Youth at a skate park
Indigenous leaders want to see early intervention and prevention instead of over policing. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS
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Children failed by the system, say First Nations groups

Rudi Maxwell April 16, 2024

In Alice Springs Aboriginal elders are crying out to be heard – and say, unless, the voices of the community are listened to, the cycle of over-policing and crime is doomed to be repeated.

Arrernte man William Tilmouth, the founding chair of Children’s Ground, an Aboriginal organisation that focuses on prevention, early intervention and empowerment rather than crisis and deficit says Aboriginal people are the most policed people in the world and also subjected to the greatest injustice, racism and oppression.

“We have a history of over-incarceration of our people and over-representation in the criminal justice system,” he said.

“The damage that this does and how this response perpetuates trauma in our families and in our culture.”

Police car in front of police station
 An elder says Indigenous communities are over policed and over represented in the justice system. Image by Aaron Bunch/AAP PHOTOS 

Youth in the outback town of Alice Springs have been under a night time curfew for weeks since violence broke out after a funeral.

The curfew lifts on Tuesday, coinciding with school going back.

Children’s Ground wants to see comprehensive government investment into learning, health, culture and wellbeing and says policies that promote punitive measures will see history repeat.

“This is a created condition from generations of neglect,” Mr Tilmouth told AAP.

“Anyone walking into any community or town camp or homeland will be struck by the abject lack of community facilities, infrastructure, resources and opportunities and the devastating overcrowding.

“Our children and young people have been failed by the system and that must be addressed now.”

The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, an Anangu-led organisation that delivers heath, social and cultural services in Central Australia, says young people deserve the best possible chances in life.

“Whilst we understand there is currently a crisis with the rates and extent of youth crime in central Australia, we believe a greater investment in early intervention and support for families that are struggling, and a whole of systems review in to education, employment, housing and health, is the start to a brighter future,” the council said.

“We know that when young people and their families are supported and given an equal platform to meaningfully participate in their communities, they can thrive.

“Under the current backdrop of extreme economic disadvantage, limited educational and employment opportunities and the hurdles of cultural and language differences, it is no surprise that there is a level of frustration amongst young people living in remote communities.”

Both organisations run successful programs that work with families and communities, taking a holistic approach.

And both say they have been repeatedly calling for support – but those calls are not being heeded.

“Generations of families have been forced into economic poverty and young people are struggling,” Mr Tilmouth said.

“We have known this for decades and we have presented solutions for decades.

“Children’s Ground is giving people that agency, that voice, that choice in how they want to do things.”

Legal and human rights organisations, too, have repeatedly raised concerns that focusing on police and ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric will only make things worse.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency has warned that focusing too much on policing risks potential disaster.

“Given the over-policing of Aboriginal Territorians that has already contributed to an unacceptably high rate of incarceration, any investment in policing resources must be matched with a commensurate investment in the criminal justice system, including courts and specialised legal services,” the agency said.

“As we said previously, the Northern Territory is facing significant challenges when it comes to crime and offending and we need evidence-based solutions with an eye on the longer term – intensive support programs, diversion, education, and related services – not knee-jerk reactions and bandaid policies.”

Aerial view of Alice Springs
 Kneejerk reactions and bandaid policies are not helpful to Indigenous communities, women say. Image by Aaron Bunch/AAP PHOTOS 

For decades the women’s council has continually called for bilingual and strengthened educational opportunities for young people out bush and more support for youth services offering meaningful activities in remote Central Australian communities.

The organisation’s youth service engages young people through sport and social programs, case management and educational opportunities – all the things young people in urban and regional centres have ready access to.

The council is calling for the creation of real and meaningful work opportunities out bush, like their Iwara (internship) program that works with young Anangu, aged 18-25, to develop an understanding of the workplace, building confidence and practical skills for jobs like literacy and administration.

But, although Iwara is a successful initiative with many graduates now employed, the program is always in jeopardy because of chronic underfunding, and relies on donations and savings.

“We know that investing in families is a more cost effective way to create a harmonious community in Alice Springs, but it relies on governments to partner in this deeper and sustainable vision,” the council spokesperson said.

The way Children’s Ground works is to focus on interconnectedness, bringing family, culture, education and health together – and the organisation is also advocating for major systemic changes.

“We’ve lived in this country for as long as anyone can remember, some use the timeframe of 65,000 years – and you must have learned something in that time,” Mr Tilmouth said.

“Aboriginal people learn from nature and, as a result, we survived that length of time.

“Under this western model of colonisation, we struggle.”