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Aboriginal child abuse: whom do you trust?

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Brian McCoy |  25 July 2007

For some weeks now I have been witnessing the members of a remote Aboriginal community address a most delicate issue: child sexual abuse. The location and name of the community are not important. Neither are the details of the case. What is important is how this experience can inform us in relation to the recent intervention of the Federal Government in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. As a sudden and unexpected move to engage those who are most likely the most vulnerable people in Aboriginal communities, it needs to move with much more than speed.

Care, sensitivity and wisdom are required, and the government must show that it has learned from the earlier experiences of government interventions over recent years. The government also needs to show that we can trust in the years to come that those who were abused will receive appropriate healing, those who have been violent have been fairly punished and offered rehabilitation, and that the families of both have become stronger rather than more hurt and broken.

Aboriginal child abuse: whom do you trust?

For some time I have wanted to believe there were agencies, private and Government, State and Federal, which might enter with some purpose and commitment and address a whole range of abuse, violence, neglect and poverty that has plagued remote Aboriginal communities for years. I will continue to hope that such interventions will occur and will make a long-term difference. However, I have serious misgivings about the present interventions. I also have serious misgivings about a conversation that reduces complex issues to a simple absolute: ‘the child must come first’.

In the community where I was present, after months of conversations involving the police, a child protection officer and community members, a man was charged with committing the offence of sexual assault against a young girl. He went to court but, before a verdict could be reached, he died. In the course of his court appearances, and after his unexpected (and unrelated to the alleged offence) death, some of the family of the deceased turned against his accusers. It is not only non-Aboriginal families who find it difficult to believe that one of their own members could abuse anyone, much less someone whom they know as ‘family’ in that wider and extended Aboriginal meaning of the term.

In this case, as in similar cases, police only managed to lay charges because a witness came forward. Evidence in cases of child abuse is often hard to gather and difficult to sustain over time. Clearly, it was not easy for this witness to come forward, and certainly not made any easier by the premature death of the accused. What played out was more than a community watching the police taking another one of its members to court. The case showed how difficult it can become for families and communities to engage in issues that threaten the very fabric of their already fragile and largely powerless society. This is quite apart from the difficulty of engaging and healing the hurt and pain of those who were assaulted and abused, the most vulnerable ones of all.

I observed that, as the police moved in and charges were laid, family and community members backed off. They did not engage in public discussion, ring up lawyers, talk to the media or even call a community meeting. They retreated back to those whom they could hold onto and trust, their own families.

This movement away from public conversation and scrutiny may have happened because desert people have experienced a long, and often painful, history of public scrutiny and negative judgement by other Australians. A critical ingredient of that history is their relationship with the police. When the desert people of this region, the parents and grandparents of the today’s adults, first met missionaries they also met police. At this first encounter sheep belonging to the missionaries were speared. Police were called and men were taken away in chains. And that was at the first encounter! The Kukatja word for police became wayirnuwatji, ‘the one who comes with chains’, the description of a relationship that was to be remembered for future generations.

Not surprisingly, family members today remember not just those early days but many times since, when police have intervened to take members of their families away. Police have used violence against young and older desert men in the past decade. Rarely was there accountability, explanation or communication with local leaders or families. Sometimes, desert people have accepted these actions, sometimes they have resented them. Often they have felt angry, frustrated and powerless.

What can be confidently stated is that over several decades a strong and sustaining relationship of trust between the police and this group of desert people has not developed. Hence, when police, Government officials or others come into Aboriginal communities and people experience their words and actions as ones of admonition, correction and criticism many simply walk away. They turn to those whom they can believe are the only ones they can trust, namely the members of their close and immediate families. This applies equally to all those who have experienced violence and abuse, and those who have been charged.

Aboriginal child abuse: whom do you trust?

As this Government exercise develops, the experience of trust between all involved is central. When people experience being shamed and blamed, their trust in themselves and those criticising them can easily be further eroded. When those who have been deeply hurt and assaulted are not offered the patience and strength of trust, their wound of mistrust can deepen and follow them into adult life. And, within this desert context, trust holds particularly important meanings for people who have learned through painful experience not to trust the police, not to trust Government initiatives and interventions, and not to trust those who continue to highlight their failings.

The constant flow of Government bureaucrats through communities over decades, not to mention the constant change of policies over the same period of time, has left most Aboriginal people living a poverty that is hard for urban Australians to appreciate. Trust, however, remains a key ingredient, a cultural ‘glue’, that holds these families and often very artificially constructed ‘communities’ together.

Trust is what holds desert people and sustains them when there is no money, no roof over their heads, when the Centrelink or CDEP money doesn’t come and the store is closed. This is a trust that causes people to rely on each other, to know that within a changing and dominating non-Aboriginal world their family remains. Trust lies behind the ceremonies that men and women perform, particularly initiation and mortuary rites, and people’s ability, despite language and other differences, to come together and celebrate important moments of their individual and communal lives. This is a trust that enables each ‘family’ to experience regular support and care, as wide networks are fostered and sustained

In cases of child abuse, the trust that a child places in adults, families, and community has been seriously broken. The abuse of a child is, in many ways, an abuse of the whole society. It reflects a trust that has been broken and that cannot be simply fixed or quickly restored, no matter how well intentioned are those who intervene.

Hence, when the Government seeks to develop policy on the run, as it clearly did in this case, it shows that it has not carefully considered, or appreciated, the needs of those who are most affected by violence and abuse. It shows it does not understand how previous policies have eroded the trust of desert people who live a long way away from those Government officials who continue to make decisions about their lives. It shows, most tragically, how people in communities might choose to tolerate further violence and abuse when faced with options that do not strengthen trust but erode it.

It would be easy to respond to the Government’s actions by showing that it has cared very little for the rights and needs of children in the past: Aboriginal, refugees or asylum seekers. It would also be easy to remember the barrage of constant and negative comments that Government ministers, including the Prime Minister, have made about Aboriginal communities, their culture and human rights in recent years.

It will be less easy to witness these initiatives, and their long-term implications, and also to believe that people and communities might experience further abuse and violence. Serious questions remain. What of those who will be charged? What do we know of them and how they learned this behaviour? Who will work with them to ensure they do not offend again? And what of those who are the most vulnerable in all of this, namely those who have been abused and their close family members? How will they learn to trust those who now seek to intervene quite intimately in their lives? When trust has been damaged over many decades how can it be restored? Can it ever be restored by focussing on the children without attention to the parents and grandparents of all those involved? Have we forgotten that it is families who grow up children and communities who grow up families?

At a seminar in Melbourne more than thirty years ago, Professor W.E.H Stanner commented on the poor state of Aboriginal health. He noted that not much had improved over the preceding four decades. On children he commented,

"The reason why we established some settlements was that we thought it gave us the best chance of working on the children. We supposed that we could do little or nothing for the adults. We would be vindicated by what we could do for the children. When we had succeeded with the children, the settlements would wither away within a generation or two. That idea, which is older than Macquarie, has wrought havoc in Aboriginal life. It has never worked and never will work as long as parents care for children and children look to parents. This desperate fallacy has been held right through Australian history".

Aboriginal child abuse: whom do you trust?

Stanner, respected for his profound insights and reflections around Aboriginal life, pointed to a fundamental issue that has plagued our nation’s history. Government has rarely worked well with Aboriginal adults nor shown that it wanted to communicate and work with them. Instead, it has sought to focus on the children: to remove, educate and immunise them. As a nation we have failed, too often, to work with their parents and grandparents and their wider family networks. We have rarely committed ourselves to support their strengths and capabilities. This recent intervention highlights this tendency.

Where in this present situation are the procedures in place that will support family structures, when trust has been broken, when more men are in prison and communities continue to live in poverty? Where is the support for those Aboriginal men and women who maintain, with great dignity and hope, their families and communities? Where are the networks and programs to help those young men who have learned damaging and violent forms of behaviour? Where is the trust that can repair the damage caused by pain and violence?

There are key Aboriginal leaders, men and women, who have earned trust far beyond that reciprocated by their immediate families and relations. There are also some police who have earned trust, as there are teachers, lawyers, ministers, sporting coaches and youth workers. The number may not be great, as many non-Aboriginal people rarely stay long enough, or enter deeply enough, into the life of remote communities to gain that trust. However, the building of trust begins here, within communities and in partnership with key Aboriginal leaders, women and men. Outsiders, police and others, can make use of this trust. They may seek to listen to, be guided by and work with the trust, however fragile, that exists. If they seek to believe they can work without trust, their actions will simply fail. 

One of the lessons we have learned in western society is that the damage caused by sexual abuse can continue for decades and be transmitted to future generations. If we are serious in addressing this issue, we need to address how those who have been most hurt are helped. At the moment there seems to be little understanding of how this might occur. As I sit and listen with those whose lives have been radically affected by recent Government actions and police initiatives, I sense that people will continue to do what they have done for decades. They will turn to those they believe they can trust.

 



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What is so hard to understand about the principle that 'the child must come first' ? If perpetrators break the sacred trust that binds their social group together, why must children pay for it ? Here's another principle: 'do the crime, you do the time.' 35 years ago, I was working in a community which is currently in the news over child abuse. I witnessed plenty of breach of 'trust' by those in power and their families and mates, plenty of violence, but very little child abuse, as far as I could tell. Why should the innocent suffer ? It's bad enough that the abused should be confined to 'safe houses' while perpetrators have complete freedom - so much for 'trust' within social groups. No, Dr McCoy, bring the boom down on perpetrators and let the children and women go free. Only then can genuine trust be restored and built up. And only after that can settlements slowly become communities again, with women and children allowed a breathing space to get on with their lives and rebuild the communities in a more equitable way, with a better promise to honour the obligations of the group towards their children.
What would the Hebrews have done with abusers ? Driven them out into the desert ? Would Jesus have forgiven violent husbands and abusers, or would he have cast them out ? No, if you do the crime, you do the time, absolutely as simple as that, no matter how powerful you are. And perhaps you do not get the chance to come back, having breached the trust of your group in such a dreadful way, and having robbed children of their right to innocence.

Joe Lane 26 July 2007

Perhaps the hard part about putting the child first is to know how to actually do this. Solutions to problems need to come before the event, not incarceration afterwards – history shows that imprisonment is not much of a deterrent for people from any culture.

Incarceration will stop repeat offending, but not the first offence. Solutions must be found to prevent that first offence. That is, take away the conditions that lead to violence – and to the despairing acceptance by others of that violence - in the first place.

This is a very hard thing for any ‘system’ (government, school, Church, etc) to do. Genuine community requires a critical mass of relatively un-traumatised people whose everyday existence serves as a healing influence. That is, traumatisation somehow needs to be made the exception, rather than the norm. Achieving such a critical mass amidst such a history of trauma is a very difficult thing. It can only happen person-by-person.

So, perhaps we should pray that those people moving in to indigenous communities as part of this most recent response find themselves able to retain and radiate their personal dignity, even as they go about the more specific aspects of their work. The dignity that they afford themselves and their ‘clients’ is perhaps the best way that their presence will have a lasting influence in the communities they visit.

Thank you, Brian, for keeping us informed.

Adrian McMaster 26 July 2007

Perhaps the hard part about putting the child first is to know how to actually do this. Solutions to problems need to come before the event, not incarceration afterwards – history shows that imprisonment is not much of a deterrent for people from any culture.

Incarceration will stop repeat offending, but not the first offence. Solutions must be found to prevent that first offence. That is, take away the conditions that lead to violence – and to the despairing acceptance by others of that violence - in the first place.

This is a very hard thing for any ‘system’ (government, school, Church, etc) to do. Genuine community requires a critical mass of relatively un-traumatised people whose everyday existence serves as a healing influence. That is, traumatisation somehow needs to be made the exception, rather than the norm. Achieving such a critical mass amidst such a history of trauma is a very difficult thing. It can only happen person-by-person.

So, perhaps we should pray that those people moving in to indigenous communities as part of this most recent response find themselves able to retain and radiate their personal dignity, even as they go about the more specific aspects of their work. The dignity that they afford themselves and their ‘clients’ is perhaps the best way that their presence will have a lasting influence in the communities they visit.

Thank you, Brian, for keeping us informed.

Adrian McMaster 26 July 2007

I too agree children must come first however putting children first must mean making those who care for them strong. Of course those who abuse children should be punished; but that should not be our only focus.

Child sexual abuse at this devastating level occurs in these communities, and others around Australia, because families do not have the skills, knowledge, opportunities and services which supports healthy development. Dysfunction has developed because essential services and supports are lacking. High levels of sexual abuse in communities does not happen overnight it takes a period of time. If issues can not be addressed effectively at the beginning it will most certainly increase and become more and more difficult to reslove. The only way to improve the outcomes of the children is to improve the situation of all people within the community. Children learn from those around them! If you support all people in the community to improve their lives this will have a flow on effect. The children will benefit greatly!

AJ 26 July 2007

This is an important valuable article. And the point that people will turn to their families and not the police or government officials, is reinforced by the reports yesterday that women at Balgo had criticised the way child abuse investigators had talked to children. If people are reacting that way to trained child abuse investigators, how much harder it will be for the new police in the communities to gain trust?

Especially when there is no evidence that life willl get better in terms of jobs, training and interesting things to do.

Jane Simpson 26 July 2007

Thank you,Brian, for a very clear presentation of the needed conditions for cherishing these little kids. But how do you translate basic trust into decisive action. As I understand it, the aboriginal people like to work out of a unanimous mind and wait till the offender recognizes and acknowldges his guilt.
I do not know enough about aboriginal ethos to make any observation myself. Acknowledgement of guilt and proposing purpose of amendment, along with restitution as far as one can of the harmony is needed in such a process of cementing trust. The sorrow must be seen as genuine. I would like to hear you take your article further,
.

norbert Olsen 26 July 2007

I too have worked with remote communities for thirty years but further to that my wife of 28 years was born and raised in one such community. For that whole period we have been trying to make sense of each other's culture. And for that whole period almost everything has worsened for my wife's family. Your emphasis on trust fails to take into account obligation to the point of irrationality. Aboriginal people fall back on family because of obligation rather than simple 'trust'. In fact in my experience in many situations kin are the last one they'd trust to get them out of a progbem because the ethic of the demand-share economy means that victims will often be further exploited rather than helped. I have seen several victims of accident and crime lose their compensation payments to addicted kin almost immediately after it was paid to them My wife's life has ben threatened but only by fairly close relations - those who according to your analysis she should be able to most trust. Recently a 22 year old grand daughter to us was murdered by her ex-husband, a cousin to my wife. His family rallied around him not because of a fear and loathing of the police but because of customary obligation that has nothing to do with an abstract notion of justice. The mother of the victim has been beaten several times. Those who are related to the victim and who are asking for justice from the police and the courts are being assaulted and threatened by the perpetrators' family members including the current council president of their home community, an uncle to my wife. You've got your emphasis wrong. My wife's people were among the victims of the last sanctioned police massacre in our national history - the Coniston Massacres in 1928. There were black murderers in that party as well. My father in law and several of my 'brothers' worked for the police. They have always seen the need for an effective police force. The alternative is continuous rounds of revenge attacks that quickly get out of hand and fall upon the innocent more than they do perpetrators. A 14 year old grand daughter was hit on the head with a hammer from behind by an adult male assailant simply because she belonged to my wife's family. The assailant is now dead, kiled in self defence by his young girl friend. They are not talking to lawyers or the media because they have never done that and they don't know how. I spend a lot of my time getting my close relatives in touch with police and lawyers to make sure they get their message across. The most vulnerable in the communities are crying out for help. They are not being heard because they lack facility with English and the media is full of the clamour of the voices of policitians, white and black, who know nothing of life on the communities but insist on speaking for them. Their voices are drowned out. We need more and better trained police and we need to let the communities see justice being done. The national debate has been dominated by shallow, ideologically driven politics and totally meaningless social theorising. Politics and theorising don't do much for you while you are burying your loved ones. The body count is already too high. Act to save the children! And for God's sake, for once in our history, let the people speak for themselves.

Dave Price 26 July 2007

Thank you for this insight, which I am reading at the end of a day in which I, as a middle class white woman, disclosed for the first time to a close friend the pain I have carried for the past 13 years over the suggestion made to me by a teacher that my 5 year old son was showing signs of having been sexually abused.I cannot begin to imagine the pain being felt in so many aboriginal communities at present.The long term erosion of trust in others and in oneself is as you say likely merely to exacerbate the pain.Unless we are prepared to acknowledge the need for healing for everyone involved there will simply be more damage done. As Christians we can bear witness to the need to act in and from love rather than fear. Thanks again for your insights.

Margaret 26 July 2007

i really liked this article. i would like to read more about other things going on in other countrys!

brittany 19 April 2008

thank you for sharing this article i am currently doing aboriginal abuse for my major and i have found this very useful.

shanyn gilham 28 April 2009

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