Aboriginal people in the West Australian community indicated mixed feelings over Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan’s comments on the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the WA juvenile justice system (the highest in Australia).
Initial feelings of “bashing us again” moved to “let’s hope for a balanced discussion”.
The latter became a partial outcome and hopefully we can move forward in the spirit of reconciliation and find common ground and workable solutions to this “elephant in the room”.
I was also reminded of the words of my brother-in-law, the late Rob Riley at a UN conference on human rights 16 years ago: “At any time, 70 per cent of the kids in custody are Aboriginal. The only construction I can make is that the State Government has allocated in excess of $30 million to Aboriginal juvenile justice issues. Nothing about community initiatives, nothing about dealing with issues that are causing these kids to get into the criminal justice system in the first place, nothing to assist organisations trying to facilitate a better understanding for politicians and bureaucrats as to how they might better initiate programs at a local level.”
So we ask what steps have been taken between then and now? It seems hardly a balanced argument to indicate there is a problem without discussing its root causes and proposing solutions.
In terms of root causes, police and others delivering services to Aboriginal people must continually reflect on the post-colonial characteristics universal to Aboriginal peoples around the world.
Irrespective of whether they are Aboriginal people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the United States, colonised people suffer a similar sequence of intergenerational trauma that separates their needs from those of others.
In this familiar sequence in the first generation of colonisation the legal system of the coloniser allowed conquered men and boys to be killed, imprisoned, enslaved, driven away and deprived of the ability to provide for their families. Women became single parents and many children were conceived in rape and forced prostitution. In the second generation laws were passed enforcing the concentration of Aboriginal people on reserves where they were further removed from being able to obtain work, balanced diets, housing, sanitation, health care and education.
At this stage misuse of alcohol and drugs became embedded as a mechanism for coping with grief and the profound loss of dignity.
In the third generation, race-based laws removed Aboriginal children from their fractured families and placed them in non-indigenous care environments where they suffered the horrors of forced inferiority, deprivation and abuse documented for all to read in the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, in April 1997.
The majority of these children became parents without exposure to parenting and therefore the opportunity to develop parenting skills. The effect of the multiple traumas suffered by parents and other family members transfer to the next generation – like the vicarious trauma transferred to the families of Holocaust survivors.
Aboriginal people in Australia have been exposed not to three, but to seven generations of compounding bad laws, a racially prejudiced Federal constitution and institutional and social racism. This has reinforced a lack of faith in working with government and government services and hope for the future.
It is simplistic for our colonisers to assume that these generations of profound damage to Aboriginality can be fixed in anything less than the time it took to inflict it. It permeates into everything we do, every day.
I agreed with Dennis Eggington from the Aboriginal Legal Service when he wrote that “an unfortunate assumption that has emerged following the Commissioner’s comments is that the Aboriginal community is reluctant to own the problem”.
My mother and father and their 21 siblings were removed from their parents and suffered all of the transgenerational effects of colonialism.
I have five sisters and two brothers who are educated and employed in government, industry and community sectors.
We all own the problem at home and at work and so do many others in our community who luckily have beaten most of the odds stacked against them.
Throwaway comments about billions of dollars being spent on Aboriginal people ignores the fact that these vast sums are wasted on programs we already know from their sparse results were designed for failure. The learnings from this surely are to work more closely with Aboriginal communities, sharing successes and investigating programs delivering outcomes here and overseas. Invest in actions well outside of the entrenched political and bureaucratic thinking that has so demonstrably failed to produce results.
What do we have to lose in investing some of the resources spent on detention centres in community-based initiatives before Aboriginal kids start to offend – or is this another “elephant in the room”?