Beyond Don Dale

The barbaric abuse of distressed, damaged children by the thugs in charge of Darwin’s Don Dale juvenile detention centre has sickened Australia. We were in the far reaches of the NT’s Gulf of Carpentaria when 4 Corners exposed the shame of it last week. The coverage was the talk of the tiny remote town of Borroloola, our family’s community. Partly because of a bleak history of children from here being incarcerated. Also in this particular case, Jake Roper is the grandson of a local man. Jake is the 14 year old Aboriginal boy, who in 2014 couldn’t bear prolonged solitary confinement any more, and used a fluorescent tube to try to break out of the tiny concrete cell where he was held. Hot and airless, with no natural light and no running water, Jake Roper boiled over. The incident was dressed up at the time by the facility as a riot. The 4 Corners investigation shows it was not. Two years later, at the age of 16, Jake gives a heart-wrenching interview about his fear and bewilderment.

There is no denying these are difficult children. Lawbreakers, repeat offenders. But as another young inmate pointed out, the violence in there changes you. It becomes a different sort of reality, and most kids are only out a month or so before they’re back in again. Across the country, Indigenous children are 26 times more likely to be in detention, than their non-Indigenous peers. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s December 2015 report on Youth Detention states that 54% of juvenile detainees between the ages of 10 and 17 are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. In the NT, that number is a staggering 97%. Australia will watch carefully as the Royal Commission unfolds. Exposing the atrocities at Don Dale is rightly being posed as the catalyst to take questions out much further than the Northern Territory.

Imprisoning Indigenous children is not the solution to the dismal life circumstances many of them suffer. The answers lie in a different future, and we are working on it. The reason we’ve been in the Gulf of Carpentaria is our not-for-profit initiative, the Nangala Project. Our programs are focused on helping remote Aboriginal families create an environment for change for their own children, to escape the poverty trap and all that comes with it. Since 2012 we’ve supported local Aboriginal staff to deliver Indi Kindi early learning for babies to 5 year olds, and John Moriarty Football (soccer) for 2 to 16 year olds. We reach 50% of eligible under fives in Borroloola and Robinson River, and more than 91% of school age kids in these two communities.

It’s not an easy gig. The Gulf is a long way from most places – a four hour Qantas flight from our Sydney headquarters to Darwin, an hour and a half Air North flight east to McArthur River, and an hour’s drive into Borroloola. It’s a further two hours across a corrugated dirt road in a rattling Troopy to our satellite community of Robinson River. We often drive the thirteen hours in from Darwin instead of flying. The road stretches endlessly to the horizon. Our embedded mentoring staff are not fly-in fly-out. They put city lives on hold to live permanently in the community to support daily delivery.

Indi Kindi delivers to 0-3 year olds for the critical earliest years, and to 4-5 year olds to better prepare them for school. Low school attendance and poor educational progress were the reasons senior law woman Jemima Miller Wuwarlu asked us to set up early learning. She tells us Indi Kindi babies are having a better time when they start school.

John Moriarty Football (JMF) delivers sports movement activities in the local crèche, curriculum content in the junior and senior school, and gameplay to divert fighting at lunch and recess. We provide daily after school training for grassroots and advanced athletes, and regular Sunday carnivals for competition.

Hard work and school attendance are rewarded by tour selection within the Territory, to other States, and in the case of Brazil World Cup 2014, overseas. Our young flagship player, 14 year old Shadeene (Shay) Evans, is almost a year into a life-changing adventure relocating to Sydney’s elite Westfields Sports High School and a possible future place in Australia’s national women’s side, the Matildas. Shay and many of her talented young JMF peers back home, will be watching the Matildas at next month’s Rio Olympics with a keen eye to the future.

While our progress is solid, the circumstances that necessitate our work here continue to be dire. The extreme disadvantage that contributes to the incarceration statistics is on stark display out here. Soon after our arrival mid month, a police blockade of the main dirt road through town endeavoured to break up inter-camp brawling that began at an AFL carnival during NAIDOC week. A young girl attempted suicide in the midst of the upheaval. A second girl tried a few days later. The previous week a beautiful Marra man close to our family, had died of a heart attack breaking up a separate fight in a nearby community. We are gutted.

My elderly Yuwani (mother-in-law) and Manjigarra (sister-in-law) lament the loss of culture, of the Business, of the songs and a connected future. These treasures of women live in houses that are vastly overcrowded, in camps where domestic violence is endemic, and alcohol and substance abuse are constants. As local photographer Miriam Charlie courageously documented recently, one two bedroom house in Garrawa 1 camp houses 26 people. The queue for the single shower begins at 5am. On the day fighting broke out in town, we had just farewelled Shay at the airstrip for her flight back to Term 3 in Sydney. It was a sliding door moment.

Yet positivity drives our work in this ravaged place. It is possible because an indomitable spirit of family survives the hardship. It’s as palpable as the pulse of the vast baked land the people belong to. The loss of it heightens the despair of young people isolated in the detention system. To be away from it is akin to stopping breathing. The strength of family underpins Nangala Project’s mission to foster wellbeing in the adults who care for the community’s children, to break the cycle of despair. It is the base of the model we are building from our four year Gulf of Carpentaria pilot, for roll out across remote Australia.

Our toolkit is necessarily creative, and we draw on strategies around connected relationships, cultural belonging, emotional self-regulation, elite sport mental strength, learning methodology for the neuro-diverse, and low GI meals for children and their carers. Structure, respect and belief in the smart, vibrant children in our care make a difference.

In our sessions we experience few of the behavioural problems reported by the school. We just see beautiful kids who find in our programs, a safe haven with protective adults. Yet we know that any one of the engaging children who come to Indi Kindi, or train with JMF, could lose themselves if they slip through the education net. With low levels of school attendance in the bush, for a bunch of complex reasons, such children fall quickly behind and drift away. In the wake of Don Dale, Australia needs to ensure incarceration is not the go-to for vulnerable Indigenous children hurting the most, and most at risk.





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