decisions involve Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children); placement (the right of a child to be placed with a family member in case of need for child placement); and connection (the right to develop and maintain interactions with the family, community, language, and culture of the child) (Queensland Government, 2020). Social work practice is directly involved in child placement decisions and activities, and adhering to this principle facilitates the communication of cultural sensitivity during practice. That feeling of importance and valuation contributes to the empowerment of the indigenous communities.

Empowerment through Self Determination

Empowerment of the indigenous communities also entails adherence to the principle of self-determination. This principle describes the need to involve the indigenous communities in decision-making processes and confirms the ability of the secretary of the Department of Human Services to transfer his/her functions to an aboriginal principal officer in an aboriginal agency (AASW 2015). This is in alignment with the position of AASW (2015), which states that whenever possible, social workers practising among Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander communities should seek guidance on service development and delivery methods from community members or elders recognized among the communities. Such consultation not only enables social workers to subject clients from those communities to practices they are familiar with in the course of implementation of social work service delivery but also empowers the community members and elders as they feel appreciated and their culture valued (Singer, Bennet-Levy and Rotumah 2015). The consultation also promotes collaboration with the communities, which is a priority towards ensuring more effective service delivery for community and individual empowerment.

Social Work Practice Requirements

The realization of community empowerment through social work practice in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities requires social workers to develop strong relationships with the members of those communities. The unique challenges experienced by the indigenous communities and their unique relations with social workers implies that those who would be successful in community empowerment when working with those communities have to exhibit strong relationships with participants in various indigenous programs (Ivec et al. 2012). This can be achieved by engaging local people who can facilitate the understanding of cultural issues and local protocols for more effective delivery of intended program goals in the program teams.

Participants in such programs also need personal qualities that facilitate cross-cultural practice. According to Price-Robertson and McDonald (2011), one of the personality traits needed by social workers working with the aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islander communities is effective communication. Social workers in such environments have to be in constant communication with the different stakeholders and the participants and engage them actively in all program decision-making activities as this is the only way to foster empowerment. They must also possess the necessary skills to perform the job. Community empowerment requires effective leadership, counselling skills for the micro-interventions, capacity building for communities in need of support and leaders that would be engaged in the implementation of community-based programs, and childhood development efficiency. The wide range of activities that social workers engage in for the realization of community empowerment at an individual, family, and community level means that the entire range of skills would be necessary.


This study answers the question: How does social work practice facilitate the empowerment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities? The indigenous communities in Australia face significant social challenges due to racism and cultural alienation. These issues have inhibited access to social resources, and social work practice can help empower the communities by enhancing their quality of life, initiating healing in the relationships that have been strained through racism, and collaborating with the local communities in facilitating support through child protection services. Empowerment is achieved through social work interventions at the micro, macro, and mezzo levels, which are aimed at maintaining cultural sensitivity in social work practice. Social workers require various capabilities, including strong relationships with the communities, communication skills, and practice competencies to intervene in community empowerment programs at all three levels effectively.


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