WARNING: Readers may find parts of this long story distressing.
By KIERAN FINNANE
UPDATED, March 9, 2016, see at bottom.
On one side of the ledger, victims, women in the main and girls, punched, kicked, pulled by the hair, beaten with sticks, threatened, terrorised, robbed.
On the other side of the ledger, perpetrators, all girls, and in many ways victims too. In four out of five cases, neglect by their families substantially contributed to their offending.
The exception was the girl who was the least involved and had never been in trouble before. With no conviction recorded and a good behaviour bond, she was returned to the care of her grandfather, a peaceable non-drinking man from a distant outstation, who, with her grandmother, is her primary carer. She had gotten into trouble when she was left in town for a holiday in the care of an uncle, also a law-abiding non-drinker. But he didn’t supervise her closely, even though she was only 13 years old.
The other girls I’ll call Alisha, Tamara, Nadia, and Carlene. At the time of their offending they were aged 16, 14, 12, and 14 respectively.
Perhaps the depth of their neglect is best illustrated by Nadia’s string of breach of bail matters. Although only 12, recently turning 13, and charged with offending that included assault causing serious harm, break and enter with intent, and stealing, nobody into whose care she was placed made sure that she complied with bail conditions – not her aunty, not an non-Indigenous carer, not her mother whose support to her daughter was described by Nadia’s lawyer as “vacillating at best”.
Nadia’s home life was full of “conflict, violence, fighting, arguments, estrangements, displacements”. Since moving with her mother to Alice Springs in 2013 she had scarcely been to school. Her situation had been brought to the attention of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) numerous times but, according to the lawyer, as long as some “nominal parental or family figure was at the periphery of the child’s life”, no further investigation was made.
After Nadia was bailed, police, arriving to do compliance checks at the various addresses of the various carers where she was supposed to be living, would be told, “I haven’t seen her since yesterday”, “Oh, she hasn’t been here for two weeks”, “She left twenty minutes ago”, “She might be at X … or at Y …”
Most of the time, according to her lawyer, Nadia was actually moving around with her mother, who has a long standing problem with the grog and has no stable home herself.
On one occasion when Nadia was picked up for breach of bail, she was fighting with other girls in the KFC carpark late at night, which earned her a new charge of disorderly behaviour in public. Police asked her why she wasn’t at her mother’s place. She didn’t want to stay there, she said. Her mother had been drinking, they had been fighting, Nadia’s phone got smashed in the process. She’d hitched a ride to town to get away.
On another occasion, she had been released on bail to Bush Mob. But when it got “boring” there, she was able to call an uncle who turned up in a car and took her away. He didn’t keep her safe either.
Nadia’s case might be the most poignant, because she is so young. The other girls are emerging into their young womanhood, but she is still just a child, a bit of a tomboy. She hangs her head almost to her chest when spoken to, her hair falling across her face.
Alisha, Tamara, and Carlene have also suffered the lack of attentive parents and a steady place to call home. The words “transient lifestyle” were often used in court. Fathers have been largely absent.
Alisha’s step-father was sometimes “abusive”. DCF was aware of her situation, but she seemed to have been left with family, moving around between Alice, Adelaide, Darwin, remote communities. Family somehow kept her fed and clothed and cashed up for a growing drug habit. She hadn’t gone to school at all in the two years leading up to her offending.
Carlene’s memory of her father was that he had been constantly in gaol. She herself has now had a taste of it, locked up for 173 days, most of it in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, after breaches of bail and failures to appear. During this time, while she was 1500 kms away from home, she had just one phone call from her father. The last time she saw him physically, he was passing by in the street.
Her mother was in court for her recent hearings. Carlene’s lawyer didn’t want to embarrass the woman so he referred Justice Dean Mildren to a written report detailing the girl’s upbringing – a history of “neglect and abuse”, with “alcohol misuse” common to both parents. Two of her siblings are currently in care; Carlene herself has a “child protection history”.
Tamara’s birth mother was not involved with her upbringing. The girl is close to the aunty who raised her on an outstation to the north, but the aunty has her own “very challenging problems”, including lately a health breakdown. Tamara has had numerous contacts with DCF over the course of her young life; she has inhalant sniffing “issues”; she has been the subject of a short-term protection order; a “kinship placement” took her far from home, to the Top End and boarding at Kormilda College, where she felt “bereft”.
At Charles Creek town camp, where Tamara stays when her aunty comes to Alice for treatment, she often feels unsafe. Children will leave the camp as a group to get away from the drunken violence there, her lawyer told the court. This is why they are found wondering around town at all hours and sometimes getting into trouble.
The trouble for the four girls was very serious; otherwise they wouldn’t have been in the Supreme Court. They were not the only young people involved in the events I will describe; some, including other girls, have already been dealt with; others are moving through the system.
Most of their victims were strangers but in one of the most disturbingly violent incidents, they were other young girls like themselves, girls they knew.
A ‘FEROCIOUS’ ATTACK
Alisha and Tamara were together in Todd Mall in the late afternoon of 26 January 2015. On a public holiday in summer it must have been largely deserted.
Alisha is tall and large-framed; Tamara is shorter. Their victims I’ll call Anna and Tessa. Anna came into court. Although older than the others at 17 years, she is slightly built.
Two other girls were with Alisha and Tamara. I’ll call them Lily and Maree.
It seems a falling out between Alisha and Anna was behind the attack: Tessa had come between them. After a brief exchange Alisha punched Anna to the head, causing her to stagger backwards. Then she grabbed her by the hair, swung her around, let go of her hair, and grabbing her right shoulder, punched her seven more times, to the head and stomach.
Lily joined in, grabbing Anna by the hair and kneeing her in the leg and stomach. Tamara came from the other side and kicked her.
I am assuming CCTV footage provided this blow-by-blow evidence.
The assault continued. Anna was slapped, kneed, kicked and punched in the stomach, hit on the head with a plastic bottle. A young man with her tried to shield her, but to no avail. She was punched and kicked in the stomach, pushed to the ground, kicked to the head, back and chest, and stomped on. When she sat up, Alisha kicked her to the head again, and Maree joined in, grabbing Anna by the hair, pulling her back down to the ground and punching her in the face.
Meanwhile, Lily turned her attention to Anna’s friend, Tessa. The young man tried to protect her in turn, but was outnumbered, as Alisha and Tamara joined in, kicking, punching, pulling hard on her hair.
Anna was trying to get to her feet. Alisha ran across and pushed her back down. Anna covered her face with her arms: more kicking and stomping from Alisha, Lily and Tamara, before she was dragged along the ground and beaten with a stick. Then Tessa’s turn for another round. Lily grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to the ground. The young man helped her up but Alisha punched her in the back, grabbed her by the hair, pulling it and punching some more.
Anna was still lying on the ground when Alisha got in one final kick before she and her friends walked off.
As Justice Mildren remarked, it was “amazing” that Anna did not suffer more serious harm from this quite “ferocious attack”. The facts stated that she suffered scratches, bruises and scrapes on both arms, a bruise on her left leg, a swollen and bruised eye, soreness and bruising to the face, bruises to the chest and a chipped tooth.
Tessa’s injuries were a graze on her knee, a lump on the back of her head, a scratch on her right ear and scrapes on her back.
Alisha was the primary offender in the incident. Her actions seem so frenzied that it was not surprising to learn that she was on Ice at the time. Her drug use had begun with cannabis but for the last two years, she had been using harder drugs, Ice and Ecstasy. (She has now been clean of hard drugs for four months, her lawyer told the court, and was willing to submit to regular drug testing.)
This assault was not her only offence.
JOY-RIDING IN A STOLEN CAR AT 2.40 AM
In the night of 4-5 May 2015, sometime between 11pm and 6am, she and three other young people – a girl aged 12, and two boys aged 12 and 16 – decided to steal a car. Two of the co-offenders broke into a house in Gillen, forcing the rear door, while Alisha waited outside. There were four women asleep in the house. The co-offenders stole car keys and other property. They all got into the car, Alisha at the wheel, and took it for a joy-ride out to Amoonguna, to the claypans at Ilparpa, around town, stopping to syphon petrol from several other cars so that they could keep going.
Eventually they parked the car in Gap Road. It was still there the next night, so off they went again, along the railway track, around the Telegraph Station, again stealing petrol from cars all over town – Gillen, Eastside, Larapinta. It was 2.40am on 7 May when they were sighted by police on Gap Road. They abandoned the car opposite the Memo and ran. Police gave chase on foot and Alisha was arrested shortly afterwards.
She must have been on bail for that matter, when later that month she went on another offending spree, this time in the company of Tamara, Nadia and a male co-offender.
It was around 10.30 pm on 28 May, a Thursday. At the Double Tree by Hilton on Barrett Drive, towards the back of the southern carpark, they got into a car through a broken window and stole a satellite phone, a travel bag with clothes and a first aid kit. Unfortunately the owner turned up. She’s a non-Aboriginal woman who grew up on a remote community and continues to work there.
The male asked her for cigarettes and money. She said she didn’t have any and turned back to the hotel. Tamara grabbed a large stick and demanded her handbag; the male also got a stick. There was a struggle. The woman managed to get the stick off Tamara but the male grabbed her from behind and, pulling her hair, made her fall to the ground. He hit her several times with his stick; Tamara and Alisha threw rocks at her. Tamara attempted to wrestle the bag from the woman; eventually the strap broke and Tamara let go. The woman yelled for help and the offenders took off.
The young male had broken the woman’s wrist, which needed surgery, and her body was bruised. In her victim impact statement she spoke of ongoing pain from the wrist injury, likely to be lifelong, exacerbated when she drives long distances. She has trouble sleeping, has anxiety attacks, especially if she sees groups of young Aboriginal people she doesn’t know. She was sad about this, having grown up around Aboriginal people and until then always comfortable with them.
The offenders had not finished at the Double Tree. About 20 minutes later Nadia and the male broke into one of the hotel rooms and stole a rucksack with wallet, cards, cash, prescription sunglasses and other items. The owner of the rucksack, an international tourist, was in the hotel lobby at the time, but his wife was having a shower in the ensuite.
Alisha pocketed some of the spoils. Now she and Nadia walked back to town, to the 24 Hour Store where they met up with a female co-offender. Shortly after 2am, Alisha used a rock to smash a window of the massage business on Stuart Terrace. Inside she kicked open a locked door. The terrified occupant of the room, a woman, screamed and the girls fled.
Undeterred, they next broke into office premises on Hartley Street. As they were rummaging through desk drawers an alarm sounded and they took off. Police found Alisha hiding under a vehicle in the yard next door and she was arrested. Nadia was found about an hour later at the KFC carpark. Both girls made admissions.
‘GIVE ME YOUR SILVERS!’
Tamara was arrested in late July for another matter, and made admissions then about the May offending. Her July offending once again involved quite a spree.
Around 10pm on Sunday, 26 July Tamara, with another girl, was walking along Undoolya Road when they saw a woman walking by herself. The girls picked up sticks and asked the woman for “silver”. The woman said she didn’t have any money. Tamara demanded to see her wallet and that she hand over her mobile phone. The woman refused, Tamara struck her with the stick, the woman yelled for help. Luckily a car pulled up and the girls ran off.
Meanwhile, Carlene was in the CBD with other girls. They broke into a car parked in the ANZ carpark and took it for a drive. Going along Leichardt Terrace they threw items from the car out the window, including a laptop worth $1000, which smashed on the ground. They parked the car near the entrance of Abbott’s Camp and returned to Parsons Street, where they met up with a large group of youths. Among them was Nadia.
A woman, another international tourist, left the YHA. “Give me your silvers!” Carlene demanded. The woman said nothing and kept walking. Tamara kicked her in the back, while Carlene and the youths closed in around her. Carlene pulled her to the ground by her hair and Tamara kicked her again. The woman could feel hands reaching into her pockets while the assault continued. A male friend, also a tourist, came to her aid, and the group fled to the river. The woman suffered lacerations and bruising to the face.
Above: Todd Street, around 10pm, on a recent weekday night. CCTV image courtesy Alice Springs Town Council. It does not show the offenders or any apparent offending.
The offenders were identified with the help of CCTV footage, but before that could happen some of them turned up on the same night at the Double Tree. There Carlene and two male co-offenders broke into a room and stole the keys to a rental car as well as two wallets, containing Australian and Hong Kong currency worth a total of $3480. Driving away, they picked up other youths, including Tamara for a short while.
It was not clear whether they were driving around all night, but the next morning at around 10, Carlene pulled into the bowsers at the Truck Stop, filled up and left without paying. She was back again at around 2pm to do the same thing. All up, $75 worth of stolen fuel.
Police found the car abandoned later that night on Sadadeen Road. The keys were in the ignition.
At around 1.40am the next morning police sighted Tamara on Gap Road. She ran and was arrested. Carlene was arrested the next day.
She must have been on bail when she and Nadia committed a particularly brazen offence. It was 10.45am on Monday, 3 August – “broad daylight” as Justice Mildren remarked, but of course also a public holiday, Picnic Day, which probably meant the upper level carpark of the Yeperenye Shopping Centre was deserted. A woman pulled up and parked. Carlene and Nadia knocked on the driver’s window. The woman opened the door and the girls asked for cigarettes and coins. When the woman said she didn’t smoke and didn’t have enough money to share, Nadia reached in and took the car keys from the ignition.
The girls ran off and the woman called the police, but before they arrived the girls were back. Carlene got into the back seat and started going through the woman’s bag, while Nadia was trying to force the woman out of the car. She slapped her on the face, and pushed and shoved. Eventually she picked up a large metal ashtray and used it to push into the woman’s shoulder from the passenger side, saying to get out or she’d bash her head in. When the woman’s phone rang, she told the girls she had called the police some time ago and they both took off, Carlene having pocketed $260 and a set of car keys belonging to the woman’s work vehicle.
Both girls were arrested about an hour later and made full admissions. Nadia admitted that what she’d done was wrong because the victim was “an old lady”. It turned out that it was the woman’s 60th birthday, which she didn’t get to celebrate because she was too upset. She now feels frightened to go out anywhere by herself and particularly if she sees two or more Indigenous girls in the vicinity.
In a reflection of her inadequate bail arrangements, at around 9pm, 30 October Carlene with other offenders – girls of 16 and 15 years – stole yet another car from the Double Tree. The girls were drunk on a couple of bottles of chardonnay. They drove around town for hours, swapping drivers. In the early hours of 31 October police spotted them, doing speeds of more than 100 kmph both ways along Gap Road.
Carlene eventually abandoned the car back at Charles Creek, behind Beaurepaires, but not before she ran over a traffic light on the corner of Todd Street and Stott Terrace, causing $1000 worth of damage to the car. She was arrested shortly after 10 that night on the RFDS lawns. When or where she might have slept in the preceding 24 hours was not spoken of in court. She seemed to have been held in custody from the date of that arrest until her recent pleas to multiple offences.
A LETTER OF FORGIVENESS
Alisha was the first to be sentenced. But before Justice Mildren could start, there was a surprise in store. Her victim Anna had written to the court, a letter of forgiveness. There was consternation from the Crown prosecutor over its implications for the Crown facts, which involved not only Alisha.
The matter was stood down, Anna was located and brought into court. From the dock Alisha smiled at her when she came in and gave her the thumbs up. Anna sat down with Alisha’s mother and aunty and appeared to be comfortable with them. She had been spoken to by both the prosecutor and Alisha’s lawyer, who now presented a brief statement expressing Anna’s “sentiments”: she and Alisha had started talking to each other about a month ago; Alisha had apologised for what she had done; they were friends again; the assault was well and truly behind her; Anna wanted His Honour to know that she didn’t want Alisha to get into any more trouble because Alisha is a “good girl”.
Justice Mildren (left) would “bear it in mind”. First he went through the long list of offending, some of it “fairly typical of youth offending”, some of it obviously much more worrying. He was particularly appalled that a girl so young had been using Ice: if the person who gave it or sold it to her came before him, that person would be in “very, very serious trouble”. He noted Alisha’s history, the exposure to domestic violence, the lack of parental support, two suicidal periods in her young life, interrupted schooling, ongoing problems of anxiety and depression, and some health problems.
On the upside, the serious offending seemed to have been a turning point. She was now making “a real effort to turn around her life”.
In this her age, 17 now, gives her an advantage that the other girls cannot yet have. She is old enough to live independently and services have come in behind her to support that. She has her own income through Youth Allowance, she has accommodation at Stuart Lodge run by Mission Australia who are also looking to offer her some part-time administrative work. She has returned to school (at St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre), attending regularly, and is receiving case management support and counselling.
She had already done 30 days in detention. Justice Mildren thought sending her back there now would be retrograde. For the various offences, taking into account her youth, her full admissions, time served and her early pleas, he sentenced her to a total of 14 months, suspended forthwith, with an operational period of 18 months under supervision of a probation and parole officer.
“I have a great deal of hope for you, young lady,” he told her. He was impressed with the steps she’d taken; she deserved better in life and he wanted to think that she would succeed.
‘I WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE MY LIFE’
It was a sign of things to come. Tamara was next. In her favour, she was prepared to give evidence against a co-offender who had not entered a guilty plea. Justice Mildren commented on the likely very frightening experience for the victims of the assaults she had committed and on the way the offending gives Aboriginal children and Alice Springs a bad name, with a likely impact on tourism in the region.
Then he noted her “totally inadequate upbringing”, the “long-term neglect” she had suffered, the heavy drinking of both parents, the departure of her mother for Western Australia, Tamara’s symptoms of ADHD, her hearing loss, and difficult, unsettled schooling experience. Her child protection history was “extensive” and made for “very dismal reading”.
In encouraging contrast was her institutional report from Don Dale, where she had spent 77 days: her teacher there described her as a “pleasure to have in the class”. She hated Don Dale, however, and certainly did not want to return. She accepted responsibility for what she had done, had written in her own hand and words letters of apology to her victims, she had said, “I would like to change my life.”
Justice Mildren found it very much to her credit that since she had been on bail and staying at Charles Creek town camp she had not re-offended. He noted that she was turning 15 that very day and wished her a happy birthday. “Thank you,” she said with a shy smile.
The emphasis of his sentence would be on her reintegration into the community. She had the support of her aunt, she was enrolled at St Joseph’s, she also had assistance from services including Anglicare’s Intensive Youth Support.
For the serious offending he had no choice but to impose convictions. She received a total of eight months, suspended immediately, with a 12-month operational period, during which she will be under the supervision of a probation and parole officer.
“A lot of your problems have not been of your making,” he said, noting again her “pretty hard life to date”. He wanted her to see that day in the Supreme Court as the first of the rest of her life, to look forward to enjoying her life, to having a happy and successful future: “Will you do that for me?”
There was an air of celebration when she came out into the lobby, talk of a birthday cake, tears of relief. But the challenge ahead is considerable, given that she has essentially been returned to the same life circumstances that she had before, with the exception of the service support that her offending has brought about.
This was also the case for Carlene, who would be returned to the primary care of her great-grandmother who came to court in a wheelchair.
Carlene had spent more time in detention than any of her co-offenders, and had the shaming experience of being walked several times through airports with handcuffs on. Her lawyer had argued against the benefit of any further gaol time. She had seen “horrific things” happen to family members in her young life, he said; she had learned now that she did not want to inflict “scars on other people’s faces” and that she wanted to grow up a “strong, resilient girl” who would not see “scars inflicted on her own face”.
He argued that education could be Carlene’s best hope. In contrast to her co-offenders she has “quite consistent school records”, including a recent period of a year and a half at boarding school in South Australia. Returning there, however, did not seem to be part of the future plans for her. The schooling options discussed by her lawyer were in the community where her great-grandmother lives – “probably not providing the quality of education she needs at her age” – or boarding at Yirara College.
Justice Mildren noted that the plans were in a state of flux but he hoped that Carlene would be able to continue her education. He was obliged to impose convictions for two of her most serious offences. He tried to explain to her what a significant punishment that in itself is: “It is something you will carry for the rest of your life and may affect your ability to get employment.”
She was sentenced to a total of almost 11 months detention, suspended immediately, with an operational period of 12 months, under the supervision of a probation and parole officer.
WHAT FUTURE FOR THIS LITTLE GIRL?
Finally, Nadia. Justice Mildren had ordered a further report from Corrections on her suitability for supervision. He urged her lawyer to make clear to Nadia and her mother the importance of cooperation on this and on coming back to court for sentencing: “A lot is going to hang on that report – the future of this little girl.”
On the day she was to be sentenced, Nadia was nowhere to be found. The night before she had told her caseworker that she was frightened of what would happen. The caseworker, described by Nadia’s lawyer as the “one bright hope” in the girl’s life, sought to reassure her. But it was evidently not enough.
Nadia’s role in the assault on the woman in the Yeperenye carpark was her most serious offending, about which she made full admissions to her police. This “lack of dissembling” spoke to her naivety, her lawyer had suggested.
“Or it might be a cry for help,” said Justice Mildren.
A warrant has been issued for Nadia’s arrest.
UPDATE, March 9, 2016, 9.05am: After four days ‘Nadia’ surrendered to police and has been remanded in custody. Justice Mildren’s sittings have finished and her plea may now have to be heard again by a new judge.