Detaining Aboriginal youth: child protection to prison

Pic: Aboriginal Flag painted on wall, Apperley St, Fitzroy North, Melbourne

The majority of young Aboriginal people who end up in juvenile detention are also on child protection orders and come from unstable homes.

The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) cites a Victorian study that found that 88 per cent of children sentenced to prison each had around 4.6 notifications to the Child Protection Agency and 86 per cent had been in out-of-home care. As shocking as that statistic is, it’s likely to be  mirrored in other states.

“There is a strong correlation between juvenile participation in crime and rates of reported neglect or abuse, and, in particular, between juvenile involvement in criminal activity and neglectful parenting,” the ALRC said. It is a statistic that National Aboriginal Legal Service Chair Shane Duffy, who is based in Queensland, can relate to.

He conservatively estimates that at least seven out of ten children on court orders are also on child protection orders. Young Aboriginal people, whether they are in out-of-home care or not, are already vastly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system in every Australian state and territory.

A 2014 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AHIW) report released in December showed that almost 60 per cent of children aged 10 to 17 in detention were aboriginal, and yet they make up only 5.5 per cent of Australia’s 10 to 17-year-olds.

Mr Duffy believes that the AHIW should also collect and publish statistics showing the dual court orders many young aboriginal people are under. A Child Protection Order indicates that children came from homes that may be violent or neglectful and this directly feeds into kids being stuck on remand because they cannot meet bail conditions, which state a child must have a safe home to go to before they can be released.

Despite this requirement, the Child Protection Agency is under no obligation to find a young person somewhere to go. And so begins a vicious circle.

The Australian Institute of Criminology found in 2007 that 60 per cent of all young people in detention at any one point in time were on remand awaiting trial or sentencing. Mr Duffy says that having so many children on remand has “an exorbitant impact”.

“These young people, they’re sitting on remand, not having access to the appropriate programs to address the underlying challenges in their lives,” Mr Duffy said. “Juvenile detention centres are geographically distant between [a child’s] community and where they are incarcerated.

The relevant people in their lives may be unable to travel vast distances to emotionally support the person on remand.” Mr Duffy says children sometimes spend longer on remand than their sentence ends up being.

This depressing situation, which is informed by many complex factors – not least of which are poverty, poor mental health, cultural dislocation and family breakdown – have those working in the indigenous services sector deeply alarmed and calling for urgent change.

Muriel Bamblett, director of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency Co-Operative Limited (VACCA), which runs services for children and families, says Aboriginal children are ten times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children.

“It’s a bit of an obvious one that. You’re in out-of-home care, you get into homelessness, you get drug and alcohol issues. They are more likely to be involved with ice and have mental health issues,” Ms Bamblett says. “For a lot of these young people, their parents are in jail. They have gone through the child protection system and are more likely to be involved with family violence.

“It becomes cyclical. Their parents are in prison, they get looked after by aunties and uncles or in the out-of-home care system being raised by people they don’t know. Some of our children (in the prison system) are fifth generation. It’s devastating.”

Ms Bamblett doesn’t beat about the bush when she is asked what should be done. She believes the solution is to keep kids with their families as far as possible or to place them in other Aboriginal families, if this approach fails.

That means funnelling resources into early intervention: helping parents raise their kids, counselling the adults in a family who have drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues and tackling homelessness – which so often leads to parents losing their kids.

“The work needs to be done as early as possible not to take the children and do the work with mum and dad. [Otherwise] they move on and live a life of mental health problems and the children they can’t raise blame themselves because mum and dad don’t want them.”

But Ms Bamblett concedes that frequently there are too few Aboriginal families able to step-up. Some of those who can are frustratingly ineligible because they fail departmental rules, like everyone in the house getting police checked, or fail limits placed on how many people can live in one house.

“We’ve got a very young population and many of our people live in poverty and already have large families,” she says. The result is that many Aboriginal children are placed in out-of-home care, located away from their communities where they have no connection to their land or culture.

“Not knowing who you are can contribute to how well you do,” she says, understating her case softly, but firmly.

Ms Bamblett believes that the lack of affordable housing for young people and the paucity of support to help them set up a houses and pay their rent and bills also should be addressed.

She puts the danger age as being 12 to 14, where she says “alarming number of people just disappear off the system”. Adolescents often decide they don’t want to live with their carers and then they abscond and many start exploring what their Aboriginality means.

“They fall between the gaps in child protection. These are the kids that are going to juvenile justice.”

Keeping both adults and children out of prison, where possible, was important.

“You look at what damage that does and how it affects the social fabric of a community. We know so many men who are in prison and they’re so institutionalised. It’s the only way they know. They don’t see themselves as fitting in the society or they can’t meet bail provisions.”

Early intervention is the bedrock of justice reinvestment, a concept originating in America. Its logic goes like this: put the dollars in early and support families and kids and save money later having diverted them from expensive prison sentences.

“Justice reinvestment is taking money from the back end [prisons] and what you spend on the prison system and then starting to spend that on diverting people away from prisons,” Ms Bamblett explains.

“But there’s a lot of inconsistencies across states in Australia. Justice reinvestment is piloting in NSW but will that ever get to areas in the NT?  Will that ever be as big a priority?”

Even with its challenges, the idea has gained traction in the US and is starting to gather momentum in NSW, for example through the Bourke community justice reinvestment pilot. Ms Bamblett believes that the federal government, which recently cut $534.4 million from aboriginal services and brought funding under five streams in the Prime Minister’s Department, needs to look at the programs that have worked and then scale them up nationally, with local differences worked in by Aboriginal people on the ground.

She points to a successful VACCA program, Koori Faces, where a youth worker went into a prison and spoke to the men there about how their behaviour and incarceration might have affected their children. It also helped them speak to their children about drugs and try to identify early on whether they are taking them.

“Some of the amazing stories that people told us about it is that a lot of prisoners don’t really understand how their behaviour impacts on their children. And how they got to be the way they are, and how their parents parented.”

The program also discussed colonisation – and its impact on aboriginal people, which left many of the men with their heads in their hands, moved to tears.

“The prison psychologist said she hadn’t been able to connect with them … or understand, or just to show that emotion.”

Funding and ensuring aboriginal involvement in program design are areas that both Ms Bamblett and Mr Duffy are passionately vocal about.

Ms Bamblett said that measuring programs and continuing to fund the ones that have proved themselves to work – rather than getting locked into a series of pilot programs and making funding prescriptive – was the best way forward.

“We don’t harness people that have already succeeded. There’s so much negativity in Aboriginal communities. We need to find those communities that are doing well and make sure we build on it.”

She cites a successful Northern Territory program where home visitors talked to young mother’s about their own health and their baby’s health.

“They really started to get some momentum, but the government defunded it after a two-year pilot. Imagine what that felt like for that community.”

She points to what she calls a “Western construct about what to fund” rather than looking at what could work, or what already works, on the ground that might be a better fit.

“If you’re going to fund programs, you have got to learn from them and model them in other parts of the country.”

Mr Duffy says taxpayers money is being squandered by state and territory governments because they have failed to map the services, such as education, housing, health, that young people desperately need when they are released from detention. And they also overlooked wasteful duplication.

As well, he would like Queensland and other states to follow the Koori Justice Agreement in Victoria, where he says indigenous organisations and people have direct input into the justice policies affecting their lives.

“There’s a vacuum in all levels of government, particularly federal, as governments develop public policy that doesn’t consult with the experts in the field. They are not getting the policy right.”

Ms Bamblett criticises Prime Minister Tony Abbott lumping funding for all aboriginal programs into one pot of cash, saying this lets other departments like Education, Health or Family Services who used to part fund such programs off the hook.

VACCA has lost its Family Services funding and must now wait to hear the results of its funding application under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy – a funding lottery that Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has admitted had a flood of applications – in March 2015.

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2 thoughts on “Detaining Aboriginal youth: child protection to prison

  1. I tried the link to the Victorian Report but it doesn’t take me directly to the report referenced. Could you provide more details about this source?

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