Aboriginal communities are breaking down

Unable to deal with past traumas and current neglect many Aboriginal communities break down. The abuse of underage children is but one symptom of the collapse.

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What are the problems?

Even if we did everything right as from today, we are still heading into hell.

— Tom Stephens, WA government backbencher

Many Aboriginal communities and families fracture and break down because Aboriginal people cannot deal with their current situation, but also because many governments have neglected basic services and infrastructure for decades.

Transgenerational trauma

Trauma and passing it on to younger generations (transgenerational trauma) deeply affects Aboriginal people and the communities they live in.

It is important to understand the historic events that caused trauma and how trauma impacts the lives of Aboriginal people.

Communities are neglected, exhausted

Aboriginal communities are also suffering from a mix of issues , often a consequence of the trauma people have experienced:

  • Lack of services. Communities lack medical and disability services, and often have no Home or Community Care services.
  • Lack of medical care. There might be no dental care, and sometimes there is no professional medical centre at all.
  • Little education. Communities record a decline in education services and school attendance.
  • High unemployment. The already scarce jobs in remote communities are often further reduced by drought.
  • Staff exhaustion. Staff supporting communities exhaust quickly which for instance leads to a large turnover in the number of nurses.
  • Decaying infrastructure. There are problems with sewerage and clean water provision. Children are swimming in sewerage ponds because local pools are not operational
  • Broken families. Children have no real home due to a failure to approve foster carers, or go hungry after they have lost a family member.
  • High crime rates. Because there is so little to do especially for young people they become bored and commit crimes, often just to "get a chase off the cops". Crime rates are a "hidden crisis" and can be up to 10 times the state average .
  • Ineffective government programs. There is an abundance of government programs (more than 50 organisations run by the state, federal or community in Bourke alone) that receive millions of taxpayer dollars each year, but they are ineffective and lack co-ordination because they have not been designed with Aboriginal people, but for them. Power politics are a common problem.
  • Clash of families. When Aboriginal families are resettled from other parts of the state, some clash with residents because of differences in cultural backgrounds exacerbated by economic hardship. “We are all Aboriginal people, but are tribally different,” says Lorraine Lyons from Wagga, NSW .

Traumatised and disrespected: the older generations

As a result of the experiences of the Stolen Generations many older Aboriginal people have deep-seated fears about being removed from their communities by white people, be it for welfare reasons or for imprisonment.

This leads to a 'code of silence' which surrounds abuse because Aboriginal people do not want to relive the traumas of forced removals which are just starting to heal after the Australian government's apology in February 2008.

The older generation feels powerless, bewildered and despairing, living at the mercy of their dysfunctional families who harass them for money and steal their food.

A growing sense of frustration and alienation comes from company after company neglecting or refusing to consult with them, but also the younger generations ignoring elders and not paying due respect. But Aboriginal parents or grandparents are reluctant to discipline their children or grandchildren for fear of them calling police who would arrest the parent and put the child into foster care.

Unable to lift themselves out of their despair, Aboriginal people turn to excessive alcohol consumption and take marijuana and sniff petrol. This is then followed by violence, murder, self-harm, suicide and child sex abuse.

Some say that the problem has worsened since Aboriginal people have been driven off pastoral leases in the 1970s to settle in towns . Living on their own land has proven to improve health.

Many families function poorly, have only one parent or a parent which had been forcibly removed from their natural family.

None of us had fathers, everyone was locked up in jail.

— Dean Daly-Jones, Aboriginal actor

Angry and lost: the younger generations

Anger and frustration among the young is also common, but lands many of them in jail. "For some of our young Indigenous people who might be angry or frustrated with life, they think running amuck is what being Aboriginal is all about," observes Aboriginal educator Dr Chris Sarra . "But they have to know the behaviour that underpins anti-social behaviour is certainly cultural, but it's not the culture of Aboriginal people but the culture of dysfunction."

There are a lot of angry, young men in the criminal justice system here.

— David Pheeney, Aboriginal Legal Service solicitor, Bourke

Young people in Aboriginal communities have a strong vision for their future, but no means to achieve it . With an outlook of a future devoid of opportunities people become aggravated and discontent. Government under-funding and government apathy towards remote communities can lead to ongoing unrest.

24% of Aboriginal children aged 14-17 are at high risk of emotional or behavioural difficulties, compared with 15% of the non-Aboriginal population . High stress events, such as illness, family break-up, arrests or financial difficulties, are the main contributors, and more than 20% of children live in families where such events occurred at least 7 times in the past year.

Showing affection is not very common, especially in rural and remote communities. "There's not much affection shown in our culture," says former Northern Territory politician Bess Price, "only to babies and little ones. As adults you just say, 'I'm here' to comfort someone."

If male children are neglected or physically abused, more than 50% of them are likely to commit crimes when they are older. The older the child the greater the likelihood becomes. Up to 70% of male and female Aboriginal offenders have been abused as children .

Boredom is another reason for high crime rates. "The kids do nothing. There's nothing for them to do," says Aunty Dawn Smith, a town elder in Bourke . So they roam the streets at night, trying to "get a chase off the cops".

Lorraine Lyons, from Wagga, NSW, sees a common thread among young offenders, many of whom are coming to Wagga from other centres, and although they have family in the city they have no ties to country and lack respect.

"They are lost," she says, "there is no cultural direction. You think about it, their home life is zilch, there are lots of cultural problems, they don’t go to school, they don’t go to work and they have no money. There is no reason to get up in the morning."

But boredom must not be an excuse for petty crimes. "I think it's often a poor excuse and I'm sick of it," says Katrina Humphries, mayor of Moree Shire. "If you're bored, go mow your grandfather's lawn, go play a game of table tennis, teach your children how to bake a cake. Be a parent and actually engage with your children and have a bit of imagination. The breakdown of the family unit is the cause of a lot of this and we really need to get back to basics. It really shouldn't be that hard."

Many of the young parents have known nothing other than violence, mostly towards women, neglect of children, and an almost complete lack of understanding of the wider world . Young people take their own lives because they are suffering from an identity crisis following their parents' and grandparents' traumatic history with governments and institutions. A "history of problems" has been passed from generation to generation.

Leaving their communities and work elsewhere is a welcome option for some. "I'm out of the community for a couple of weeks and I don't have to put up with the fighting," says a young Aboriginal man working in mining . Financial freedom and a lack of humbugging are additional benefits.

Facebook causes bloodshed

On Palm Island in far north Queensland, Aboriginal youths stirred long-held animosities with inappropriate comments on Facebook.

Elders blamed social networking sites such as Facebook for a variety of problems including blood feuds between warring clans, other acts of violence, and false criminal accusations against people .

Aboriginal youths clashed in a bloody street brawl on Palm Island after comments on Facebook reignited a long-standing family feud.

The island's mayor, Alf Lacey, said the shift to the Internet had spilled over into bloodshed in "many Aboriginal communities" .

A similar incident happened in the Torres Strait where a Facebook page was swamped with negative comments .

Every Aboriginal community in Queensland has a web site.

— Alf Lacey, mayor, Palm Island

Dysfunction becomes normal

Dysfunction is so widespread and omnipresent that is has become "normal" life. With parents' parents and neighbours all doing the same - wrong - thing there is no incentive to change.

Parents are unaware of the deep emotional scars their behaviour inflicts on their children. A mother could beat her child with a stick while drunk one day and, being sober again, hug her to pieces the next . Children in this situation are not likely to fully understand the effects of substance misuse on them, and will need all the substance misuse information they can get to do just that.

Malnourished children are so commonplace that locals say it's the climate that keeps them thin because they "eat normally" .

The only understanding of "love" children have has been formed by the pornography they've witnessed, long before their brains were capable of processing the images.

In some communities, child sex has become so normalised that children as young as 6 have been observed performing oral sex on each other. "They say they're just playing, without having any sense that it's wrong," a senior child sexual assault specialist says .

All today's kids can remember from last Christmas is fighting and drunkenness and the interviews they had to give police when their little friends were raped.

— Lara Wieland, doctor who spent 8 years in remote communities

Imagine last year, we had a funeral every weekend in Fitzroy Crossing.

— Joe Ross, Aboriginal leader, Fitzroy Crossing, in 2007

Story: "Why did I lose my kid?"

Queensland doctor Lara Wieland could not understand why a person could neglect their child and still be heartbroken if they were removed.

She witnessed people feed their child hardly at all, sporadically send them to school and yell at them.

Yet the same people were genuinely be heartbroken, despairing and confused when their child is removed from them.

She now understands that these people, in their heart, really didn't realise that what they were doing was so bad.

They would say "But why did I lose my kid for that when I know many other families who are doing the same or worse?"

Abuse of children

Aboriginal children per 1,000 who were abused or neglected in 2010-11. Same figure for all Australians: 6.1 per 1,000.
Percentage of cases of abuse or neglect where the victim is a girl.
Aboriginal children per 1,000 who were on care and protection orders in 2010-11. Same figure for all Australians: 5.4 per 1,000.
Times Aboriginal children are more likely to be in care than other Australian children.

Though they are the most helpless members of Aboriginal communities, children bear a great deal of the violence and abuse from Aboriginal people. Fear of violence at home keeps children in the streets. While Aboriginal people make up about a third of the population in the Northern Territory, they account for 80% of family violence cases.

The Little Children are Sacred report in 2007 uncovered heart-breaking stories about child abuse. Its authors made 42 recommendations to the Australian government, but just over a third of them had been fully adopted two years later. Child protection workers report a "huge backlog" of cases, hundreds of which "had not been touched in years".

Aboriginal children are far more likely to be on a care and protection order, one of the "last resorts for authorities". They are also 7 times more likely to be removed from their parents and placed into out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children.

According to a report the underlying causes of the Aboriginal over-representation are the legacy of the Stolen Generations, poverty and "perceptions arising from cultural differences in child-rearing".

We get young girls who come up to me and say 'I am sick of being raped.'

— Madeline McGrady, Elder, Boggabilla community, NSW

Boys raping younger boys become just boys "playing gay".

— Lara Wieland, doctor

Helping Aboriginal children requires professionals, such as social workers, welfare workers, nurses, doctors, police and teachers, but attracting these into Aboriginal communities proves a difficult task . But Aboriginal lawyer and Nyoongar woman Hannah McGlade does not see an outside solution working. "The real changes I believe strongly have to come from Aboriginal people within the community because we are the ones that have to protect and care for our children," she says .

Governments receive "pretty grim" reports but sometimes take 18 months before they investigate what's going on . Children who have been molested and raped are now parents. No-one ever helped them or told them that what happened to them was wrong. No surprise that the trauma suffered by them prevents them from leading a functional household and giving emotional stability to their own children.

There's no doubt sexual abuse is a serious problem within many Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory.

— Rex Wild QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions

Kids Help Line is Australia's only national children's counselling service providing 24-hour counselling services to young people aged 5 to 25 years.
Freecall 1800 55 1800, or online at

Truck drivers buy sex from 12-year-olds

In several states, the Australian Crime Commission has found, truck drivers buy sex from Aboriginal girls under 16 years of age (the legal minimum age of consensual sex). 12-year-old girls use contraceptive implants, children as young as seven experiment with sex toys and children trade sex to sniff petrol or for food .

Nurse resigns "due to a broken heart"

A community health nurse has resigned after 18 years in the job because she could no longer cope with the abuse and neglect of children in the Aboriginal community she was working for.

The nurse "cared deeply" for the health of Aboriginal children but she moved to a job in an aged-care home "due to a broken heart."

Does the government want communities break down?

ABC's Four Corners program in 2011 exposed how government ministers and councillors voted to open a pub in an Aboriginal community--against the expressed will of its elders, and with devastating consequences for the community.

Enter 1978. Aurukun, a remote Aboriginal community in Western Cape York, 802 km north-west of Cairns in far north Queensland.

The community had just been taken over by the Queensland government from the Presbyterian Church. Before the takeover the Wik people maintained respectful kinship relationships. Traditional and missionary authority coexisted and gave order to the Aurukun mission.

Child neglect, homicides, suicides, violence and abuse were virtually unknown. There had been only one homicide and one suicide in Aurukun in the 20 years prior.

It was in this context that Russ Hinze, then Queensland's Minister for Local Government and Main Roads, told the community that with getting a local government they were also entitled to have a wet canteen (i.e. a shop also selling alcohol).

"Russ Hinze said to all of us assembled there should be a canteen here at Aurukun, whites have the right to drink," remembers John Adams, an ordained minister with the Uniting Church.

But the community didn't want a wet canteen. After witnessing what alcohol had done to nearby Weipa, local elders decided against a canteen in their community. They feared that "people will be on grog all the time" and children would go without food.

For 7 long years Aurukun held out against the pressure to open a canteen. Then came 1985 and everything changed.

In November 1985 the Queensland parliament debated, for the second time, the Liquor Act and Other Acts Amendment Bill. Bob Scott (Labor) remarked:

"The wet canteens are being taken over by Cabinet... The Government will make the rules and will be looking at the [wet canteen] applications in some detail... The Government will virtually have control over the conduct of the canteens in those communities. I am pleased to see that."

He was also "pleased" that the council would have the power to decide which types of alcohol it decided to sell.

The white drinkers didn't wait long. After pro-alcohol members were elected to the Aurukun Shire Council they decided to open a wet canteen. While they did consult with Carlton and United Breweries, they failed to do the same with the Aboriginal communities.

The consequences were devastating.

Family and clan relationships collapsed. Serious assaults became commonplace. People from Coen, 270 kms to the south-east, began referring to Aurukun as “Beirut”.

There were 9 homicides in the 5 years after the opening of the local canteen. Within a decade, homicides had risen exponentially, and suicides were not far behind.

ABC reporter Matthew Carney remembers: "When Four Corners returned in 1991 the grog was totally out of control. With no cultural tradition of alcohol use, drunkenness was rampant. The community had plunged so deeply that people in Aurukun say the gates of hell had been opened." He declared the crime rate at Aurukun far worse than in notorious American cities.

With the collapse of the old belief systems, rape, child assaults and neglect became endemic. It was a complete breakdown in discipline, respect and authority. Children born after the canteen opened are referred to as the "lost generation".

This was a community imploding.

— Matthew Carney, ABC reporter, Four Corners

But why did the government allow all this to happen?

Some, as Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton think it is yet another act of racism. "The Queensland government had clearly taken the view that it was not necessary to apply the Liquor Act to canteens in Aboriginal communities. It was necessary to apply the law that applied to other Queenslanders that alcohol should not be served to intoxicated persons and so forth and so on."

"It's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the failure to bring the alcohol canteens into compliance with the Liquor Act was an act of racism."

The Courier Mail in 2016 suspected a covert financing system for the Aurukun Shire Council. "A shire needed revenue. The only viable source of revenue was to convert unemployment benefits received from the Commonwealth Government into canteen revenues for the shire council. The bodies of the Wik people would be the means through which this conversion of Commonwealth funding into state revenue, would take place. The young bodies and brains of infants would be victims of this money laundering."

There might be another reason. Vast bauxite reserves extending hundreds of square kilometres were discovered south of Weipa and to the east of Aurukun in 1955.

Hurriedly the Queensland government passed special laws to grant massive mining leases by revoking Aboriginal reserved lands pushing local interests and control to the side. The federal government's promise to Aurukun of autonomy and rights to land went out of the door as the Queensland government imposed administrators who assumed local government control.

Now you also understand better the takeover mentioned earlier: Because the mission organised lawyers to represent the Wik elders in a challenge to the Queensland government, it took over the mission from the Uniting Church and ran the community itself as a government settlement.

It was all about power and money. A functional, healthy community would only have meant trouble. Introducing a wet canteen was like placing a time bomb into the community, waiting for it to explode and then asking "Well, who's against mining?"

But it was bauxite that was the genesis. Bauxite was the source of these malevolent policies.

— Noel Pearson, Aboriginal lawyer, academic and land rights activist

But Aurukun didn't give up.

In 2001 the Aboriginal communities and miners signed a landmark agreement that finally allowed some economic benefits from the vast wealth generated in this region.

And a group of strong, engaged women kept on fighting against the canteen. After a long battle, alcohol was banned and the canteen was closed in 2008. But not for long. Alcohol keeps finding its way to the community. The wounds from 1985 still haven't healed.

Breaking the cycle of dysfunction

It is easy to expect community members to overcome their challenges, or to "change their tack" as some politicians have demanded. The reality of dysfunction is sometimes that people are unable to take responsibility in the first place and need help to do so.

Dr Lara Wieland who has worked for 8 years with Aboriginal people in remote communities, suggests ways out of the cycle of dysfunction .

  • Shift the shame. Aboriginal communities need to understand what the problems are and that the shame is not in having them, but in hiding them. The silence around problems needs to end.
  • Educate what is "normal". Education needs to convey to people what is normal and what is not. It will be hard to deconstruct entrenched normalised problems though, especially if the educator is white.
  • Clean the community. Restrict access to alcohol, limit access to pornography.
  • Provide law and order. Police needs to be present and supported, resourced and adequately staffed. They need to enforce law and order, eliminate sly grog and drugs, but also share information with the community.
  • Teach parenthood. Parents need to learn what it means to be parents. Remove incentives for children to have babies.
  • Educate kids. Children need to be able to read and write when they leave school.
  • Put children into functional families. To allow children focus on learning they need to stay with loving families during school terms (homestay). Families can be Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. "I cannot tell you how many times I have been begged by people from the communities to take their young children to live with us to give them a better life," says Dr Wieland.

Other suggestions include:

  • Giving emotional and social support. This is one of the missing ingredients in many programs tailored towards Aboriginal people, reports have found . Programs that are not culturally tailored and ignore Aboriginal transgenerational trauma will be far less effective in creating lasting change.
  • Set up single-sex support centres. Situated near an old ceremonial ground, the Strongbala ("Strong Man") centre in Katherine, NT, offers Aboriginal men a shelter to clean themselves up, get health checks, eat healthy meals and receive training for jobs. Men have to do chores to qualify for a meal. Elders teach the men how to hung. Men can reconnect with their culture and restore their dignity and self-esteem in the centre. Being a men-only place the centre allows them to feel free to talk about their problems and get things off their chests.
  • Set up an art or cultural centre. Art centres provide communities with an income, but also a sense of pride and achievement. Young people see elders selling their paintings and going off to exhibitions in major cities—a success that can rub off and inspire. Cultural centres, run by Aboriginal peoples, can teach youth about respect, country and cultural protocols. Painting and writing songs about life have helped addicts with their recovery.

The most powerful medicine, though, was getting back to culture.

— Sydney Morning Herald, reporting on ice addition

Video: Swimming The River

Ian Trust, Executive Chair of the Wunan Corporation, explains how Aboriginal parents need to help their kids learn how to swim and cross the river to reach opportunities that help them survive, and what happens if they fail to learn how to swim.


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Korff, J 2021, Aboriginal communities are breaking down, <>, retrieved 13 July 2024

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