Above: Royal Commission visits Yuendumu. Eddie Robertson at the end of the table, Robin Granites on the microphone, Commissioners Gooda and White next to him.
By KIERAN FINNANE
How much does it cost to look after one juvenile in detention? Otto Jungarrayi Sims wanted to know. Anything up to $120,000 a year, Commissioner Mick Gooda replied.
So how much for 20 juveniles?
That’s $2m going “down the drain” if you want to rehabilitate, suggested Mr Sims, and as far as he can see not too much rehabilitation is going on in NT juvenile detention centres. Put it instead into “something good”, he urged – proven diversion and rehab programs like Bush Mob and Yuendumu’s own Mt Theo.
It was a message repeated by elders and community members throughout a two hour public meeting with the Royal Commission into Child Protection and Youth Detention in the Northern Territory, held in the basketball court of the Warlpiri community, just under 300 kms north-west of Alice Springs.
Speakers welcomed and thanked the commissioners – Mr Gooda and Margaret White – for coming. It was what they’d been waiting for.
“For so long government has not been talking to Yapa,” said Mr Sims. “They do it their way, Kardiya way.”
‘Yapa’ refers to Warlpiri people, Aboriginal people; ‘Kardiya’ to non-Aboriginal people.
“Our law, Yapa law has been here on this land since Jukurrpa [creation or Dreaming time]. We know how to look after young people, not with abuse, neglect, but with care, respect and dignity.”
That kind of care can change a person, he argued, while the juvenile detention route leads on “to the Big House”, to youths becoming “hard core criminals”.
Chairing the meeting, Francis Jupurrula Kelly had put the demand for “two-way law” and recognition of “our culture” on the table from the beginning. It’s a demand the commission has encountered in communities across the Territory, as has been the push for community-based programs such as Mt Theo as an alternative to sending errant young people off to distant detention centres.
Responding to Mr Kelly, Commissioner Gooda mentioned the example of “bush courts”, where formerly elders sat with and advised magistrates: “People say it used to work in the past.”
Commissioner White said they “may consider” recommending the reintroduction of such courts, with so many communities “very interested” in them. At lower court level, programs like Mt Theo may also offer a way to bring Aboriginal law and custom into the white legal system, she said. However, this would not be so easy at the higher court level, dealing “with serious crimes of violence”.
In his comments about Mt Theo Mr Sims, a gently spoken man, had evoked an ideal of care for young people. Later he returned to the subject: if people “fall down” the response should be “care, love and compassion”. His words contrasted with the demands coming from other elders.
Left: Otto Sims on the microphone, Ned Hargraves in the foreground.
Mr Kelly put it squarely: “We need our rights to discipline our kids … kids do what they want to do because someone is behind them all the time – government.”
There were murmurs of support. Then Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves spelled it out: “Mr Kelly is right … This was brought by the Intervention: you are not allowed to hit your kids! You aren’t allowed to punch or smack! We can’t do that anymore. The kid will go running up to the police, ‘My father, he hit me’, ‘My aunty hit me’.’ We can’t do that. That is exactly why we cannot control our kids! It’s because that white man system come in. The law is the one that slows us down, brings us shame.”
It was a passionately held view. He was shouting, for which he apologised. (To the Alice Springs News Online, he later also withdrew the word ‘punch’.)
Commissioner Gooda assured him that there was no need for apology, he understood people’s anger and frustration, but “one thing the commission won’t be recommending is giving parents the right to belt their kids … You’ve got to think about other ways of disciplining kids,” he said.
He also took up the point about the Intervention – one made in other communities too – and asked the meeting, what were the good things happening before then? This wasn’t answered directly but the Mt Theo program certainly pre-dates the Intervention, started by elders in 1993 as a response to the scourge of petrol sniffing and initially funded out of their own pockets.
The program takes its name from an outstation on Warlpiri country, some 160 kms from Yuendumu where young people are sent to “reconnect with their culture, family, health and education”. Some of them are referred by the justice system for diversion, bail, community work orders; others by their elders who are concerned about them for any number of reasons, including depression.
Looking after a young person at Mt Theo for eight weeks costs around $6,700, which includes staff wages (four trained carers), food and all on costs, according to CEO of WYDAC (Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation) Matt Davidson. This compares very favourably to the $18,000 or so that eight weeks in detention would cost (calculated using Commissioner Gooda’s ball park figure of $120,000 pa).
The program has a strong history and reputation although it has never been formally evaluated. The model clearly interests the commissioners who spent the afternoon in more detailed discussions about it with WYDAC board, co-chaired by Lottie Napangardi Robertson and Eddie Jampijinpa Robertson.
At the public meeting Mrs Robertson called for Mt Theo to be upgraded to be able to take more young people on court orders and to provide for schooling: “Our young people are missing out on education.”
Education was a persistent theme. Mr Hargraves said lack of it was “one of the biggest problems we see today … our kids are not taught like Kardiya”. When is that situation going to “level up”? he asked. “Probably in another 100,000 years!”
“No education, health problems, no jobs” was Mr Robertson’s succinct list of the problems facing Yapa. “People can’t read and write,” he said (he is pictured at left).
Mrs Robertson also spoke of grog and drugs: “The white man opened the gates of the pubs in Alice Springs, that’s when people had their first drinks. Soon it was passing down generation to generation,” she said.
And, how can people stop drugs “being brought into this community?” she asked.
Mr Sims took this up, asserting that Kardiya drug dealers from Adelaide are selling drugs to kids, including Ice. Mr Kelly argued that there needs to be state border control “to stop rubbish coming in”. There is quarantine for fruit at borders, but no quarantine for drugs. His point was backed by Mr Robertson.
The main plea from other women (some of whom asked not to be identified) was to be allowed to keep young people close. In contrast to the men who mostly spoke in broad political terms, the starting point for the women was often their children or grandchildren:
“My grandson is in prison. We need to support our kids … Bring them to their homeland, they are suffering inside … it’s a better option for them in the community.”
“When I saw the news on TV [referring to the Four Corners footage that prompted the Royal Commission] I started to cry, it really hurts me. I don’t want my grandchildren to go to Darwin. When they break into a shop or whatever … there’s a better place, Mt Theo.”
One woman had a specific worry: her son went into juvenile detention a healthy person; two years later he came back with a lot of medication.
Commissioner Gooda urged her to talk more with the lawyers from CICAYDAS (The Children in Care and Youth Detention Advice Service). There were two present; they could go into detail with her and pass on the information. (CICAYDAS is funded by the Australian Government as a free legal advisory service for people engaging with the Royal Commission.)
Robin Japanangka Granites, who also acted as an interpreter during the meeting, took aim at young mothers not looking after their kids, “handing them off to grandparents” – that’s “where the problems start.”
A woman got up to agree with him: “We always see that.”
Mr Granites invited Kardiya “working with us” – “they are family too” – to come forward and speak. Frank Baarda was among those to do so, talking about the merits of the Yapa family model, whereby the “skin mothers – what we call aunty” can be called upon to look after kids. He urged welfare authorities to look beyond the Western nuclear family model before taking children away.
This has also been a common theme in other community meetings and the commission is interested to hear more about “kinship care”, said Commissioner White.
Many speakers referred to racial discrimination. When Harry Jakamarra Nelson called for all the government people, including Ministers, who knew what was happening in Don Dale and the Alice Springs juvenile detention centre to be “sacked or locked up in gaol”, Mr Hargraves chimed in: They should “face the consequences … If we did it, we know exactly what would happen!”
Mrs Robertson, who visits prisoners in the course of her work with Yuendumu’s Mediation and Justice Group, said, “Black people are not treated right, there’s no equal rights in these places”. She spoke of violence, of prison officers not wearing ID, of them talking to people “about wrong things”.
Mr Sims, who also does prison visits with the same group, spoke of people being “beaten up”, of prison officers spitting in prisoners’ food, of one officer in a juvenile detention centre putting his ear wax in prisoners’ food: “One of the kids told me. How can you have officers like that working for the public service?”
Mistreatment of Indigenous kids hasn’t just been happening in recent times, he said, it’s been going on since the 1970s, as history books would reveal.
“Yapa – are we an unwanted race?” he asked.
“We are not really black, we are proud of our skin, it’s the colour of the sand,” he said, but he also spoke of the saying, recognised by Aboriginal people all over Australia – “Once a black man, always a black man”.
“We got to change that saying. Be a black man, a proud black man.”