The fight to protect indigenous children from abuse, neglect
ON THE south side of Alice Springs, a Thursday afternoon, five adults are gathered around a sedan at the entrance to the showgrounds. A man king-hits a woman and she goes down, hard. She is helped up, then carefully lined up and smashed again, in the face. She's so drunk she has no hope of defending the punch. She goes down again.
Sitting on the window ledge of the car, watching, is a child. This is what she thinks is normal: incoherent adults enacting the brutal afternoon rituals of total alcohol dysfunction, as desensitised locals drive by with barely a glance.
Alice Springs is at Australia's spiritual heart: the creation point in our landscape, where raw earth blends seamlessly with the cosmic, and even diehard atheists confess to sacred encounters with the almighty red rock. Now that heart is broken.
There's deep trauma here. Some Aborigines blame white settlement and loss of culture; others see income support as the driver of destruction, because it buys alcohol and obliterates self-reliance.
The tragedy for the child is that she has already been traumatised, by her parents, for whom acts of ultra-violence carry no shame and rarely result in repercussions, other than visits to the ICU.
She has no opportunity to start life clean but is at the vanguard of another broken generation, same as the last. She doesn't know it, but she is already caught up in a hopeless hunt for answers in which blame will always displace solutions.
Tired and self-interested politicians; overworked and numb cops; distraught and confused welfare workers; cries for more money from all directions. The spotlight never tracks on the parents causing the harm, because of a shielding instinct that says they have been injured by history.
The middle of Australia, from Tennant Creek down to Alice, is at the statistical epicentre of Australian child neglect and abuse. Each attempt to intervene becomes a forced retreat about saving culture, rather than saving kids.
LIFE IN HARM'S WAY
Calabria Family Wines, makers of 2017 Richland chardonnay, recommend it be served with grilled polenta and wild mushrooms. In Alice, where it sells in plastic weapon-proof bottles for $8, it's served with brain-jarring punches and stomps to the head.
The crisis in Central Australia is decades old, going back to the 1950s when the painter Albert Namatjira was prosecuted for buying alcohol for family and friends in the Morris Soak town camp, which led to the murder of a woman by her husband.
It's been happening ever since.
The town camps were once stopover places for out-of-towners that became squalid permanent homes; nowadays, they are crowded as people from remote areas stay longer, seeking services and alcohol - and because life in the bush communities can be bleak.
Though liquor is banned in the camps and all public places, the rules are in constant, visible breach.
John Boffa, a veteran Central Australian doctor who drives the People's Alcohol Action Coalition, wants a total lockdown, with police stationed full-time at takeaway outlets refusing alcohol sales to all but those who can provide proof of a permanent local residential address.
Statistics show that when takeaway sales are totally controlled, violence drops. But it doesn't address Central Australia's estimated 4000 problem drinkers, who are chronically dependent and remain free to drink in the town's bars.
Boffa is reluctant to criticise the Aboriginal constituency, but some statistics cannot be avoided. "The Territory has the highest rate of substantiated child neglect in Australia, and the lowest rate of children in out-of-home care," he says.
This means that children who live in at-risk situations often remain there. Such was the case in Tennant Creek, where Territory Families, the welfare department, received 21 notifications over two years about disruptive behaviour at a notorious address on the town's eastside.
It was decided there was no basis for intervention because the notifications did not directly relate to the small children in the house.
Then, in February, it is alleged a two-year-old girl was raped at the house by a 24-year-old relative.
She would be left with gonorrhoea and require a blood transfusion due to injuries to her genital area.
It was subsequently learned there had been numerous notifications relating to the girl's older siblings, and the parents' violent behaviour, stretching back years. The department's inaction appears to imply a view that indigenous children have a higher threshold for living with sustained violence than non-indigenous children.
Underpinning such attitudes is the overarching welfare policy, mirrored in all states, which holds that if an indigenous child must be removed, the child should be placed (in descending order) with family and kin; with Aboriginal carers in the community; with carers in another Aboriginal community; and with non-indigenous carers as a last resort.
The ultimate aim is to reunify the child with its family. NT Children's Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, says it's nice in theory, but there's a shortage of indigenous carers who can satisfy requirements of providing a safe environment.
"Child safety is paramount, so if you're not satisfied the child will be safe or thrive, you have to find the next best option," she says.
Simplistic media-generated propositions, such as wholesale adopting neglected Aboriginal kids to white families, have no genuine support - anywhere. "I don't believe there's this push to have a whole heap of Aboriginal kids with white families, that's rubbish," says Gwynne.
In reality, most Aboriginal children who have been identified as neglected or abused have now been accommodated in white homes, anyway. For the more than 1000 kids in foster care in the Territory - 89 per cent of whom are indigenous - two-thirds are with white carers.
Yet Gwynne says Territory Families feels compelled to fast-track the reunification of the children in foster care with kin. "We have cases where a child has been fostered for six years and all of a sudden a decision is made: let's reunify them back with family in a community, just like that," says Gwynne.
"We've got to go back to the child. If a child is with foster carers, and the assessment is made that the child is thriving, the child is happy and loved, why would you change it? If the biological parents say we want the child returned, they should need to demonstrate that they absolutely have the capacity."
CHAOS, NOT CULTURE
White couple Leigh Swift and Yvonne Mudford started caring for a little girl named Mikala when they lived in Tennant Creek. The girl's Aboriginal parents were drinking and fighting, and leaving Mikala unattended, unfed, unclean and wandering.
Before she was one, Mikala was declared a "child in danger". Her father had 48 convictions and her mother a heavy drinker who at one point stabbed her husband. Mudford and Swift looked at adoption as a way to protect Mikala.
But Swift, then the local fire chief, was legally too old to adopt. They persisted in caring for Mikala in an informal way.
Several years ago, they told the parents they planned to move to southwest WA. The parents demanded Mikala back, but Swift and Mudford were not willing to throw the child back into a damaging environment.
"They said they were taking us to court," says Mudford. "I went to a solicitor in Alice Springs and it started from there. They said it would it be tough and expensive. But there was a whole history, not just of Mikala, but two older siblings that had been in foster care."
Mikala's parents failed to show up to court. In 2015 the Federal Circuit Court made the highly unusual decision to grant Swift and Mudford sole custody of Mikala. More unusually, Justice Michael Baumann's orders made no mention of Mikala's "culture". It might be guessed he took the view that the only culture she had known was violence.
The judge laid out tough conditions - on the biological parents. They can see Mikala once a year during school holidays, and only during the day. The father cannot visit the child unless in the company of a responsible adult and neither parent can be under the influence of alcohol.
Even so, Swift and Mudford pay for the mother to make regular visits. They even took Mikala to visit her father in prison.
Mikala is now aged nine. She currently lives in Alice Springs. She says she loves school and reading adventure stories. Asked if she is happy, she gives a pause and a such a direct look that you know you're going to get the truth: "Sometimes, I feel alone," Mikala says.
To his credit, Swift makes no attempt to edit Mikala or explain what she says. She misses the family she loves, but says she is frightened of them when they drink.
What Mikala tells us is powerful: that out-of-home care is not easy for anyone. It can involve great reward but is, by definition, borne of sadness. "Nothing about this is simple," says Swift.
THE POVERTY DELUSION
Just after 8pm, a Tuesday night. A white ute driven by a white man pulls in by the Hungry Jack's, located close by the Charles Creek town camp, associated with hard drinking and homicide.
A young woman, possibly mid-to-late-teens, emerges from low bushes. She approaches the driver, handbag on her shoulder, has a short discussion, then gets in the passenger seat and they drive away.
It has often been claimed without evidence prostitution is coming out of the town camps. Now we have footage. But what does it tell us? No culture is immune from prostitution. Slums are slums, wherever they are, and they always provide victims to the sex trade.
Jacinta Price, a Central Australian woman who identifies as Warlpiri-Celtic, says it does matter.
At the next federal election, Price will take on Labor's Warren Snowdon. Snowdon is Australia's longest-serving MP - a 28-year career politician who presides over the nation's most troubled electorate, Lingiari, but says nothing on child abuse or parental neglect because, one suspects, he does not wish to upset his crucial indigenous vote base.
"There's Manila, but we're not a third-world country," says Price. "Given the rates of sexual abuse and the violence that exists, and the fact these kids are neglected and don't have safe homes, it's too easy to turn a blind eye to it.
"I know there's young girls out there as young as 13, prostituting themselves. The truth is blackfellas know about it but aren't talking about it. It's happening and these are Australian children."
In Alice and Tennant, you'll hear that Aborigines live in "abject poverty". But this is not Manila, the black townships of South Africa or even rust-belt USA.
There's income support and child money. The free health system is world-class and education is available to all, without cost. Everyone can eat, if they choose. There's also work, but that requires motivation.
In Alice Springs, there are hundreds of Africans employed in security, shops and government departments. They're working remotely to build credits for their citizenship applications. Good for them, but why aren't locals doing these jobs?
A Warlpiri man approaches outside Coles for a friendly chat. He's waiting for his wife, who's shopping for a trip to Lajamanu, 900km northwest of Alice, for a royalty payment meeting from the Granites gold mine. He expects she'll be paid $50,000, tax-free, directly into her bank account.
He says this is "the small one". She'll receive a bigger payment later in the year.
NO WORD FOR RAPE
Youth workers who spend time with roaming kids say they would never ask them if they've been abused and, even after trust is built, never hear children volunteering stories.
Like many cultures, parents don't discuss it; abusers are likely family; talking to authority figures is difficult; there may be different understandings of right and wrong; and kids may have poor English.
In the Warlpiri language, there is not even a word for "rape" - they use "kanyi", which means take.
The youth workers claim most of the kids have FASDs, or foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, caused by mothers drinking during pregnancy. The children have not been diagnosed: the workers are only guessing. They may be right, but this in itself is a problem.
When every child is assumed to have embedded developmental issues, other real-time causes which are just as likely to hinder learning and attentiveness - lack of sleep, poor nutrition and hygiene, the shame of being dressed in dirty clothes, and repeatedly witnessing violence - take a back seat.
"We have to work with those kids, but from a public health perspective it's more important to work on the chain of events leading up to it," says the NT's former children's commissioner, Howard Bath.
He points to studies by Harvard's Martin Teicher, who for 30 years has laid out a clinical case that children exposed to neglect, abuse and violence, such as the girl watching the adults fight outside the showgrounds, suffer brain impairment.
Teicher has written that such experiences induce "a cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects that irreversibly alter neural development".
Says Colleen Gwynne: "So many children have violence around them and the damage caused is significant. They can't develop because they're under heightened alert from six months old. They stop developing and thriving."
The money, the concern, the care is already there. There is a solution, but it is still not within grasp because it is too difficult to mention: that parents start being parents.
In response to the recent killing of the woman at Charles Creek, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress - Central Australia's largest indigenous health provider, and a political advocacy group - demanded the resignation of the NT Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw for not having cops permanently stationed at bottle shops.
Congress CEO, Donna Ah Chee, said Kershaw had "abdicated his responsibility to protect law and order and promote public safety, especially for our community."
But what about responsibility from within the community? Ah Chee said nothing about Aboriginal men creating so much violence.
Myself, and another journalist, have heard off-the-record statements from senior people working in indigenous organisations that some of the recent sex attacks on children are "not that bad".
They're wrong - the attacks are bad. This defensiveness seems to be about protecting reputations, and diverting attention from their failures as frontline agencies in order not to draw political fire. Yet all they are doing is further marginalising kids.