Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Finance and Public Administration References Committee
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience of law enforcement and justice services

CAMPBELL, Ms Helen, Executive Officer, Women's Legal Services NSW

LINK-GORDON, Ms Dixie Lee, Senior Aboriginal Community Access Officer, Women's Legal Services NSW

MORLEY, Ms Elizabeth, Principal Solicitor, Redfern Legal Centre

PORTER, Mr David, Senior Solicitor, Redfern Legal Centre

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Bernardi ): I welcome representatives of the Redfern Legal Centre and Women's Legal Services NSW. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement, and at the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to ask questions. I also extend apologies for the chair, Senator Gallagher, who is somewhat delayed and will be with us shortly. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Morley : Yes. David will speak for us, thank you.

Mr Porter : First of all, thank you for the opportunity to present to the committee today. We do think that these are serious issues, and it is an area in which the centre has worked for many decades in order to try to improve access in these areas. Generally we refer the committee to the main recommendations in our submissions, some of which relate to core funding and other parts of which relate to the ability for community legal services to engage in innovative strategies, which is something that is only possible where there is a bit of leeway with core funding.

I am also conscious that one of the themes in our submission is a cautionary note that, in terms of pursuing additional programs, there needs to be effort placed into ensuring that different government agencies and different areas of government understand the common goal so that, in pursuing strategies, we do not have conflicting approaches. This is particularly true in law enforcement and policing, where rehabilitation is often seen as being blunted in its effectiveness by proactive crime-targeting strategies. That is something I am happy to talk about in further detail.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Campbell and Ms Link-Gordon, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Link-Gordon : Yes, I do. Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to come here and talk. I am going to speak very much in layman's terms about my experiences as a community access worker across the state.

Without a doubt, we experience the highest rates of the more serious acts of domestic violence as Aboriginal women—and really any other women in the country. I will give you a little example as I am talking. We had two days of community ed happening up in Brewarrina, and by the second day one of the young women who came along and participated—a well-groomed young girl who had come from the country—told us how she had been repeatedly stabbed in the head by her ex-partner and was two weeks out of it when we were there. We asked, 'Did you get the right support?' 'Yes, I was a little bit afraid about going and talking to anybody about it.' But she did get the support that she needed eventually.

The challenge for us is the long history there is for Aboriginal people in government, policing and certainly the Australian legal system as it is today. There is a lot of distrust within the communities, often leaving women feeling confused and disempowered about what their rights are. We risk being ostracised from family and our kinship ties when reporting domestic violence and sexual assault. Our histories of dispossession of land and culture and the forced removal of our children result in us compromising a lot of the values that we have around our caring, sharing and respect. We uphold those three values. When you are trying to do that and care for a brother or a sister who may have been very violent within your family, it compromises a whole bunch of stuff that has happened for your family and your community, and these challenges are real for us.

Reporting to the police is seen as a burden to families. When you are going to put someone who may be a family member in to the police, it is seen as a burden to families and the individuals who are reporting. Some examples are: 'Why did you bring the police here? My family doesn't need your trouble here.' Although you may very well be a victim of violence, you are pushed into a code of silence out of the fear and isolation that will happen. For someone who has experienced that horrible level of violence, you are the one who gets ostracised from family. That family might be your in-laws and you may have thought you had a really great relationship with your sister-in-law and your children, but once you put the brother in and you stand up and say, 'I don't like what he is doing to me,' they want no part of it. That can be very hard for women, especially living out in rural areas where you do not have a lot of support.

In regard to that, women in rural areas find it difficult to access DV support services. Hospitals do provide an ideal safe place for women; however, there is not a lot of training and a consequential failure to refer the women who experience the violence to a social worker or any other available services. An example of that is that earlier this year I was out at Bourke doing a program. One of the midwives came along to the program—it was about Bourke having a safe community for women—and the midwife had experienced getting assaulted. The perpetrator also assaulted his partner who was in labour. It was just horrible. Then she got pulled over the rails because she tried to stop him from hitting. It resulted in him actually pushing her against the wall. You might say, 'You should have just gone and got security.' But in Bourke hospital, at 11 o'clock at night, a woman in the throes of labour getting assaulted and the midwife trying to control all that is hard work on everybody.

But I just want to quickly talk about the positive practices that are happening, especially where I am currently employed at Women's Legal Services NSW. I think, for us, it is about the clear, respectful partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal services and workers, and that is what happens for us. It was pretty exciting, really. I have worked around this area for nearly 27 years and I am in this organisation. We will have up to five Aboriginal women working in there too in the next couple of weeks, just focusing on getting community education out across the state around domestic violence and sexual assault, especially around your legal rights. Part of that conversation is that your legal rights should equal to your human rights, and the Indigenous Women's Legal Program within Women's Legal Services were very much involved in discussions right across the service on our evolving community education and progressive methods of engagement with community through learning around a thing called constructive conversations where we can go in and, by the end of the day, people are going to be able to respond and be part of owning and resolving issues that happen in their community. We are not saying we can go out and save everybody, but we can certainly go and have a conversation where people start to own stuff that is happening and what they can do to resolve what is going down. We have the advice line, we have community legal education of course, and we have community access meetings for women or individuals or groups and organisations across the state.

Through all this, we have the finger on the pulse of what the leading conversation is for women in general, basically across the country, in regard to responding to domestic violence and sexual assault and our legal rights and this is just the best space we can be in at the moment—well, I know I feel we are in it—where we can get the message out and be able to talk to women about what your rights are. It is not just like, 'Yes, your legal rights mean legal and police.' It is about what your human rights are. You can have a quality of life. You can make a decision and feel that you are going to be backed up by the wider community on that decision. And that is just all I want to say about that.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator BERNARDI: Thank you for your submissions and thank you for your opening statements. A very simple question: do you think that Indigenous people who are facing issues with the law, whatever it might be, or facing issues with domestic violence are more likely to seek help from an Indigenous legal practitioner or an Indigenous service provider than from a non-Indigenous person?

Ms Link-Gordon : From my experience, if I am in with a group of women and we are talking about what your rights are, basically we are opening up the conversation of what your legal right is and how that relates to you getting the appropriate service. That is what we have found. Otherwise, it is really that the incident happens, police are called in, and then you are scrambling to find out who is going to be the person who is going to best support you. It may be that you meet that person at WDVCAS, the court support program, when you go into court, and that will be the start for a woman. For a man, if you have been a victim of violence, it may be hooking up with your men's group and finding out who you can get support from there. I hope that sort of answers it.

Senator BERNARDI: I am not sure that it does, in a sense. If you put yourself in a scenario where you are a victim of domestic violence, is there a greater likelihood of you seeking assistance, as an Indigenous person, because you can go and speak specifically to another Indigenous person about the issue that you are facing, whether it be within the police station or within the health service or a community service? Is there a hesitation in opening up to people of non-Indigenous heritage?

Ms Link-Gordon : I think people feel quite comfortable going in and talking to another Aboriginal person with regard to what may be happening in their life, like violence or sexual assault. Usually, that person is a bridge to getting the best support they can get. That may just be an easier conversation for them, and that worker will be able to say, 'Okay, I can find who you need to talk to.'

Senator BERNARDI: Exactly. They are likely to do that and then you can shepherd them into the services as necessary, whether provided by an Indigenous organisation or a non-Indigenous organisation. Going back to the legal service, if you have someone who is in trouble with the law, is it the same scenario? Do they want to go in and talk to an Aboriginal person because they think they are more likely to get an understanding of the situation they are in?

Mr Porter : I think there would be a preference there, but it is not an inherent obstacle. Certainly, the main strength that the community legal centres have is that if we cannot provide a specific shared history in terms of the Indigenous experience in Australia, we provide a shared history of experience in the area and they feel as if we are part of the community. That is certainly my experience. There are characteristics of me which would make me—on paper—not seem like an appropriate person to handle a drop-in appointment from an Indigenous woman who has attempted to report a sexual assault to the police but is feeling as though there are serious communication issues there. On paper, I am a white male, and that makes me less than ideal. We do what we can in the circumstances that we have to make sure that, where people are brave enough to make use of a service without knowing that the service is tailored to them, they have a good experience of that service. From that, we build trust and people are happy to come back. In many ways, it is about making sure that that initial experience is a positive one, because that trust relationship is so important.

Senator LINES: The Redfern Legal Centre has got its own history, doesn't it? That is part of the acceptance.

Ms Morley : Indeed, we do.

Senator LINES: It has got a history of struggle.

Ms Morley : We have actively tried to have some Aboriginal staff members as well, and over time we have managed to maintain that. At the moment, we have two employed staff members who are Aboriginal and we have two volunteer legal assistants who are as well that I am aware of—there may well be others who have not spoken to me who are. I cannot emphasise enough that relationship of trust. That goes to things like continuity of funding and continuity of programs too. With government changing funding programs and what they are going to fund regularly, you find a breach of the trust and a breach of those pathways for people coming in. I really cannot recommend strongly enough the importance of maintaining existing organisations and existing funding streams so that you can establish those patterns so that when people come in they know they can get a service, they know they can find a pathway in and they trust that process. That being said, I do think that Aboriginal communities do favour being able to approach an organisation that is Aboriginal, but you do not want to have all of the eggs in one basket because it may be that the core staff members of that organisation are related to—for instance—the perpetrator. You cannot have just one service; people have to have some choices.

Senator BERNARDI: Ms Morley, would I be correct in picking up from Senator Lines's point—which I think is a valid one—that that permanence and enduring relationship with a particular community can perhaps overcome some of the cultural barriers that may cause people to hesitate to use a facility? It does not necessarily mean that you have to be Indigenous, but you have to have this presence in this community for a substantial period of time and, indeed, be part of the community. Is that reasonable?

Ms Morley : What I would say to that is that, for example, as a centre, we have worked very extensively over the years to work closely with our local Aboriginal community, to have Aboriginal staff members and to be culturally appropriate in the way we deliver services. A service could be there for a long time and never achieve any of those things if they do not actively make an attempt to address those access needs, those pathways of trust.

Ms Campbell : We are running a state-wide service and we are very much working in partnership with our Indigenous colleagues. We work together to bring that service to our clients in the most appropriate way, and it might be using a whole lot of different styles and ensuring that our clients have a whole range of choices. Their preference might be to not have an Indigenous caseworker, for whatever reason, for the sense of their own privacy—it is not our business to inquire. It is our business to provide a suite of options and to be able to tailor our services to meet the style. In a place where you could say, 'There's a legal aid office, there's a form to fill in and there's a restriction on the limit of time that you have for your appointment with your solicitor,' we can provide a culturally appropriate service—doors open, no forms—and Dixie and her colleagues will sit with that woman for as long as it takes, until she is ready to talk to the lawyer and get the legal advice. The capacity to provide that variety of styles and the appropriateness of styles gives us an accessibility model.

Senator LINES: I am a Western Australian senator, so I come from the outlier state. We have very high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in incarceration, particularly juveniles. We have had a massive increase of women in prison. We have double bunking in cells designed for one woman at our Bandyup Women's Prison, and it is a maximum security prison, so it is capturing women who have not been given that sort of sentence. Things are dire in Western Australia. We still have Aboriginal people dying in police cells; we had a woman die last year who was incarcerated for nonpayment of fines, and on and on it goes. So that is my experience in Western Australia.

I am interested in the custodial notification service. I know it has been under threat here and I have spoken about it in the parliament on a number of occasions. Does Redfern Legal Centre participate in that?

Mr Porter : We do not participate in that.

Senator LINES: So it is just ALS?

Mr Porter : It is solely provided by ALS through their regular staff. They have a roster system.

Senator LINES: If someone called them and said, 'I go to the Redfern Legal Centre,' would they refer them to you?

Mr Porter : We regularly get referrals from ALS, because they practise in the area of criminal law and they also do some family law. But part of the reason we are here is the associated legal needs of the Aboriginal community in New South Wales, so a lot of referrals come from ALS.

Another factor that leads to us getting referrals from ALS, and me specifically—I do a lot of police oversight work—is that ALS will have a situation where a criminal defence discloses that there has been inappropriate or substandard conduct by a police officer. It might not be relevant to the precise criminal defence that they are going to run, but if that client provides instructions at the conclusion of that matter then that can be referred to me to provide advice. One of the most important things that happen there is that that person gets an advocate who says, 'What the police did in your particular instance was not correct.' That can do a lot to restore there being a point to the justice system, in the eyes of that person. A lot of accused, and even victims, can see it as one-way traffic, but if they feel as though they have a voice and if the mechanisms of government are held to account then that can do a lot to engage them with the legal system in general.

In terms of the Custody Notification Service and its absence in Western Australia, the ALS model—which is run by one organisation, which has a state-wide catchment—is one option. There is also the possibility of something similar to the Intellectual Disability Rights Service's CJSN, which is the Criminal Justice Support Network. That is more of a roster system staffed by volunteers, which allows for support services to be provided to other types of vulnerable people in custody. So there are a variety of ways to get there, but the Custody Notification Service would be the gold standard in terms of that.

Senator LINES: Because the onus is on the police to contact, isn't it?

Mr Porter : It is legislated.

Senator LINES: Yes, so that is a very powerful tool.

Mr Porter : It is a powerful tool. However, it still faces opposition by some officers because, concomitant with notifying the ALS that the person is in custody, that person gets to speak to an ALS solicitor and they get informed of their legal rights, which are that they do not need to answer any questions, and that sometimes frustrates the officer involved. This is what we refer in our submission as the ongoing tension between improving the experience of Indigenous people in the legal system and the way that individual government agencies might see their role in the legal system.

Senator LINES: We have a number of laws in WA. We probably lead the country in terms of mandatory sentencing. We have just had some new laws pass the state parliament last week, which say that in burglary offences there is a three-year mandatory sentence, which is obviously going to further impact on the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And we have move-on orders which are not supposed to lead to incarceration, but they do because people end up with a number of them and end up before the courts. But I could not imagine the law you have in New South Wales where the police, if they think someone might offend, can—

Mr Porter : The Suspect Targeting Management Plan?

Senator LINES: Yes, I could not imagine how that would work in Western Australia. It would be shocking given the harassment there already. Does that mean the police could legitimately—for example, if I were a known offender and they thought I was up to something—follow me around? Is that what it means?

Mr Porter : The STMP is a policy rather than legislation. It is an internal police policy. What they use—they formulate a list of targeted offenders within any catchment area. They do not need to apply for any extra powers. They have been given sufficient discretionary powers under legislation that they can provide someone with an overwhelming level of attention, and the primary purpose is to get that person off the streets and it does not really matter what for. That is the way in which the policy is framed. That will—

Senator LINES: Does that mean that they could end up back in custody?

Mr Porter : They can and have—

Senator LINES: In Western Australia we would get a move-on order for sure. I have seen the police give them out within about 30 seconds of interacting with people, so—

Mr Porter : We have dealt with cases at the Redfern Legal Centre with people who have been on an STMP. The general trend is that it will lead to a more serious response action taken by police simply because of the person's presence on the STMP, and that creates a feedback loop where they have more and more contact with police and it is dealt with more and more seriously. So something that might be dealt with simply by way of a direction gets dealt with by way of a fine, or a fine gets dealt with by a way of a charge, or a charge also includes an arrest. It leads to overpolicing of bail.

Bail is one area where I can speak from experience in saying that it has a particularly harsh effect on Aboriginal families within New South Wales, because with regard to juvenile offenders there is often a curfew condition and police will check whether that curfew condition is being broken or not by attending the household at late hours of the evening or early hours of the morning. I have dealt with a matter where the young person's sister had to defer her high school certificate because she was simply unable to cope with the stress and interruption of the daily visits by police. The young person did have a history of offending, but they were minor property offences. We are not talking about personal violence offences of any kind. But the reason these things happen is that they are within the accepted framework of proactive policing.

CHAIR: It is very resource-intensive for the New South Wales Police to keep that level of work up. The statistics in your submission show that bail compliance checks grew from 3,541 to 88,617 over five years.

Mr Porter : The reason we have those statistics is that they were used by the Police Association and Police Union to lobby for increased police pay. So that is from a pay case. The New South Wales Premier recently said that what can be measured gets done. This is the downside of what can be measured.

Ms Morley : The police have KPIs that they are meant to meet. Certain things like the number of robberies are meant to go down every month. Things that are meant to go up include the number of checks they do, the number of move-on orders, and a number of things like that.

Mr Porter : I should clarify for the record that that is at a command level rather than at an individual officer level.

Senator LINES: Are either of your organisations involved in the Justice Reinvestment Project at Bourke?

Ms Campbell : No, we are not involved in the project. We have other quite substantial history with the communities at Bourke. We have mainly been engaged through the Family Violence Prevention Legal Service operating there.

Senator LINES: Ms Link-Gordon, this is slightly off topic, but you seem very optimistic around domestic violence, given the crisis state we are in in Australia with the shocking deaths a couple of weeks ago. What gives cause for your optimism?

Ms Link-Gordon : I am an optimistic person. I cannot get up and think that these things cannot be addressed. Every day I put my utmost into it. It helps when you work in an environment where people are working with you. For any legal query I have, I can go into any office in my workplace. With the information I have, I do not just keep it to myself; I share it with the women I work with.

Senator LINES: You said you have five more workers coming to do this.

Ms Link-Gordon : There will be five of us when we employ another worker. We are doing a project called 'It stops here'. That will be around young people and understanding relationships.

Senator LINES: Is that with additional funding the organisation has or will you scrape money from elsewhere?

Ms Campbell : The Indigenous Women's Legal Program was funded, as part of our core funding, to be a community legal centre until quite recently. Then that funding was withdrawn.

Senator LINES: Is that Commonwealth or state funding?

Ms Campbell : This is Commonwealth funding. All that funding was moved from the Attorney-General's Department to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and it was rolled into the Indigenous advancement strategy. We tendered for funding under that strategy and we were successful in that tender. I refer to my colleague's previous comment: it is only for 12 months. We do not know what happens after that. This is a program that has run for over 16 years. It would be nice when we visit women in rural and remote areas to be able to say, 'We'll be back the same time next year.'

Senator LINES: Just so that I am clear: this is money you have had for 16 years and it is in the competitive—

Ms Campbell : That is right. It has been then taken away from our ongoing, stable, core funding and is now only for 12 months—'You'll have to compete in a tender for it.' Four Aboriginal staff are funded from that. The fifth, which we are recruiting now, is funded from a state government project—the 'It stops here' prevention project. Again, that was a tender process; it is a project of limited duration. Dixie and her colleagues will be working with Aboriginal girls in high schools so they can learn what a respectful relationship is and how to recognise when something is going wrong and how to get out of it safely.

Senator LINES: In terms of both your Commonwealth funding, have you got a gag clause in your new funding so that you cannot advocate and lobby?

Ms Campbell : Yes. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding replicated the same clause that had been used by the Attorney-General's Department. We are allowed to speak to you today.

Senator LINES: That is good. What is it you cannot do?

Ms Campbell : We take the attitude that there is nothing that we cannot do.

Senator LINES: Fair enough—until someone tells you.

Ms Campbell : We are permitted to provide factual information, are we not?

Senator BERNARDI: You are, indeed.

Ms Campbell : We believe that is what we provide.

Senator LINES: What about the Redfern Legal Centre? Do you get Commonwealth funds?

Ms Morley : We get Commonwealth funds through the Community Legal Services Program, through the Legal Aid Commission.

Senator LINES: You have got the gag clause as well?

Ms Morley : Yes, we have that one as well.

CHAIR: Your submission has a funding reduction of $294,000. Is that still going to occur? I think you said it would in the next financial year.

Ms Morley : We had some funding for some years, particularly in relation to financial counselling or financial counselling related services. Some of that was from the Commonwealth government and some of that was from the New South Wales government through Fair Trading. The New South Wales government restructured that and put it out to tender. We did tender for that against one of the other founders of financial counselling and they, Wesley Mission, received that funding. I am less clear exactly how the Commonwealth government decided who they were going to fund; but, again, I think it was kind of, 'Well, what can we put into someone else's portfolio? Let's do that if we've got to cut back on what we're spending in our portfolio.' Again, on the legal aid funding, while we have retained our funding for these two years, at the end of the two years there will be a reduction of funding in New South Wales.

Ms Campbell : That is the 30 per cent.

Ms Morley : We are less clear how that will impact us.

Senator LINES: That is a significant portion of your funding.

Ms Campbell : If I could just make a comment about that: we and all the community legal centres run on the smell of an oily rag. There is no back-office savings that can be made. We do not have any secretaries; we do our own data entry and we sweep our own floors. The only thing we can do with a 30 per cent reduction is close services. It will be putting off solicitors and closing down services.

Senator LINES: This will be affecting front-line services?

Ms Campbell : Absolutely. There is no other way that we can deal with a cut like that. I would be looking at putting off between four and five legally qualified staff.

Senator LINES: What about Redfern?

Ms Morley : We have looked. We have been able to save one of our services that was about to go, because we have picked up a little bit of funding. One of those bits of funding is only for 12 months. The funding that is specifically supporting David's position is, again, of a short-term duration.

Mr Porter : Yes. More specifically, the practice in which I work is now the University of New South Wales's Policing Practice at Redfern Legal Centre, which is how my position exists for a further 12 months.

Ms Morley : The sad thing about the loss of those positions is that we do not just lose the employed worker; we lose the cluster of volunteer services that come around that. For instance, just to use an example of the value of that, a firm of solicitors who specialise in family law provide three appointments for us a week. They charge out those services to their clients at around $400 to $700 an hour. The opportunity cost of that back into the community is huge. But if we lose the workers who support that—because you have to have core workers who make the appointments and who make sure that it all happens, all the compliance regimes work and all of those kinds of things—then we lose that contribution from the community.

Senator LINES: I have one last question. I really like the idea—and it would be good to see how it goes—of your program talking to young women, or girls in high school, about good relationships. It would be interesting to see where that goes. I am just wondering if both of you are able to give us some examples of where you have seen some good justice reinvestment programs that are working, particularly in relation to young offenders or potential offenders.

Ms Morley : There is a good program being run by the local area command with—

Senator LINES: Is that the boxing?

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator LINES: I used to live in Redfern.

Ms Morley : That is working quite well, but, again, not everyone boxes. Getting Luke Freudenstein into the community and working with the community has broken down some barriers. It has helped to rebuild some relationships. We are very pleased to support that. We work very closely with the police. We have the Sydney Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service as part of our structure. We, naturally, work very closely with the police on that. We have only good things to say about the local domestic violence liaison officers in Redfern. So we have out police complaints and in the other part of the service we have a very good relationship with them.

With projects run from community legal centres, I know that Legal Aid has been quite active in going out with some fines matters around work and development orders, which are very constructive. We are constantly working with our local organisations. For instance, we met with Weave, a local service provider to young people, in relation to ways we can relate to them in working on addressing issues as they need. They provide a nexus point for the young people to come in. But the very vulnerable are not in the school system. The school system is one of the ways of engaging with people. It is hard to find ways in which you can engage there constructively.

Ms Campbell : We have a program visiting Aboriginal women in prison. There is one juvenile justice detention centre in New South Wales specifically for girls called Juniperina. It has capacity for 18 girls. At the moment, 16 of those girls are Aboriginal. We are working very closely with the management of Corrective Services at that centre. The girls are so far from home. The risk to them on release is just so enormous. They are so vulnerable. We really want to work constructively on getting some really good pastoral supports in place so that we can get those girls out, get them back home and keep them safe.

Senator LINES: Are you specifically funded for that?

Ms Campbell : No.

Senator LINES: We just had the department in and they were telling us about the sorts of programs they have in place for adults. I asked them about what happens post release. If you are in a program, there is some follow-up. Outside of that, there did not seem to be much. With the 16 girls that you talked about, are they from all over the state?

Ms Link-Gordon : Yes.

Senator LINES: What age are they?

Ms Link-Gordon : Juniperina takes them from 11 to 18. I think the youngest one is about 13 or 14.

Senator LINES: On release, could they just be released on the street? A 13-year-old—

Ms Link-Gordon : When I was speaking with the young girls, they said that family members were actually coming down to visit them when they were to be released, or that they had an aunty living around town who was going to pick them up. For myself, as a mother and a grandmother to a teenage girl, it is a worry, What happens when you go back to home where all you have ever been spoonfed was violence and abuse?

You go to Juniperina and, as crazy as it may sound, you end up having someone ask you: 'What's going on? Do you feel okay?' You get your regular meals, and there is a bit of comfort there. You do not want the kids to grow up and think that you have to go into an institution to feel that bit of comfort. It is very sad. I was going back in there the other day at the expo and seeing that and hearing that little common thread of conversation with the girls. For them to go home, I think there has to be some sort of really good program that they can slide into and where they can still feel a bit of safety and where if they do not go home—if they go and live with a relative or whatever—it is a good space for them.

Senator LINES: I am just thinking about a 13-year-old girl who, as you say, is incredibly vulnerable. Who has that legal responsibility for her not to end up on the street? When she is released, is there a requirement that she has to go to a family member?

Ms Campbell : You would think so, yes. In practice it is not Corrective Services' responsibility. However, it is almost certainly the case that those girls have had prior contact with child welfare authorities. They may have some kind of guardianship or even be wards of the state, in which case the Department of Community Services—in fact, the minister—is effectively their guardian. And what a neglectful parent he is!

Senator LINES: But would they know that that 13-year-old that they have responsibility for is due to be released? I know that often departments work in silos.

Ms Campbell : No, caseworkers in DOCS rapidly and systematically lose sight of where people are in the corrective services system, and we often have issues with court orders or notifications that court matters are coming up in child welfare matters. They are faxed to a prison, which may or may not be the prison where that prisoner is being held. That is the proof of service for the court to proceed, although we find our clients often have not been given that information in a timely manner that enables them to get legal advice and to arrange representation in that matter. So the authorities are ploughing along while the woman who is in custody is invisiblised out of that process. Many of our clients are mothers and find on exiting prison that they have actually been denied an opportunity for ongoing contact with their children. As to the extent to which DOCS would act more proactively with the juvenile detainees, I would like to believe that that is the case, but it has not been our experience. But, as I said, we are working with those that are inside now, and it may be that there are better things happening for those coming out. It is just that we have not heard that.

Ms Morley : Could I just add that I think it is very important that the schools address disability needs of children really proactively. I have had at least one discrimination case in the last few years, for a young Aboriginal boy who had a significant learning disability, seriously impacting on his ability to participate in school. There seemed to be some level of perception that the failure was in the parents' ability to engage with reading and things like that. That was simply based on a perception of the parent as Aboriginal. In fact, the parent was very actively parenting and participating in that education process. It was a complicated story; there are no simple answers in it. It was only when the boy's health deteriorated because of what was happening at school, to the point that he developed a mental illness, that he got additional support under the government's funding program for children with disability in schools. Until then, the school was meant to accommodate him within its core funding.

Senator MOORE: Following up some way from that, Ms Morley, I have been asking a couple of questions around the health issues of people who are in the system. We had significant evidence this morning about FASD and the impact that has on people in the legal system and also how they get support. The other issue is around hearing. There is significant evidence that quite a significant number of people from Aboriginal and Islander backgrounds have undiagnosed hearing issues which impact on their interrelation with the justice system. So they go through the system—and FASD is a similar thing—may or may not be aware of what is going on and end up in custody, and then what happens? I am trying to find out whether there is any particular process that supports people through that area. From either of your services, are you aware of cases where there are people with those disabilities who are caught up in the system without support?

Ms Morley : It would be true that a lot of people engaging with the justice system from disadvantaged backgrounds come with levels of chronic disability of some form or other. To have your disabilities fully diagnosed often takes very active engagement by a well-informed, well-educated, well-resourced parent to fight for all of that through the system. So, if you are already starting with the historic disadvantage of people who are marginalised out of the system, as one might see the Aboriginal community, you have Aboriginal people coming through the system with a lot of failures to identify, failures to address and failures to recognise. Lay over that different cultural patterns of communication—the use of silences in different ways, whether you agree because you think that is what you are meant to do and those kinds of differences—and you have people coming into the system where it is quite likely that they will slip through those cracks without anyone being aware that they have not understood or that no-one has taken the additional time to explore or explain or resource their ability to participate.

We all know the legal system as it works. If you go into a court and you are sitting there, you will hear half sentences between the legal representatives and the magistrate. They do not speak in full explanatory sentences. You yourself can walk out sometimes and think, 'What actually happened there?' and it is only when you get the printed orders that you have a clear picture of what went on. So how do our poor clients understand what has happened in court, particularly if they have that marginalisation and those different cultural patterns of understanding or of communicating and then a disability on top of that that impacts on their communication or their ability to hear and process what is being said? You have real disadvantage there and a real problem in people actually being equally heard or equally participating in the justice system.

Senator MOORE: Ms Link-Gordon, in the work you have done in communities across New South Wales, have you come across this? We had the people this morning who have been involved with the Northern Territory program about safe communities, and they were talking about FASD. We know that that is an issue in many other places. Is that something that you have identified in New South Wales communities?

Ms Link-Gordon : The stuff that I do around safe communities is always around the awareness around domestic violence and sexual assault. Really, people—the women that I work with—are not talking about it that much. I have been visiting community in the wider state of New South Wales for about the last eight years, and it is really with women. Women are not really bringing that conversation, although I am aware of it.

I participated in a group where the adult participant obviously had the symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome. She was a 40-year-old woman who had come from a family where there was a big alcohol background. It was the first time that she had ever sat down and been part of a group, talking about what had happened in her life, which was just horrible, horrible abuse that had happened over a long time. Not long after we had done the group, unfortunately, she passed away, when her life had sobered up and she had changed up a lot of stuff.

Senator MOORE: There is great vulnerability. It is another level of vulnerability. When you hit up against the system, it is very tough.

Ms Link-Gordon : One thing I really noticed was how the women got around and really tried to look after her. They knew she was really vulnerable. They knew she had been through a lot of stuff. The particular woman who had said: 'Oh, we had a lot of people in our home, but we were always looking after sister. She knew she could come, and my mum had a spot for her.' I reckon that happens in lots and lots of little communities—

Senator MOORE: People make it work.

Ms Link-Gordon : where there is someone. They will try to take them and do the best care they can but do not really have a big picture of all the dynamics that go into living the life where there is a really full-on impact from the FAS stuff.

Senator MOORE: The other area that you have both touched on is financial servicing and financial counselling. The Victorian Women's Legal Service yesterday released a paper on the importance of financial counselling and DV and trying to have the services co-located so that all that extra abuse of financial debt and stuff is looked at, which people forget. Ms Morley, you said that in your services you had financial counselling at one stage. Did I hear that?

Ms Morley : Because we have lawyers doing the service, we have largely been regarded more as what are called credit advocates than as true financial counsellors, accredited financial counsellors.

Senator MOORE: We have heard about fines, and we have heard about people getting into trouble because of bills not being paid and then having debt collectors and legal service in that way.

Ms Morley : Yes, but we have always valued advice in the credit and debt area. If you don't have a steady income stream then you can't maintain a roof over your head and you can't, you can't, you can't. It is part of achieving all your other rights that you have a financial base that is steady. So, for us, financial rights have always been important. What used to be known as 'sexually transmitted debt' and is now 'financial abuse'—

Senator MOORE: That is right; the terms have changed from the seventies.

Ms Morley : the terms have changed—has always been a focus of our service. We see it quite regularly. We have clients, not all coming into domestic violence but otherwise, where their partner has signed them up on debts, considerably, and then disappeared with the money through either gambling or investing in property overseas in his family's name or whatever.

But, as we run the domestic violence court assistance scheme, we have a number of cross-referrals from within our own service, and we try to be a holistic service. We are not a family law service per se, but we have some family law appointments. We have some care and protection appointments. We have police complaints around inaction by police on domestic violence. We have credit and debt advice in relation to it. So we try to bring all of those services to bear in that area to try to get some positive outcomes for the women experiencing domestic violence. I have previously presented in front of Senator Bernardi in relation to domestic violence services, where he asked if we prioritised domestic violence services, and we do.

Senator MOORE: I am sure Cory remembered every bit of that.

Senator BERNARDI: I beg your pardon?

Senator MOORE: I am sure you remembered every bit of that.

Senator BERNARDI: I do remember, actually. It was a very interesting inquiry.

Senator MOORE: It is interesting in terms of the priorities in a generalist service when you have the range of things that come through your door on a daily basis.

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator MOORE: And from the Women's Legal Services—the idea that it is financial counselling in terms of the debt?

Ms Campbell : In all of our services, we prioritise domestic violence, and almost all of our clients are experiencing domestic violence. We recently applied for some funding through the Financial Literacy Foundation to establish an Indigenous-specific financial-counselling service because the way money is handled in households is very culturally specific. A lot of mainstream attitudes towards how you should handle money are inconsistent with Indigenous household expectations. Sorry, I should be letting you say this. If you come from a culture where sharing what you have is valued then being told you need to save your money is being invited to commit sin.

Senator MOORE: The whole idea of the welfare process and all that, yes.

Ms Campbell : That was to try to provide some strengthening and some capacity building in a way that is culturally appropriate and led by Aboriginal women who can provide role modelling about that. Unfortunately we were not successful in that application. That is something I am still very keen to pursue, if we ever get the opportunity to do so.

Ms Morley : If I could just pick up on credit and debt, there are industries that from time to time deliberately target the Aboriginal community to exploit them in relation to products, be they funeral benefits or rental equipment, and Centrepay—which thankfully has just been or is about to be changed; I cannot recall where it is up to. Again, an active part of our advocacy is around those areas where industry finds a nice little niche to overmarket goods. The latest one of course has been the VET FEE-HELP area.

Senator LINES: We had Legal Aid here this morning. They have a civil area, and they were telling us about that.

Senator BERNARDI: I had a similar conversation this morning with Senator Lines, that not all credit providers are doing the wrong thing.

Ms Morley : And not all the time.

Senator BERNARDI: There is a conditional statement! But we heard about consumer leases, I think it was—

Ms Morley : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: where an unlimited percentage can be charged for interest, virtually. That is what we were told this morning.

Ms Morley : I would have to defer to our credit and debt solicitor for an expert response to that.

Senator BERNARDI: But that is what we were told this morning. There was also identification of a need for reasonable credit facilities for those in need to buy essential goods—white goods and things like that—that would improve their lives. Do you agree with that?

Ms Morley : I would strongly support extension of the No Interest Loan Scheme particularly for those families who are trying to survive on Centrelink payments. That is such a good program, and such a positive contribution to trying to ensure that families have basic infrastructure that we all take for granted in this community, without having all the government Centrelink payments going into the hands of marketing and for the goods. The price that people pay for a fridge is two to three times the price they would pay if they went in with cash. And the goods are often sold on terms that people do not understand.

Ms Link-Gordon : The NILS program works so well. Young mums are getting the good equipment. They know they are paying for it. It is theirs; they pay for it out of their income, and they pay the correct amount. And, as you say, they are not paying heaps on top of that.

CHAIR: Mr Porter, did you have something you wanted to add? I recall earlier you saying—

Mr Porter : I might touch on one thing that was mentioned by Senator Moore in relation to assisting people who have vulnerabilities, particularly in the criminal justice system, in terms of accommodations for things like FASD and other impairments they might have. One thing I have observed in my experiences is that particularly where a person has a cognitive impairment they are reluctant to see themselves as impaired.

Senator MOORE: Particularly with things like FASD. There is no awareness.

Mr Porter : And the most reliable method that I have found and have adopted myself, as their legal advisor, is to sit down and explain to them what their legal rights are, that these things are your rights, that this is not help that we are giving you because of a vulnerability but that these are your rights. I have found that that is a much more effective way for me to get that person to assert those rights, particularly in a situation in which they might be in a police cell and I am not there. Many of those clients are either belittled in some way for the manner in which they present or, when they do assert a vulnerability, are doubted by the police: 'No, you're not. You seem fine. You're just saying this so that you get these accommodations.' One of the enduring problems with legislating additional support for people is that the legislation is not there in the room to speak up for itself. That person needs an advocate. That is an area where the custody notification scheme run by the ALS has been successful, but that still relies on the call being made to the ALS.

Ms Morley : And if you are going to use section 32 of the—

Mr Porter : Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act?

Ms Morley : Yes. You really do need to pay for medicolegal reports to support that section. That requires funding.

Senator MOORE: And people just do not have that much money.

Ms Morley : No. The ordinary person does not have that money.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming today. We very much appreciate your time and the evidence you have given—for the assistance you have provided us today with our inquiry.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 20