By ERWIN CHLANDA
Whatever the standard image may be of domestic violence, it is unlikely to be this: She is 14. He is much the same age and incarcerated.
They are in a relationship and if that means sex – and there seems to be little doubt about that – it’s problematic because she is under the age of consent, which is 16. Legally she is considered not be to able to give consent.
Three women highly experienced in youth work are around the table talking with two journalists.
It’s statutory rape, isn’t it?
“Similar age,” says Ms Kerr.
“Not in Aboriginal culture, though,” says Ms Wright.
“There’s a lot of 14 year old kids in relationships, together with similar ages,” says Ms Betschart.
AT RIGHT: All cells in the juvenile detention centre, now managed by Territory Families instead of the Department of Corrections, are being fitted with toilets, wash basins and drink fountains. Tradesmen started working ‘round the clock yesterday for six weeks, turning cells for two into single cells, cells for three into double ones and cells for four into triple ones. “Hanging points” are being removed.
Are there two laws then, one for Aborigines and one for whites?
“No,” say both Ms Betschart and Ms Wright.
“If they are within two years of each-other …” says Ms Kerr, indicating that there is no requirement for legal intervention.
What if one is 12 and the other 14, is that OK?
“Well, they are both under the age of consent,” says Ms Kerr.
So nothing will happen or would you charge them both?
“It’s not a criminal issue, it’s a social issue, a safety issue,” says Ms Kerr. “Criminalising is not going to help anyone.”
“It’s a teenager issue,” says Ms Betschart. “A lot of kids are experimenting at these ages.”
Jeannette Kerr, formerly a highly experienced NT police officer, with an outstanding academic background, is the new broom in Territory Families, the department which has taken from Correctional Services all responsibilities for juvenile detention.
AT LEFT: Not much works in the public service without acronyms. These are YORETs, members of the Youth Outreach and Re-Engagement Team. There are six of them in Alice Springs (39 in the NT), operating here from a former retail building corner Wills Terrace and Stuart Highway. Each will work with about six at-risk children, including after hours.
Katrina Beschart is the Senior Professional at a brand new unit in Alice Springs reaching out to problem children. She had a big win: Yesterday the 14-year-old girl headed off to an eight-day wilderness camp in South Australia, as part of a small group of kids in trouble.
“She didn’t want to go because of that relationship, I guess,” says Ms Betschart.
“But she joined in with all the pre-camp activities. We had rock wall climbing, walked the Telegraph Station, did a family night here with a BBQ, did a slide show about what Operation Flinders is like.”
“She was part of that but she wouldn’t come along [on the trip]. She’s got a long history full of trauma.”
“Here” is a former motorcycle and later IT shop that had been standing empty for a long time, opposite the Kittle car dealership which had been targeted by kids damaging 50 cars. This became the event that, only two and a half months ago, pressed the Government into flat out damage control.
Ms Betschart says she was over the moon hearing the girl say: “’OK, I’ll come’. It happened at the last minute and now she’s going to come along.
“For her that’s huge. We can work with her over these eight days and set some plans, achieving some goals.
“A lot of our kids don’t have the self-confidence and the self-belief or any of that stuff because they have not necessarily received that holistic loving home environment that we need to grow up.
“These are the most disengaged kids we are working with.
“We stand by their side when they go to community corrections and the court.”
Ms Kerr tells the women: “These are the kids everyone wants to lock up and throw away the key. You guys are just doing an amazing job. I’m really proud of you.”
Janet Wright is the CEO of ASYASS, a local NGO with a long record of providing accommodation for homeless kids.
They now have a contract with Territory Families to put up kids on court bail, rather than having them sent to the Don Dale detention centre in Darwin whose treatment of detainees has been laid bare to the public, in Australia and the rest of the world, by a Royal Commission due to report on November 17.
In Ms Wright’s care girls aged 14 to 17, will stay in town, live in a fairly normal house, and have a back yard with chooks and a veggie garden (photo).
“Some kids did not have a lot of care, planning and structure, unfortunately, until entering the justice system,” says Ms Wright.
“It’s a way for us to take control of that. It’s a home.”
They commit “crimes of boredom, not using good judgment, a lark turning out to be something completely different.
“Or they need to eat. They haven’t had food for three days. They’ve not had electricity in their home for several days. They are trying to meet a need for survival.
“Meet their needs – housing, food and occupy a person’s time – the odds are they are not going to continue to offend. And they have a right to safety.”
What about the parents’ role?
“We are very strong with re-integration with family. At the other refuges [also run by ASYASS] very often we we act as respite for families.
“Often in Aboriginal communities there will be grandmothers taking care of lots and lots of children.
“They get tired. A lot of them are unwell, going on dialysis, and they can’t care for those kids who are their grandchildren because their parents are potentially in jail or have become ill or passed away.
The perimeter fence juvenile detention facility (at right) will get more razor wire in a bid to stop the recent frequent escapes of detainees.
“Unfortunately the life expectancy of an Aboriginal man is 61, I think. It’s pretty low. It’s 80 for non-Indigenous.
“It’s not that the family doesn’t want the children, it’s just that they are overwhelmed. Teenage kids are teenage kids. I had one and I was easily overwhelmed. I can’t imagine having 10.
“Alcohol, petrol sniffing, domestic violence – all those sorts of things have led to there being a gap between the kids and grandparents. It’s overwhelming.”
But what about the parents?
Ms Wright says people need assistance “rather than condemning them for being not good parents. We need to help them to become good parents”.
Some of them are incredibly young: “We send the girls to parenting classes and there is something called ‘FAST babies’ which they attend. Those things will stop that generational decline.” (FAST refers to a program called Familees & Schools Together.)
There is a law that says failing to provide the necessities of life is a crime.
She says: “I don’t think it’s a law, but it is in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 27 states ‘you have the right to food, clothing, a safe place to live and to have your basic needs met. You should not be disadvantaged so that you can’t do many of the things other kids can do’.”
Does she see much of this neglect?
“Yes,” says Ms Wright.
“Unfortunately we are probably all guilty of that. I walk down the street and I see a kid who is seven or eight years old. It occurs to me to ask, where are your parents? You don’t have shoes on your feet.
“You cross the line between a community caring for children and the parents’ responsibility. I think it is the community’s responsibility.”
Part of this new dawn is a refurbishment of the juvenile detention centre in Alice Springs, also starting yesterday, six weeks of 24/7 tradesmen on roster.
That will cost $1.3m, says Ms Kerr. It will be a temporary facility, to be replaced by a purpose-built one that will follow findings of the Royal Commission.
It will probably be ready in three years’ time, says Ms Kerr. There are no detailed plans yet.
The bars in the windows will be replaced with perspex windows which are “indestructible … I’ve taken to them with a sledgehammer, you just can’t get through,” says Andrew Pike, Senior Director Youth Justice Operations, pictured (at left) with Ms Kerr.
“This is an ex-adult facility, and young people should not be in an environment where there are bars,” says Mr Pike. “Some of these kids have sustained a lot of trauma.
“[Our] intent for us is to provide an environment that’s more aesthetic for them and more focussed on the programs that we want to deliver for young people moving forward.”
The air-conditioned cells have TV sets, behind perspex screens.
Feeling very comfortable out of uniform, Ms Kerr (at right, in the room where the detainees are being taught by eight NT Education teachers five days a week, between 8.15am and 3:30pm) says so far, so good: Since Territory Families have taken over the care of delinquent kids there has been not a single allegation of the kind of conduct by staff that has brought shame to the Territory.
By ERWIN CHLANDA