'Street kids of a kind we haven’t seen before'


p1938-prisoner-cartoon-350By KIERAN FINNANE
‘Tamara’ is back in court. Last time was in early March on the day of her 15th birthday. Her charges then were serious (she was convicted and sentenced) and they are again now. She has been remanded in custody.
In the courthouse lobby seasoned youth sector professional Antoinette Carroll* sits down for a rare five-minute breather. A lawyer colleague, who knows her workload, thrusts a coffee into her hands.
“Recidivist youths are simply not getting bail,” Ms Carroll says bluntly, impatient with the populist debate around youth offending and the distraction of the Chief Minister’s intention to remove the presumption of bail for young recidivists.
“And many of them are quite happy on remand, that’s where their friends are, and their families can see it as a solution for them too.”
Yet the youth sector knows that it is no solution, in the long term. Their own experience and the research data clearly show that early contact with the justice system breeds more contact with the justice system.
Of the youth offenders who do get bail, the sector is also all too aware, says Ms Carroll, that they are often being sent back into a living environment where there is no appropriate adult supervision: “You need a structured environment to be able to abide by a court order.”
Tamara is a case in point. For her previous convictions she had served time on remand; the balance of her sentence was suspended with an “operational period” of 12 months. With this new alleged offending, if found guilty, she will have breached the conditions of that suspension.
Her sentence in March put strong emphasis on her reintegration back into the community. I wrote then: “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.”
That service support has clearly not been enough, and nor has the care of her family. Her aunty, who raised her, is in court again to support her today, as are a number of other adult relatives. As she is taken back to the cells they whisper messages to her, reach out their hands.
“To create a safer community we need intensive long-term case management,” says Ms Carroll.
This would involve working with the young person and their family, promoting all the ways in which they are positively connected – the emotional and cultural bonds, as are clearly on display between Tamara and her family – but giving the young person the support they need to walk away (to safety, not the street) when the grog begins to flow, and the violence erupts.
Ms Carroll knows this kind of approach works. She saw it in action in Redfern, Sydney before she came to Alice Springs some 16 years ago. It is also seen as “best practice” in the research, she says, citing as one example the ACT’s Blueprint for Youth Justice, where the focus is on early intervention, prevention and diversion**.
This is a 10-year plan, 2012-2022, with $5.5m allocated for its implementation over the first four years. In the 2015 annual report Minister for Children and Young People, Dr Chris Bourke, says the ACT has achieved “significant reductions in the levels of youth offending and the number of young people in contact with, or becoming further involved in the youth justice system”. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15 youth apprehensions by police fell by 37%.
The NT, by contrast, has the second-highest youth offending rate in the country (and rising, in contrast to all other jurisdictions with the exception of NSW). And it has the highest youth incarceration rate.
In Alice Springs, even without a policy overhaul setting new directions, Ms Carroll says services are massively under-resourced for the task at hand. And it can’t possibly be a question of cost. $5m has been ploughed into refurbishing the Alice Springs Youth Centre, for example, yet there is no provision of meaningful supervised after-hours activities (unless you’ve got the money to pay for them). Such a service, which is also being lobbied for by the Town Council, would be a starting point.
“All the money goes into capital works but those facilities don’t offer the services we need.”
She rejects a mandatory ‘protective custody’ model as “punitive”. It won’t build the relationships with young people and their families that can make the kind of  difference seen in the ACT, which does not take this approach (see measures below).
Ms Carroll does not under-estimate the gravity of the offending that has the public so worried and often angry.
“There is a new street kid of a kind we haven’t seen before, willing to take far greater risks and causing mayhem.
“We are at a crisis point, like we were back in 2003 when there was a peak in volatile substance abuse [sniffing inhalants], but the causes are not the same.
“This is the second generation. We were dealing with their parents back then.
“With our fast-growing youth population, this is a ticking time bomb. I’m very worried about the long-term future of this town if we don’t get some good policy in place.”
Ms Carroll says youth sector professionals have identified some 30 high-risk families in town, in whom – if for no other reason that everyone else’s safety – the community needs to invest.
“This involves much more than a few parenting programs. This is a 25-year commitment, just like we make to young people in our own families.”
She says services have to start working with the pre-school age group and really drill down in each family, to establish who really are the people most able to take care of the child: on any day if a primary carer isn’t present for whatever reason, who then steps up to take responsibility.
The up front cost of this kind of intensive work will be significant but the cost of doing nothing will be much greater.
Illustration above by ANGELA GEE.
* Antoinette Carroll is the chairperspon for Central Australian Youth Justice (CAYJ), a advocacy body with representatives from a range of organisations working with young people in the criminal justice system. She is employed by Aboriginal Legal Aid (CAALAS) as their Youth Justice Advocacy Project Coordinator.
** Early intervention, prevention and diversion measures in the ACT’s Blueprint for Youth Justice:

  • youth engagement services (accessed by 4550 young people in 2014-15, representing 5% of the ACT’s 0-17 year age group).
  • restorative justice: group conferencing involving the offender and victim.
  • health assessment for young people entering the justice system.
  • coordinated case management, in detention and in the community.
  • domestic violence crisis support.
  • support for post-detention reintegration into the community.
  • support to gain education qualifications while in detention.
  • housing and homelessness services.
  • support to transition from out-of-home care.



  1. Yes, Antoinette, intensive case management does work.
    Then the young person ends up in court and those representing them don’t listen to those case workers, some of whom have worked with the youth for years.
    They don’t know the circumstances. They don’t know the child. But hey, they work for a law firm so they must be smart.

  2. Providing victims support to walk away (to safety even in the street) when grog begins to flow, and violence starts, is refusal to address the problem.
    There should be no such drunken violence.
    Offenders who believe they exempt from consequences, repeat the offenses.
    The problem is not the victims, they making rational decisions to extract themselves from risk.
    The problem is refusal to deal creators of risks victims repeatedly need escape from.
    Victims are often unable to deal with matters themselves.
    We need educate all potential victims how to help themselves.
    We need police and others to be able to apply for better protection orders.
    Courts need the ability to issue better protection orders to protect at risk individuals.
    Courts need the ability provide blunt choices to those breaching protection orders, obey or go to prison.
    Are prison social clubs really so comfortable?
    The government needs ensure courts issue curfew orders, orders requiring repeat offenders reside at their cost deducted from their benefits, at specific addresses, remain their all night.
    Offenders who fail to remain, go to prison for breaching such orders.
    Causing these problems are perceptions that law does not apply to all.

  3. Re: Paul Parker Posted May 22, 2016 at 7:50 pm
    BTW (Best To Write) I do support support programs such as for the 30+ families who do need the support.

  4. With all due respect to Antoinette Carroll, the youth problems in Alice Springs, whilst they might be similar to offending in the ACT, it’d be fair to say the percentage of indigenous offenders and associated cultural considerations would be worlds apart.
    I’m also curious to see no mention of the use and acceptance of traditional Aboriginal laws and punishments.

  5. The type of community care model programs Antoinette advocates for are very well reflected in the recently endorsed Council of the NT Collective Impact initiative. The two day workshop held at Braitling Primary School on May 12 and 13 resulted in birthing the Strong Kids, Strong Centre program to be progressed further.
    That initiative identifies a need for the health and education sectors to combine their collective efforts in working with pregnant women. This supports them to grow strong babies in their bellies and to continue supporting the baby and families from in utero to pre-school.
    If the baby grows within a nurturing, caring and compassionate and safe environment they are more likely to demonstrate those attributes as the grow. Learning theories suggest that around 80% of everything we ever learn occurs in the first four to five years of life (including during pregnancy).
    This approach will lead to fewer Tamara’s ending up in the juvenile justice system and help evolve a stronger, healthier community that we can all thrive in.
    Attributes like respect, honesty, trust and integrity are all learned. They must be taught so that learning can take place.
    Antoinette Carol is to be congratulated for the sensational work she does in this area. Her tireless efforts over decades of commitment are applauded.
    Phil Walcott
    Independent candidate for Braitling

  6. Just exactly what “happy clapper” aura are you operating in Phil Walcott?
    By the time your “womb wanna-bes” hit the judicial system its too late for your latte resolutions.

  7. As usual the talk is on helping the perpetrator, never anything about supporting the victims of Tamara and her recidivist friends.
    Let’s come from another angle and double their sentencing and throw their parents in there as well.
    We could call it family bonding time.

  8. Long-standing family feuds are at the root of some of the violence, as well as a lot of youth gang violence. Mostly Aboriginal kids are involved. They come into town from communities and have nowhere to go, so they stay on the streets – and what else is there to do?

  9. Hi AJ, I am not sure if you or other community members with similar concerns are aware that Section 84 of the NT Youth Justice Act allows for victims of crime to participate in what’s called a pre-sentence conference to determine an appropriate sentence for a youth found guilty of on offence.
    Youth conferencing with victims of crime has been found to have significant impact on Aboriginal young people and their families in the criminal justice system, regarding the impact of their offending and the harm inflicted on victims of crime. Sadly, this provision of the Act is not funded in Central Australia.
    Pre-sentence conferencing actively provides a victim of crime the opportunity to communicate to the young person the affect their offending has had on them. The young person’s family also participates, and in some cases it is highlighted that the parents’ behaviours may be motivating the youth’s offending. The outcome can be one of significant healing for all parties involved. I hope this provides an explanation to your valid concern.

  10. Very similar problems occur elsewhere in the world, and are solved when the whole community works to create culturally-meaningful career paths in all sectors.
    We have an advantage in Alice, because we all know that we share responsibility for our situation.
    Thus the old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” can be a useful guide here.

  11. We all hear how we need to respect their culture and ways, where would they be without white man? Should the parents and extended family be looking after and guiding this child? Should she not be taught their traditional way of life and culture on their so called “land”. I was given to understand that family is important to them.
    White man perhaps tries to do too much for them. Maybe they need to be judged and tried the Indigenous ways.


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