Above: Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White with staff at yesterday’s community meeting. Photo supplied.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Entering the protection system of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), is for many children the start of the road to detention, alleges a grassroots worker in the system.
She spoke out yesterday in front of two hundred or so local people gathered to meet the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
In residential homes (some run by DCF, some by NGOs) children are left in the care of untrained staff who are often “no more than highly paid babysitters”, she said.
“In the Northern Territory you can get off a plane and hours later have a job looking after vulnerable children.”
She knows because it happened to her. She worked in residential homes in Alice for two years and also as a foster parent.
Between untrained staff on roster and caseworkers “with varying levels of commitment” she suggests that “no one is ultimately responsible for the welfare of many of these children”.
By definition, they are the ones most in need of extra support, yet they “go on long waiting lists for assessments for counselling and health needs – if they even make it on the lists”, she said.
She described “substantial breakdown of communication” between caseworkers employed by DCF and the day-to-day carers, whether foster parents or residential home workers. “Phone calls and emails are ignored or forgotten about on a daily basis.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the floor as she spoke and after the meeting, others working in or close to the protection system confirmed to the Alice Springs News Online the essence of what this young woman had to say.
The lack of support children get in the system builds on “the previous trauma and neglect that has occurred in their lives”, she said, and results in the behaviour that lands them in juvenile detention.
“This is not what the youth wants but without help and support how can they change their behaviours and see a different life for themselves?” she asked.
She also painted a grim picture of the material conditions in many residential homes – “in varying states of disrepair with insufficient funding for furniture and bed linen”.
“Sometimes there is not enough for clothes, shoes or food and it is not uncommon for carers to dip into their own pockets to ensure the children get what they need.”
This description is in contrast, however, to the conditions of homes operated by at least one NGO, according to another grassroots worker the News spoke to.
The “minimal” support for foster carers, including hard-to-get respite care, leads to them getting burned out, the young woman said. This has a knock-on effect for children who end up in over-crowded residential homes, where their needs are even less likely to be met by over-stretched staff.
When a child is “reunified” with family, there is “little to no support offered to the parents”, often leading to the child returning to the “out of home care” system. And when they do, it is not necessarily to the same arrangements they have been in previously, effecting their “ability to develop and feel cared for”.
The preparation for reunification can also be rushed, said the young woman, suggesting that this was done “so the NT Government can be seen to be actively working towards avoiding another Stolen Generation”.
But that goal is profoundly compromised by the current system that does not deliver children the help “they need or deserve”: “The cycle then repeats itself when these children have children which is already happening in the Northern Territory,” concluded the young woman.
There was a lot of anger in the room yesterday, expressed particularly by Aboriginal women objecting to the removal of Aboriginal children for them only to face conditions such as these. If this is ‘normalising’ and ‘civilising’, said one, “I want no part of it”.
Right: Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White.
“I don’t want to hear from too many experts telling me I’m not a fit parent,” said another, asking the commission to not “lock us in to answers you want to hear”. She and others called for Aboriginal communities “to look after our children between us”, and for greater emphasis on and support for “kinship placement”.
Former Minister with the Country Liberal government Bess Price, however, challenged the room and the commission to look at both sides of the story. “There are kids out there right now – who’s looking after them?” she asked.
She spoke of one of her nephews who was in Don Dale at the time of the tear-gassing (though not subject to it). He has since returned to live in a town camp: his father is dead and his mother drinks and smokes ganja: “Young ones are let loose out there on their own to fend for themselves.”
“We don’t tell our kids we love them,” she said.
“I do,” said a woman in reply.
“While she was in government, why didn’t she do something about it?” challenged another.
“It’s up to the parents as well,” answered Ms Price.
There were a lot of dissenting murmurs in the room as she spoke. Her comments certainly went against the prevailing mood and it no doubt took some courage to make them. She hoped the Royal Commission would be talking to “the right people in order to make a difference and save these children”.
She referred to the call of another woman, “my sister”, who wants to see power and responsibility given back to communities to make decisions about “our young ones”. This woman spoke of her own grandson in juvenile detention, “breaking my heart every day”; she spoke of detainees’ brains getting “cooked” in there: “They know where they belong.”
A youth worker, employed by an Aboriginal organisation, regularly visits young people being held at the Alice Springs juvenile detention centre.
He said there is very little by way of intervention or rehabilitation at the centre and “no programs whatsoever” running there at the moment. For three days this week detainees had not been even been allowed out: “You can see the frustration building,” he said.
A woman who works as a high school teacher and is also a foster carer painted much the same picture. On a visit to a young detainee she had fostered, she asked him if he was keeping active, playing basketball, for instance. This was on a Saturday. He told her he would not be allowed out till Monday.
She criticised the education programs that do run at least some of the time. On the one hand they do not contribute towards a Year 12 or SACE qualification. On the other hand they are not necessarily suited to detainees’ existing level of education. Vocational (VET) programs might be more useful, she said. They are available at the adult prison but not in juvenile detention.
This is “setting them up to fail”, she said.
The youth worker said food for the young detainees comes from the adult prison but does not provide the good nutrition needed “for growing bodies”.
He also called for psychological evaluations for “some of these kids”. He said he is seeing a young detainee at present whose mental health is “getting worse every day”.
Young people who have experienced detention will give evidence during the formal hearings conducted by the commission. A legal aid lawyer, who acts for a lot of young people who may become witnesses, asked about the possibility of private hearings for these “incredibly vulnerable” children.
Commissioner Margaret White said private hearings would require legislative change, which she considered next to impossible in the time frame for this commission (their report and recommendations are due by the end of March, although a short time extension may be required). However, she said if it is considered appropriate the commission could close the hearings to all but the essential parties.
There were a number of calls for politicians, in particular Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, former NT Chief Minister Adam Giles and former NT Corrections and Child Protection Minister John Elferink to be held to account, if not charged over past abuses they may have had knowledge of, particularly those seen on the Four Corners program that prompted the Royal Commission.
Commissioner White said the commission does not have the power to charge but could make recommendations about what should happen in this regard. She also called for anyone who has had a role as an “official visitor” to detention centres to contact the commission. This role was a safeguard provided for by the Youth Justice Act but may not have been very vigorously pursued or may even have been impeded, she said.
Commissioner Mick Gooda told the gathering that he and his co-commissioner are giving a lot of thought to how they can ensure that their report does not end up gathering dust on a shelf.
One way will be to engage the community as advocates for their recommendations and to this end the commission will be consult with the community on the substance of these.
Note: Protocols for reporting from the Royal Commission ask for media to not name people speaking to the commissioners. The News is making an exception for Bess Price because of her public role as Minister in the previous government, which she herself mentioned ahead of making her comments.
Protocols also do not allow for photography during the meetings. The photos above have been supplied via the commission.