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Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

CHAIR —Welcome. You will have seen that our hearings are not overly formal, despite first appearances. It would be good for us if you can make an opening statement giving us an idea about how your program works. We understand it to be a very good one. I am so informed.

Ms Coon —I am the program manager of the Youth Opportunity Program, which is part of ACT for Kids. Anthony is my colleague on that program. He is one of our family coaches. I will just give you a little bit of background about ACT for Kids before I describe a little bit more about the Youth Opportunity Program—YOP. ACT for Kids is a state-wide organisation that has been operating in Queensland for just over 20 years. We used to be known as the Abused Child Trust, but over a year ago we changed the name to ACT for Kids to promote a more affirmative, positive image of the work that we do.

The organisation has evolved out of providing specialist therapy services to children who have been victims of abuse. We operate in four regions or sites throughout Queensland, and the services in each region differ. The Far North Queensland region is by far the largest in terms of the range of services that we provide and the number of staff that we have involved. Most of our work up here is involved with families, children and young people who are involved, or are at risk of becoming involved, in either the child safety system or the youth justice system. The only other program not directly involved with that is the Indigenous workforce strategy, which is about providing training opportunities for Indigenous people to obtain qualifications and experience in working in a community services field.

The Youth Opportunity Program is a three-year pilot program that has been funded by the Queensland Department of Communities. We are just coming to the end of our second year. We have been funded to provide two services within the program. The first one is the bail support service. It is, as the name suggests, about supporting young people who are on bail. The goal of that program is to make sure that young people and their families have their primary needs met while they are on bail, with the ultimate aim of doing our best to make sure that the young person is able to meet their bail conditions. Obviously, if that can be achieved then there is less likelihood that the young person will be remanded in detention. The other and more major program in terms of numbers is the Community Response Service, which is available to young people who either are on youth justice orders of some kind or have been referred to us through the youth justice conferencing program, which is the diversionary program that the Department of Communities operates.

Ultimately, our goals are to reduce the likelihood that young people will reoffend. We are not strictly an early intervention service, because our referrals come through youth justice, so the young person has already been involved in the system. Our goal though is to prevent them from committing further offences. We also have the capacity to work with other family members, hoping that we can divert younger siblings from becoming involved in the system as well. We do that in two main ways. Obviously there are lots of little bits; but, firstly, our team is made up of family coaches. The family coach is able to work quite closely with young people and their family in quite an intensive way in a case management kind of role—looking at what the young person and their family need, helping them directly develop skills, advocating, linking, referring and those kinds of activities. Our resources enable us to have quite an intensive relationship with young people and their families, so we can spend a lot of time. We also have the access to brokerage funds, which enables us to buy additional supports and services for the young person and their family. We use that in quite a broad way, but ultimately we are always working towards providing assistance that will reduce the likelihood of offending. What else do we do, Anthony?

Mr Sullivan —We work with families on the whole ecological side of it, in that form—the whole influence that impacts on a child to put them in the place and the position that they are, whether it be mental abuse or physical abuse. So we are addressing deep issues in children that will turn them—and the entire family, the entire influence—and set them up to head in the right direction to better their lives and the lives of their families to live a better life in the community.

Ms Coon —Anthony makes a really good point. It is one of the unique things about us. We work quite closely with youth justice, who obviously still retain their statutory responsibilities in terms of supervising somebody’s order and addressing the specific offending relating behaviour. But we are able to take the broader ecological approach of looking at the other things that could be contributing to it that are going on in the young person’s life within their home, within their family and within the community. We are the only service of our type that we know of in Queensland. That we still work with youth justice and take that holistic family approach are quite important features of our program.

Mr LAMING —I would like to ask Anthony a question. I will just dive right in. I have always wondered how some children find themselves in the care of extended relatives, aunties, uncles and grandparents and whether, without setting up a humbug cycle or any retribution between the parent and the carer, it would ever be appropriate to provide some extra financial assistance for those individuals who encounter the additional costs of caring for kids. The only way to do that potentially would be an additional bonus payment, small but significant enough to recognise the extra care being provided and without punishing the parent in the first instance. What do you think of that? Or is there simply no need to pay a little extra for grandmothers who find themselves looking after two, three or four extra grandkids?

Mr Sullivan —They definitely need some sort of financial assistance, financial support if they are not at home with mum and dad. You need to be financially supporting the person who is primarily taking care of these children.

Mr LAMING —Do you think that that should be triggered by the grandparents alerting Centrelink or would that be picked up by case workers? And would you ever take money off parents?

Mr Sullivan —I am just thinking of cases where it has happened. It has been more about case workers getting on the back of grandparents or extended family who care for these children, because in culture there is sensitivity there. They do not want disrespect to be shown to the daughter, or whoever, if nanna is looking after the children. A lot of people do not like to approach Centrelink to let them know that they are taking care of these children. But it is important and it needs to happen because it puts big pressure on another family. It is very important that the finances go over to, say, grandma because it is quite damaging to the extended families.

Ms Coon —Whilst it was not the primary purpose of our brokerage money we do find ourselves on occasion needing to provide financial and material assistance to many of the families we work with, but often it is to another family member who is caring.

CHAIR —I know that you support the notion which has had many names but has recently been called ‘justice reinvestment’. The idea is that it is better to spend money on trying to help young people who are at risk or who have committed only minor offences than it is to build jails for people who have committed serious offences. In principle this is pretty hard to argue against; in practice it is much harder to implement. Can you talk about your ideas that come out of your practical experience: what is best to reduce reoffending and what is best to reduce reoffending amongst people who have already committed, at least, minor offences, particularly in the context where we may be thinking about providing more money to assist young, first or minor offenders?

Ms Coon —I think at the forefront of our mind is to look at extra ways to assist young people to get back into school. We work with a significant number of young people who are under the compulsory school age and they are not going to school, so they are not having that sort of meaningful structured activity during the day. They are obviously not having opportunities to learn and prepare themselves for the adult world. Many of the young people whom we work with either disengage themselves from school for a whole range of reasons or have been excluded. Many are keen to have access to alternative education programs. The alternative education programs that we have in our part of the world cannot keep up with the demand.

Often, where the young person may be keen to go to school the family may be in a position of not being able to support them and get them to school—that is, having the ability and the resources to get the morning routine happening and being able to provide lunches, uniforms and ensuring that the alarm is set and that kind of thing. There is not an agency or a service model at the moment that provides that kind of support. We are talking not about taking over parental responsibilities but about assisting families to develop those skills and that approach. The parents in many of the families which we work with may have had either limited educational experiences or not very positive educational experiences, so there is not necessarily a commitment to the school within the family. We would see that as quite an important priority. We have people who are past the compulsory school age who are still keen to go back to school but because of their history, their behaviour and their lack of skills, it is still difficult for them to re-engage.

Mr LAMING —For three decades we have tried all the things that you have just mentioned and we are rolling along at 20 to 40 per cent school attendance. It is not a matter of wanting to go to school as much as it is the law to go to school. The only thing that improved this was financial suasion through income management. That has doubled the attendance rates. I completely support this being Australia wide, so it is not an Indigenous issue I am focusing on. I am surprised that the previous witness just said, ‘Having recognised all these wonderful benefits from 50 per cent or 75 per cent quarantining, I would not want to go any further than that.’ Why aren’t we raising it five per cent every time they fail to send their kids to school and then capping the BasicsCard at $500 so you then start losing your welfare. Once you are at $500 dollars on your BasicsCard it just simply passes through and goes out the other side. Ultimately it is the law. Would you share the view that, having seen one step work, we need to overcome this hesitancy about going to the next step and completely quarantining for resistant parents?

Ms Coon —I am not sure that we feel we can talk about the income management approach. I also think that it is not always about resistant parents. I think sometimes there is a resistance, but I also think that sometimes people are literally worn down. It is a very complicated process to get your child back into school. We spend a lot of time doing it and our colleagues were talking just before we left about the enormous bureaucracy that is involved and that many of the families that we work with may not have the energy or may not have the literacy skills or the confidence to be able to work their way through Centrelink, to find a copy of their child’s birth certificate and to find the last school reports.

Mr LAMING —Are you sure you are not making excuses for them?

Ms Coon —No, I do not believe so.

Mr LAMING —I am not talking about Indigenous Australia here. You cannot allow the obligation to go to school, have a safe household and not commit violence to be trumped by the right to access someone else’s tax, which is what this is. It is a direct financial transfer to people who do not obey the law. Why is there such great sympathy for people who do not feel like doing things? It is attending school.

Mr Sullivan —You say sympathy but a lot of these families—I am speaking on behalf of the Youth Opportunity Program, where we deal with a very high percentage of Indigenous clients—have so many deep issues. These parents do not have the tools or skills to be able to operate through the system, to be able to get out there and do what needs to be done in this westernised environment. They struggle with that. They do not have confidence. They do not know how to operate through these systems. There are so many families out there that cannot do that and do not know how to do that. It is impacting on their children’s education because they just do not how to do it.

CHAIR —There is another kind of approach of course, which is not one that I would personally advocate as an alternative to ordinary discipline. We have seen in some places around Australia programs of intensive family supervision, which often apply when a family is already in very bad difficulty. I mean it when I say that I am not here to excuse what you would call a reasonable level of parental discipline of children and the parents themselves. But, if you are doing a so-called justice reinvestment approach, might you not think about actually giving much more intense supervision to some of the families that Anthony is talking about in some kind of a systematic fashion?

Ms Coon —Yes. I think that would be another area that—

CHAIR —I have just asked you the question, but are you able to conceive of that in some sort of practical way? Is it possible?

Mr Sullivan —Anything is possible. I think you are going to get a percentage of parents that just will not engage. That is the reality. Some people just will not engage. I think there are ways—such as more intensive support—of getting around mum and getting around the parents. So many families that I deal with do not have male role models and have not for a long time, so they do not have boundaries, rules and all of those sorts of things—that is, they do not learn how to be a young man and how to be a boy, how to operate through life and how to have those everyday living skills as a man. I am speaking on behalf of boys here. I am talking about that sort of intensive support of these families, where you can locate extended family and good male role models and bring them into the families. You can introduce them, make them a part of these young people’s lives, change them and affect them in that way. You can instil the right things to bring about change that way.

Mr LAMING —Do you ever wonder when you go to large communities of 1,000 people—and I use Doomadgee, which is even double that—where you can have so many people in one place and yet virtually all of the income that goes to that community disappears in what I have referred to before as ‘piss, petrol, poker machines and potato chips’. There is just no other private sector in that entire area. What does it take to get some services that are Indigenous led started there that are not effectively public ones? I mean services as simple as a hairdresser, driving lessons, basic water delivery and this sort of thing. How do you get small business started for these people so that these young families have something to look forward to? It could be an outcome from their education that leads to a job. How hard is it to set up a salon in a donga that is open for the ladies?

Mr Sullivan —If it has to be run by Indigenous people, it is hard because they lack knowledge. They do not have the knowledge to be able to operate in that way. You have to go back the years to where they come from. These people do not have that instilled in them. That is a westernised environment that you are presenting. These people were not brought up in a westernised way. It is something that over the years is going to come. It is going to come definitely because there is influence in Indigenous culture to a certain extent. It is going to be more over the years. In time, yes, definitely more and more Indigenous people will be leaders, will find their place and will be able to run things like that, but currently it is at the early stages. It is the early phase, where it is growing. It will become that, but it is at the start of that. It is about instilling that in the people now and just working on training these people up, focusing on education, getting these people engaged in education and in some way coming up with that plan so that a bit further down the track people can stand like that.

Mr LAMING —Do you meet any young people who say they would like to run a business or go into business? Is it still something that is really remote?

Mr Sullivan —There are some. The ones that do I will say have had a half-decent education and have slid off the rails a bit through the impact on them of the environment and their peers.

Mr TURNOUR —I am going to go back a little bit and refocus. To pick up: I think we also need to make it clear, Andrew, that part of the reason people cannot run businesses in local communities—and we are here to ask you questions—is government policy. I might be a whitefella and I could not run a hairdresser in Doomadgee even though I might be a great hairdresser, because you cannot get land tenure, you cannot get security and you cannot go and do anything down there because of government policies. We are changing them at the moment for a whole range of different reasons. This is quite a complex issue that we are working on. That is not making excuses; that is just part of the reality of life.

I want to ask you a few questions about this. You are working in partnership with the western cape mob in the child safety program. Would you talk a bit about that? Could you give a bit of an explanation of how we are effectively seeing the state changing some of the way they are managing kids without having to remove them from communities. They are living in these new houses and staying engaged with their parents, but it is required that they have proper supervision. Could you talk a little bit through that and about what your thoughts around that model are?

Ms Coon —That is a different program within the organisation, so our knowledge probably is not too deep but we will give it a shot. You are talking about the cape kids program, which as you just said is run in partnership with the western cape traditional owners group. For people not familiar with that program, it is setting up safe houses in four communities on Cape York. The house in Napranum has been operating since just before Christmas and the house in Pormpuraaw is due to open in a few weeks. These are soon to be followed by safe houses in Kowanyama and Aurukun.

The purpose is to provide a safe place for children while child safety is investigating any matters of concern about a child remaining within their family home. It is a temporary arrangement. Children can stay within those safe houses for up to three months. The goal is to enable children to stay within their communities and stay connected to their communities rather than needing to be removed to Cairns which would be the alternative. Obviously this causes great distress to the children as well as their family and their extended family.

When we were talking about people’s capacity to take on work, I was going to add it has been a challenge for that organisation to recruit the necessary staff to run that service. Working in the child safety system is an incredibly challenging role no matter where you are working. Working within your community with a responsibility to keep children safe is very rewarding, but I think there are additional challenges working in small communities. The service in Napranum is fully staffed, but the corporations had to do a lot of work to help their staff develop their work skills and behaviour because for many of the people that are employed in the house and in the other parts of the program, it is their first employment experience. Children’s lives and safety are at stake so there need to be lots of boundaries and clear roles and responsibilities. The service recognises that as part of their role, to get the service up and running and effective they need to look at strategies to support the staff to develop their skills.

CHAIR —In many circumstances—and I am not sure if the one you are describing is one of them—the provision of some kind of accommodation like that is effectively an alternative to somebody being kept in detention. In thinking about some of our terms of reference, a significant number of kids in juvenile detention centres and young adults in prisons are on remand. I am interested in your observations about the benefits or otherwise in providing a service that allows a judicial officer to keep someone away from circumstances of incarceration.

Ms Coon —I think I lost my train of thought there for a while. These houses obviously separate children from their families, but they are not—

CHAIR —They are not jail.

Ms Coon —They are not jail. They are for children who are involved in the child safety system. So they are not there as a consequence of their behaviour. It is about keeping them safe while child safety check if there are any incidents within the family home.

CHAIR —Apologies, I did confuse that. On the other hand, in many jurisdictions there are kids who have committed an offence—I am not sure quite sure what the exact circumstances are in North Queensland—and are on remand and therefore imprisoned. I am interested in what you think about the benefits or otherwise of reducing the rate of remand, reducing the number of people who are held in prison while they await trial.

Ms Coon —Our bail support program is all about trying to keep people out of detention for a whole range of reasons, including the fact that we know that people as young as 10 can be detained on remand. So there are obviously issues for them in terms of having their childhood needs met, their separation from their families and their separation from their communities. Any child in our part of the world that is remanded in custody goes to Townsville so family are not able to maintain that connection. We are also quite concerned about the perception that many of the young people we work with have of detention, whether on remand or on sentence. It is not a deterrent; in fact, it can develop their antisocial behaviours, for want of better definition.

CHAIR —They feel it to be prestigious?

Ms Coon —Absolutely, yes. It does seem to have a bit of a rite of passage—

CHAIR —I never know if that is true or not, but you are experts in understanding this. Do you—

Mr Sullivan —It is what the kids say, almost. In my role as a family coach, I am the transition officer for youth detention. I fly down and keep in touch with clients that we have in detention for all the family coaches in the Youth Opportunity program. With the rapport that I have with a lot of the kids on the streets, as well as in detention, they talk openly to me and detention does not faze them. I do not want to use the words that they use, but detention means nothing to them. There is no punishment there—there are scuba diving sessions, and things like that go on—it is the reality, I just tell it how it is.

These kids do not care, if you know what I mean. We have got kids going out and stealing $64,000 cars. They serve a month or so on remand and then they are released and they are out there doing it again.

Mr TURNOUR —I have a follow up question in relation to that. I have been to a lot of communities on the Cape, which I represent. Is some of that related to the environment which they have come out of? It has been put to me in one place that it is actually sometimes a better environment than where they may have come from.

Mr Sullivan —There is talk about that. We do hear rumours—we do not know if they are true so we call them rumours.

Mr TURNOUR —But you are making gut feel statements about rite of passage or the things that you have heard talked about. Have you heard people say those sorts of things?

Mr Sullivan —In relation to this—talk in communities about it being a better environment? It has not been spoken about to me. Working up in the communities, I just provide relief work until we find someone to fill the position permanently up in the Napranum. Kids there have not stated that to me, but there are stories that you hear through people who have worked in the service—that it happens. You hear people talk about it being a safety thing at Christmas time. At festive times a lot of family come together and sexual abuse is an issue with extended family for certain people, so they choose to commit an offence and go there for safety reasons. There are a number of things that you hear, but as for anything concrete I cannot say that I have heard any.

CHAIR —At the least then, the conclusion one would draw is that any measures that improve the community are going to reduce the attractiveness of the alternative of incarceration.

Ms Coon —I would agree.

CHAIR —Which is so self-evidently perverse.

Mr Sullivan —Yes.

Ms Coon —The majority of our experience is with young people in the Cairns community, so there are certainly young people from the Cape who may be finding it a more comfortable daily living environment. But so are many of the young people in Cairns. We are not saying that people are actively striving to get there, but I think we want to make the point that it is not a deterrent for many of the young people

Mr LAMING —I mentioned earlier the prospect of smaller detention facilities closer to communities. I know that you just do not like the notion of anything regarding detention if you can avoid it, but I am talking about service facilities which are close enough for family to visit and, importantly, for elders to have direct connection to these people. They would also allow for provisional release for particular times of day and a range of programs that teachers could offer in the afternoons when all the kids have gone home from school. There are a whole lot of potential benefits, but what do you think the problems are if this sort of thing can be funded and built? There would be employment opportunities for people to run it. Do you think that is something that is different to jail, because ultimately you are close enough to your community to know what you are missing out on? You cannot have that in communities of 200, but potentially you might have three or four of them on the Cape.

In the end you cannot have home detention, jail seems like an extreme jump and we can see that jail is not working. I used the word ‘damaged and I know your brow furrowed slightly, but what I meant by that is that what you are describing is still damage—coming home saying, ‘It was better there than at home’. To me, that is damage, even if you come home a bit fatter and you have eaten a bit more food. I think you are still psychologically damaged by that. That is what I mean. Can we come up with some innovative solutions that are somewhere between the two?

Ms Coon —To be honest, I do not know that we have given a lot of consideration to that idea.

Mr LAMING —When they are drunk it is a chance for elders to go up there and work with the people who are in an environment where there is probably more chance of listening.

Mr Sullivan —I would see that sort of a set up as being beneficial, definitely. I cannot speak too much on it.

Ms Coon —I think it is also important to do what we can to respond to young people’s individual needs as well. A lot of the supports and services—the statutory ones—for young people perpetuate them meeting to come in together as a group. That happens in detention and it happens with a number of the therapeutic programs that the youth justice service centre operates as well. If we are looking at somebody who needs to be detained, we cannot detain people on an individual basis. I suppose I get back to that point about looking at opportunities to improve the communities and the supports so that we prevent people needing to be detained.

Mr LAMING —I also have never understood—and help me, because I have not spent that much time in Indigenous communities—the huge number of elder people in communities who, when I look at it with my non-Indigenous eyes, do not seem to have much to do. I know they are very busy, potentially, with a lot of stuff going on within family, but I have always wondered whether part of respecting their seniority would be to actually pay them to work more directly with their own youth, who are the future of their community. Perhaps it could happen informally, but while the outcomes are so poor, I just wonder if we can respect our elders by recognising them formally and paying them to run programs with some of their own kids.

I know you say, ‘Look, this evolves anyway. Sometimes you don’t need to pay them,’ but would it give them more authority to say, ‘We appreciate what you do, and we pay you for your time’?

Ms Coon —That is certainly an option worth considering. I think that there are pilots around the state—not the country—where that is occurring.

Mr LAMING —Not reach the point where everyone there needs to be paid for all their work with the justice group, but is there some way of turning this massive potential into something even more positive rather than just hoping that a justice group does not fall apart and then waiting until community dysfunction settles enough that it re-establishes itself? The great challenge is continuity—great people have great ideas, they last a few months and then disappear. There is no faith in the new program when it comes along. As a government, we are asking the question: what is going to provide the continuity to grab these people before they fall into incarceration and they build a resume of criminality faster than a resume of capability? Do I need to pay people and say, ‘Thank you for what you do’?

Ms Coon —I think that is quite possibly one strategy. I think we also need to work with the elders in a whole range of other ways as well, to encourage them to do that.

Mr LAMING —I need some concrete ideas, so Anthony you have got to tell me what the problem would be with doing that?

Mr Sullivan —What would be the problem? I do not see a problem, provided we get the right people who are good role models in the community. I think it would be very beneficial and I think it is what is needed. These people are the example for their people, and there is that immediate respect. I think it is something that will work and can work.

Mr LAMING —But if you are paying them exactly the same amount of money as a young person who is on the grog, beating up their kids and not sending them to school, what do you make of that whitefella signal—that you all get the same amount of money?

Ms Coon —I do not know that it is all just about money. I am not fully across all of the demographic data, but there are huge gaps in the generations within Indigenous communities. Many of the older people who we are talking about have not followed all of the steps that the young people who we are working with now have, but they have done many of them. So it is not just about money to encourage those people to get involved. I do not know the other strategies that we would need to implement. We are hoping to find a few in the years ahead so that we can better engage with the elder people.

Mr LAMING —I can see that is a very good point, but by the same token money is an extraordinarily powerful tool in an environment where we are desperate for solutions. If that pay is a day late or $10 short, you could face a riot. So money is powerful in some perverse way, isn’t it? If that money is not paid on time or there is an irregularity, the situation could very quickly break down into chaos. So, clearly, money does mean something, doesn’t it?

Ms Coon —Of course money means something, but it is not the only solution. It is not the only key to the solution.

Mr LAMING —It is the only one that we directly control. Money buys something.

Ms Coon —Right. Then we will have some more!

Mr LAMING —We have some moral suasion but not much.

CHAIR —That is not true. I think we have a much broader spectrum of influence than that. You have been asked all sorts of hard questions and we are very grateful for your evidence. I wonder, as we wind up, if there is anything in particular you would like to say that you think would be especially important in ensuring that the rate of incarceration declines over the longer term. I am well aware that you are caught up in day-to-day events. You have individuals in front of you and you deal with them, try to keep them out of jail and restore their lives. Is there anything you would like to say about broader policy—for instance, how we might have more people like you working to advantage individuals?

Ms Coon —Clearly, we believe that there is a need for more services and support such as ours so that people have an opportunity to have holistic and developmental supports around them.

CHAIR —And more coordination of available services?

Ms Coon —Absolutely, yes. That does not have to come from us, but I think another point we made in our submission, and we have not really touched on it, is that it is not just about more supports but also about better coordination and communication between agencies. I think that in this field there is always going to be the involvement of a statutory body, so that interface between statutory agencies and non-government organisations is a really key one that needs to be looked at. I am not aware of the systems in other states, but I think having non-government organisations involved directly in programs for young people in the justice system does not happen a lot in Queensland. There has been a fair amount of learning for us in the youth justice service centre about how such a relationship can work well. That would certainly be an issue. I think looking at a whole range of strategies that will help young people remain in or return to school is critical.

CHAIR —In the end, if you had to put it in one sentence, you would say an awful lot of problems would be dealt with if we had better ways of making sure that we could keep kids in school and paying attention.

Ms Coon —That would be one good sentence, yes.

CHAIR —You would agree with Noel Pearson, who not that long ago wrote an essay saying, ‘It’s education, stupid’?

Ms Coon —Yes, I am very proud of the essay.

CHAIR —It was contentious, as you would expect. That was its general message.

Mr LAMING —Anthony, do you have any local roots in the cape?

Mr Sullivan —Yes, on my father’s side we have ties to Old Mapoon through to Badu Island and Saint Paul.

Mr LAMING —Do you have a view on whether the family management process in the four communities could be extended to the other seven?

Mr Sullivan —I honestly could not comment on that. I grew up on my mother’s side of the lands. I do not have enough knowledge of that to be beneficial.

Ms Coon —We are not working directly in any of those communities.

CHAIR —We thank you very much for spending time with us.

Ms Coon —We thank you for the opportunity.

Proceedings suspended from 1.04 pm to 1.21 pm