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Petrol sniffing an ongoing issue for NT indig -

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Petrol sniffing an ongoing issue for NT indigenous communities

AM - Friday, 15 October , 2004 08:08:00

Reporter: Anne Barker

TONY EASTLEY: Some children of kindergarten age are sniffing petrol in the Northern Territory,
according to a Parliamentary inquiry. It warns that within ten years taxpayers will be paying $10
million a year to care for chronic petrol-sniffers who've suffered permanent brain damage.

Northern Territory police told the inquiry petrol sniffers range in age from five through to 35.
The Inquiry recommends new measures to prevent the social dysfunction that leads children to sniff
petrol in the first place.

Anne Barker reports, the Territory Opposition wants petrol sniffing criminalised.

ANNE BARKER: 28-year-old Max Woods will spend the rest of his life in his wheelchair. A chronic
addiction to petrol has virtually melted parts of his brain and robbed him of a normal life.

A Northern Territory parliamentary committee has found there are at least 15 others like Max Woods
in central Australia alone, with brain damage so severe they'll need institutional care for the
rest of their lives.

Within ten years, it says, that number is set to quadruple and the Territory Government will be
paying $10 million a year to care for them. Hundreds more adults and children as young as five, are
slowly sniffing their lives away.

Labor MP Jane Agard, who chaired the committee, says she has seen first hand how petrol is
destroying indigenous communities.

JANE AGARD: There was a 15 or 16-year-old teenage girl with a very young girl with her,
breastfeeding, and the mother was petrol sniffing. It was a totally devastating sight and I think
it epitomises the kinds of issues that we're dealing with.

ANNE BARKER: The select committee has spent three years documenting the scale of petrol sniffing in
the Northern Territory. It's made 17 recommendations to address the underlying issues such as
unemployment, family dysfunction and domestic violence. It has called for better health and
education programs and a national review of the Commonwealth's work for the dole scheme, CDEP, in
indigenous communities.

JANE AGARD: Well, at the moment people really are not paid very much more than the dole so we need
to be looking at the kinds of hours people work, the type of work they're doing. Is the work of a
meaningful nature or is it just simply cheap labour? We need to look at ways in which that work is
more meaningful for people.

ANNE BARKER: Two weeks ago the Territory Government announced new legislation to ban petrol
sniffing altogether and to force sniffers to undergo compulsory treatment.

But the Opposition's health spokeswoman Jodeen Carney says nothing less than criminalisation will
work, with jail time up to two years.

JODEEN CARNEY: Imprisonment would be used as a last resort and at the end of the day I think it's
about drawing a line in the sand. If you say we don't want young people to kill themselves, then as
a last resort, if imprisonment dries them out, then it saves their lives.

I know the mothers of lots of Aboriginal sons who would prefer that as opposed to seeing their kids
taken out of communities in body bags.

ANNE BARKER: And do you think the threat of jail will actually stop some people sniffing?

JODEEN CARNEY: Surely it's got to be worth a try and if we don't stand up and do something about
this then we will see a generation of young Aboriginal Territorians dying before our very eyes.

TONY EASTLEY: Jodeen Carney, the Northern Territory Opposition spokeswoman on Health, ending that
report from Anne Barker.