crime prevention

Aboriginal Family Violence and Crime Prevention

9 June 2021

10.3 MINS

Aboriginal Family Violence Policing Conference 2018 — Keynote Address

I want to start by acknowledging the fact the majority of Indigenous Australians do the right thing. Most of us are proud of our cultural heritage and we are keen to build fulfilling lives for our families. We appreciate we are the First Australians and we distinguish Aboriginal culture as being disciplined, complex, balanced, interconnected and proud.

Many of us undertake leadership roles in our communities, our businesses, in art, in sport, in politics, in the police force, in education, in our families and communities, providing positive role models not only to Indigenous Australians but to all Australians.

Toxic Myths

However, a minority engage in criminal behaviour disregarding the rule of law and community advancement. This group is trapped in confusion, poverty and cultural isolation, and their anti-establishment attitude is expressed as a passive form of resistance to Colonisation. I am going to give some examples, and I appreciate some of you may feel distressed reading them. I am aware those of us who have worked in the criminal justice system are less affected by these stories, and I recognise it is normal to feel distressed.

I am going to be straight with you. In some communities, criminals are spreading dangerous ideologies. These people usually have something to hide, often the sexual abuse of our children. Facebook groups pop up encouraging our youth to act against authority. In turn, this creates low expectations feeding precarious mythologies, justifying violent behaviour where standards are often perceived as racist, encouraging the lowering of expectations for Indigenous Australians. This negatively affects the most vulnerable: our women and children.

I witnessed this in New South Wales when I was a prosecutor many years ago working on sexual assault and domestic violence trials. One offender received a severe sentence for domestic violence perpetrated upon a living victim of 28 years, with 26 years non-parole. It took the police three and a half years to arrest this offender, despite the fact he was at large and arrested for 44 unrelated offences, including assault and possessing firearms. In this circumstance, the police failed to execute the arrest warrant after the victim had given her statement. It felt like the police considered the victim would never go to court, therefore there was no point in pursuing it!

Aboriginal women will not leave their men. It is part of our culture and part of the dangerous mythologies mentioned earlier. Of course, it might have been professional negligence. Regardless, it should not happen. These offences occurred in a Sydney Aboriginal community at a time when community relationships with the Police were said to be at an all-time low.

From the Police Perspective: In the past, officers have been subjected to name-calling and abuse when attending family violence, and complainants routinely failed to turn up in court. Many of them were young and had never met an Aboriginal person; and because of inadequate training, understanding Aboriginal people, especially the impact of Colonisation on our communities, was obviously challenging.

Their first interaction often shaped their view of us and they were called, I quote, white c**ts when taking offenders away. Mothers routinely hid their drug-affected sons and did not encourage them to take responsibility. To complicate matters, officers were sometimes spat upon and lunged at, no doubt creating a negative attitude toward us. The Police witnessed things like adults hiding bongs and teenagers appearing red-eyed as if they had been smoking drugs with a responsible adult in the household. Such interactions have no doubt embedded negative, racist attitudes.

From Our Perspective: Many of us believe the police are racist. Many of us have grown up hearing stories of the police stealing our children and taking them to institutions where they were abused. Attitudes have been passed down. For example, I have heard toddlers being told, ‘be quiet or the police will take you’. You can see fear in their eyes. Many of us have grown up in harsh, loveless foster homes and have never received adequate counselling or treatment for the emotional and mental trauma. It was also common on Missions for the police to follow and threaten us. We have all heard stories of Aunties being abused in police cells, and we all know of someone whose family has been affected by death in custody.

We have been taught to keep our communities together; we should never call the police and if we do, we will be labelled a Traitor! At other times when the police have been called, it is common for no-one to attend. I know of one man who raped many children and was found Not Guilty several times. Delays in reporting offences and victim vulnerability also exacerbate this problem. In my view, victims will benefit from structured case management from the arrest to the trial. Some of us believe a rapist will be supported, and therefore he must be an informer. Consequently, we have been afraid to report offences, despite the fact offenders continue to commit crimes, including jumping into our children’s beds!

This environment has created a culture of silence and reluctance on both sides. It helps explain the reason many cases do not receive justice, and why tolerance of violence is reflected in the rate of victimisation in our communities. However, this is not to suggest there is a predisposition — rather, it can be argued it might be representative of victim powerlessness and fear of retribution.

The inability of essential services to respond to victim calls has been exacerbated by insufficient resources, and most relevantly, the unwillingness of victims to make a formal complaint. It is therefore critical for the police to be funded adequately to enable them to respond quickly, to engage in community activities, to establish training programs, to attach themselves to Indigenous policing and to support those wanting to make a difference.

Intergenerational Trauma

While it is true domestic violence within our communities is prevalent, it is also relevant to point out abuse of women has been widespread globally for a long time. For example, until the late 1800s, under Australian and British law, it was permitted for a husband to beat his wife! In contrast, during the same period within Indigenous communities, women enjoyed a higher status than their British counterparts. This status was based upon their role within the community.

Aboriginal women produced 80% of reliable food sources, and they controlled its distribution. It can therefore be argued the status of Aboriginal women as community leaders has been negatively affected by Colonisation and the introduction of alcohol and drugs. Contemporary statistics verify the fact that Aboriginal women have suffered from victimisation due to it. Significantly, this kind of abuse cannot be attributed to Aboriginal cultural practices.

I witnessed domestic violence as a child, and it is damaging. Children deserve to feel safe, and we cannot afford to deny the past or intergenerational trauma. All adults must choose whether to continue negative patterns or pass them on like a curse. There are now community services available, therefore not accessing them is an opportunity lost, risking the transferal of the burden to the next generation.

Let me be blunt. There remain some in our communities who groom our young people into taking drugs, gambling, stealing and other harmful behaviours. These older people tell our kids they should not trust white people and that people who go to the cops are dogs. Our people must be able to feel safe to report offenders. This group also hides the exploitation of children, corruption and drug-dealing, sustaining ill health, poverty, trauma and violent outcomes.

A National Response

We will benefit from investing in training the police to help them understand our history and our culture, so they can equip themselves to adequately protect our families willing to speak out and hold criminals to account. A national response is overdue, and it needs to be funded by the Commonwealth government in partnership with all jurisdictions.

Nonetheless, despite this, I feel optimistic because I think we are on the right track to instigate change. When I served on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council, I had one goal: to shift policy away from focusing on offenders towards supporting victims. It is obvious when a child grows up in a loving, healthy environment, the child will be less likely to end up in juvenile detention. Therefore, supporting mothers to reject domestic violence is a positive opportunity to protect our kids and to teach by example. This includes teaching relationship boundaries. Sadly, some Aboriginal children are more likely to go to prison than to complete high school. A sad fact we must commit to transform.

In my role as Chair of the Safe Communities Subcommittee, it struck me there was a need to support the No More program and others like it. Consequently, I asked Uncle Charlie King to let me know what he wanted from me. He replied, ‘I want a Link Arms at Parliament House.’ After a Press Club address with my colleague Professor Marica Langton, we were successful in helping to make it happen. It was a great honour to sit with Uncle Charlie King and Commissioner Kershaw at Parliament House, reflecting upon domestic violence while linking arms. I congratulate the No More campaign and the Northern Territory Police for their commitment and support.

The police often bear the brunt of the historical economic and social obstacles presenting in our communities, and it is the police who must confront the stigma of Colonisation while carrying out their duties. Despite this, I think the police hold the key to help us solve our violence crisis.

As established, I support a national Indigenous justice target so long as it does not focus exclusively on lowering incarceration. It must also include reducing victimisation. To achieve this, I think we need to focus on improving our social norms. We are advised to work with communities to strengthen trust in the legal system, and it is time to call out those who abuse our children. We are also advised to encourage personal responsibility, careful not to describe Aboriginal offenders as victims of a racist system, especially those who bash, maim and kill us.

I think it is legislative negligence, imposing imprisonment for non-payment of fines. In most cases, it is a crime caused by poverty, therefore interventions need to to focus on providing financial counselling to help families get out of debt and to introduce education, training and employment programs rather than imprisonment.

Reece Kershaw, the Northern Territory Police Commissioner, spoke on ABC radio September 22, 2016, in response to Coroner Greg Cavanagh who had said, I quote, ‘domestic violence is out of control in Aboriginal communities’. Commissioner Kershaw replied saying that over the past three years Officers had responded to 75,000 cases in the previous three years, I quote, ‘with 44 per cent of Orders breached by offenders’.

Sport and recreation is obviously integral to all cultures. There is evidence that participation in sport results in improved physical and mental well-being, social cohesion and inclusion. Approximately one-third of the Indigenous population participates in some form of sport, and evidence also suggests that providing relevant sport and recreation programs can build a sense of purpose, hope and belonging.

Successes in Crime Prevention

That the relationship between Sydney communities and the police has improved is reflected in the example I gave at the start. This is largely due to the work of Shane Phillips, the Redfern Police Local Area Command and the Clean Slate Without Prejudice program commenced in June 2009. It targets Indigenous youth at risk of offending, including those who have committed a crime who have not been sentenced, those incarcerated in juvenile justice centres, and young offenders who have been released into the community.

The program encompasses a range of strategies including early intervention, crime prevention, creating positive relationships, support networking and behavioural workshops. An Aboriginal mentor takes participants to boxing training three days a week and helps them find accommodation, employment, education or training if necessary. Boxing training is conducted early in the morning, assisting participants to gain the discipline needed to hold a job. Participation in the program is voluntary and young people can stay in the program for as long as they want.

The Redfern Police are also involved in training alongside young people and work with the Judiciary to have the program form part of a suspended sentence. As a result, in Redfern the crime rate relating to robbery, mostly bag-snatching, dropped from 99 a month to 21 a month the following year. Since 2011, robberies committed by Indigenous offenders in Redfern have been rare.

The Clean Slate Without Prejudice and the No More programs are other tangible examples demonstrating that the removal of layers of bureaucracy and creating a relationship with us can bring about positive change. A similar example can be found in the Rumbalara Football and Netball Clubs Street Safe community approach program. It operates as a culturally sensitive intervention program set up to manage the behaviours of disaffected Indigenous youth in Shepparton, Victoria and surrounds.

It also facilitates positive social behaviour by involving participants in sport alongside police support, and Indigenous peers acting as positive role models. The result has been the lowest offending rate for Indigenous youth in Victoria. This partnership delivers situational and social crime prevention by accessing a community approach to preventing crime, rather than imposing individual measures.

Police officers have had the courage to set up these programs. They have made personal sacrifices to establish pilot programs, and their families have also made sacrifices. Our police services need adequate financial resources to set up these programs nationally, and shifting the blame is no excuse. I believe it is up to the Federal government to lead the way, alongside the introduction of a national justice target. The national Committee of Police Commissioners could demand it, and we are advised to prioritise an integrated approach. It is overdue.

As we know, in recent decades successive governments have spent billions of dollars on attempting to improve social outcomes, yet troubling social challenges continue to increase. All governments face financial drains with less money to spend on social services, especially prevention services. Thus there has been little opportunity for innovation in the provision of social services, and often funding cuts impact upon vital services such as healthcare, education and criminal justice.

A Way Forward

I am the Chair of the Big River Impact Foundation. Our organisation intends to achieve positive change by cooperating with Indigenous communities, because we understand improvement in Indigenous wellbeing depends upon an integrated approach. We also understand there is a need to strengthen community functions by implementing enhancements designed to empower, reinforce positive behaviours and improve governance.

We work closely with our corporate and Indigenous partners, and we aim to deliver innovative, long-term strategies. We intend to partner with governments to provide investment and the social equity programs needed to achieve parity. We are committed to inspiring Indigenous communities to be able to make decisions about their future, and henceforth encourage all of us to focus on eliminating Indigenous disadvantage.

Social Impact Bonds are an innovative private/public vehicle designed to address social issues employing a pioneering, preventative and holistic service delivery framework. This has been developed in partnership between the private and public sector, and it is a product of a broader movement of Impact Investing, providing investors with financial returns and social dividends. It has the potential to offer an alternative source of funding for a national rollout of programs discussed earlier.

As established, I believe Australia will benefit from committing to a national justice target. We must all work together if there is to be any hope of addressing our social justice performance outcomes. We need to adequately fund the police to work in cooperation with Indigenous communities to encourage trust.

We are likely to benefit from testing new private partnerships to fund offender programs. Changing social norms, creating safe communities and supporting victims are some of the desirable steps needed to send the message that violence and illegal, antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated.

Victims must feel safe to report to police, and because the criminal justice system focuses mostly on the rehabilitation of offenders, it is vital we introduce programs to support victims. We need to stop the violence once and for all.

I say No More.


Originally published at Big River Impact Foundation.
Photo by Sabel Blanco from Pexels.

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