By ERWIN CHLANDA
A group of children stole cars in Alice Springs last week, used one to ram-raid a shop, caused massive damage, stole goods, were caught by police, brought before a court, were bailed and within hours were breaking in and stealing again. One child had been fitted with an ankle bracelet but its battery wasn’t charged. All this is alleged, of course.
This is a thumbnail of the chaos involving neglectful parents, police, courts, gaolers, welfare agencies, buck-passing departments and politicians which Dale Wakefield is charged with sorting out.
It’s a massive ask in a town where juvenile crime is out of hand, notwithstanding her hero status for defeating the sitting Chief Minister and her outstanding work as a local social worker for many years, especially in running the women’s shelter.
For now the ram raid, allegations that Yirara girls were playing chicken with cars in an 80 km/h section of the Stuart Highway outside the college, and the banning of a six-year old girl from Wilora school north of Alice Springs are raising more questions than are getting answers.
The biggest elephant in the room is the courts giving bail to kids who promptly re-offend, as is alleged about those accused of the ram raid.
Ms Wakefield (pictured): “I am aware those kids have gone through the youth justice system, so they became part of the Territory Families [responsibility].”
She says the problem is that defence counsel can do little more than hurriedly formulate a case for bail to put before the judge who then weighs it up against whatever the police submit.
“Those [alleged ram raid] kids are classic examples of kids who really need ongoing bail support and support around them,” says Ms Wakefield, pointing to the first batch of youth outreach workers who started on Monday.
“Things like flat batteries on ankle bracelets should be picked up.”
She says from now departmental staff will be giving evidence, alongside police, to the courts. Things have happened in the last week or so “which are unacceptable”.
“There hasn’t been a lot of information going to the courts about kids’ circumstances … and no ongoing support. These workers will provide case management … with follow-through to make sure whatever conditions are in place are working, that the families are coping with the responsibility.”
NEWS: Some families are demonstrably not capable of looking after their children. Where will they go?
“Bail accommodation will be part of that,” replied an advisor to Ms Wakefield who was present during our interview.
There is $11.5m in the Budget for that purpose in Alice Springs, says Ms Wakefield, “because there is not a suitable building readily available”.
What about the recently vacated police station that is completely empty?
WAKEFIELD: No-one suggested that one to me.
NEWS: It’s been reported in the Alice Springs News Online.
WAKEFIELD: I am not across that level of detail. That’s very much an operational matter for the department.
NEWS: Some kids on bail clearly need to be detained. How is that going to work?
WAKEFIELD: There will be a range of things in place around individual kids’ situations: Bail accommodation, youth officers …
NEWS: Do they have the power of constraining young people?
WAKEFIELD: That will be dependent on the situation.
NEWS: So it is an option?
WAKEFIELD: Depends on what you mean by constrain.
NEWS: Telling them you can’t go out and steal a car, for example.
WAKEFIELD: There will be kids who need to go into a detention centre. We don’t have rose-coloured glasses on this. We’re not going to get rid of the detention centre if that is the most appropriate place. The problem is, we’ve got no in-betweens. There is this huge funnel into the system and there is no way out of it. The only option we’ve had is to detain children. We need the interim steps … make sure bail is achievable and we get them back on the right track. If that doesn’t happen we need rehabilitation-focussed detention centres that are about making kids better, not worse.
‘Who is obliged to investigate what’ is another vexed question, raised by the “playing chicken” incident when the police apparently neglected to carry out the most basic investigation about the mortal danger into which six children had reportedly put themselves.
Police will not say whether they have even spoken with college staff: They went to look for the kids, didn’t see them and left, according to the police media section.
Police did not respond to this question put on May 15 by the News, having received further information: “The girls were from Yirara College, and they also threw rocks at cars and broke at least one windscreen. Please advise whether that is correct or incorrect.”
NEWS: Police went there, they couldn’t see any kids, and they left. Do you regard that as an investigation?
WAKEFIELD: It is a matter for police what they define as appropriate action.
This is where the system breaks down: No investigation, no report to the Department of Families, the incident is swept under the carpet.
However, Ms Wakefield will revisit the issue of six-year-old Santanya Namatjira (pictured at left) who has reportedly been banned from Wilora school (the Education Department denies this).
After an initial “no comment” position Ms Wakefield and her media advisor, who was also present at the interview, said they would talk to the Education Department about “any updates. We are very happy to go back to the Education Department and ask for more information”.
Ms Wakefield says there is a range of criteria for intervention by the Department of Families, namely “the child’s physical safety, their developmental safety”.
Would a child’s “developmental safety” not be at risk if she is denied education?
“In this particular case we have not had a notification that that child is at risk,” says Ms Wakefield.
“A media story is not notification” says the advisor. “It must come from professionals on the ground.” Ms Wakefield did not reject that, saying: “There is a proper process that needs to be followed.”
However, someone had informed the department, as we reported, but Ms Wakefield says she wasn’t aware of that.
What the public is allowed to know about these issues is becoming a hot potato.
Unless “professionals on the ground” make a report, the children are “not in my remit, as a Minister … They are not in my department … I am not going to comment on individual cases … it is incredibly important that we are very respectful and very careful … I am more than happy to be accountable”.
These are some of the comments made by Ms Wakefield. It is also illegal to name a child in the care of the department.
Says Ms Wakefield: “I am being very clear that that child [Santanya – ED] is not in the care of the department but if [she] were we could not talk about [her].”
This offers a convenient opportunity to dish out the mushroom treatment to the public.
We put to Ms Wakefield that the parents or the carers, and the child herself, may choose to waive their right of privacy and put their case before the public, via the media, a strategy that has its place firmly in a democratic society. It’s clearly a way to “keep the bastards honest,” as Don Chipp has put it.
WAKEFIELD: They have not given me permission to comment. We will follow it up through the appropriate people.
NEWS: Would you comment if the parents or the guardians gave you permission? If they chose to involve the media, which is clearly an option in our society?
WAKEFIELD: Not necessarily. I am always going to err on the side of caution. I am aware of the consequences of where things have gone pear shaped for people.
The Minister and the Alice Springs News Online agreed to look for precedents before we next meet.
By ERWIN CHLANDA