In the third and final part of her series investigating Just Justice concerns in Victoria, journalist Marie McInerney visits a Koorie cultural program for young offenders in a youth justice facility at Parkville in inner suburban Melbourne.
Marie McInerney writes:
On this grey, chilly Melbourne morning, it looks for a while like the spark won’t catch, but soon the familiar smell of burning eucalypt wafts across the grounds.
“Put the smoke through your hair, under your feet,” urges Clayton, an Aboriginal liaison worker, as he explains the significance of the different gum leaves he is burning to the group of youth justice clients and other staff members. They are sitting around a makeshift campfire on the edge of the high security facility.
First he lays on the leaves from a sheoak, to represent slow growth and the strength of Elders. Then the yellow wattle, significant to the local area. He talks about how, at home, his mob burns the leaves of the cherry ballart, whose roots attach themselves to those of other plants, “representing kids holding onto mothers”.
This Aboriginal smoking ceremony is short and sweet, but it’s deep with meaning and purpose here at the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct, in inner suburban Melbourne.
The smoking gum leaves seem worlds away from the high-tech retina scans that visitors undergo on the way into the facility and from the six-metre fence that winds its way across the precinct, dividing those who are here on remand and those who are serving sentences.
It’s a ceremony that’s far away too from daily reality for the many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders who have lost contact with, or confidence in their culture through difficult, often traumatic, childhood experiences.
“Knowing who and what you are is the first step forward,” says Gunditjmara Elder Uncle Jim Berg as the two-hour Koorie Cultural Program held here every Monday, gets underway on this day.
Much has already been written in Victoria about the transformation that has taken place at Parkville since a damning Ombudsman’s report was published in 2010.
A big part of the change has been the establishment of Parkville College, an official Victorian Government school based within the facility. Parkville College holds classes seven days a week for every young person held at Parkville and boasts some outstanding results.
There are sceptics, and the facility is currently being challenged to the hilt by “unintended consequences” of tough on crime policies that have changed the mix of the facility, but the College – championed by then Victorian Coalition Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge – has put education at the heart of rehabilitation for young offenders.
The Koorie Cultural Program has now added cultural education to the Parkville College curriculum. It became part of the College’s offering last year, at the urging of local community members and in recognition that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 15-20 per cent of the Parkville Youth Precinct population.
The Archie Roach connection
Shane Evans is the Manager of Student Engagement at Parkville College’s Education Justice Initiative (EJI), based at the Melbourne Children’s Court, who works with young people who have disengaged from education.
Different threads of his family, life and work came together at the 2014 NAIDOC celebrations at Parkville, when the College announced the start of the Koorie Cultural Program.
The NAIDOC concert featured his uncle Archie Roach, who has since become the patron at Parkville College and a big supporter of the Koorie program.
At the event the legendary Aboriginal singer songwriter revealed a painful personal connection to Parkville.
“We had a bit of a stroll around the grounds and my uncle Archie was frozen by the trauma,” Evans recalls. “I hadn’t known that he was processed there (for foster care) when he was taken off Framingham mission, separated from his mother,” he said.
“That’s a story in itself, that goes to the very heart of what we do,” he said.
Parkville is familiar ground in a different sense for Uncle Jim Berg who worked for more than 40 years in Victoria’s legal system, including as founding CEO for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS). He’s been an official prison visitor and sat on the Parole Board for 13 years.
He laughs that he was “coaxed” out of retirement by Shane and Archie, and by Parkville College Executive Principal Brendan Murray, whose father-in-law is former Federal Court Judge Ron Merkel, another important figure in the founding of VALS.
These connections have ensured the Koorie Cultural Program has had big firepower from the start. Guest speakers have included judges, magistrates, public servants, footballers, musicians and researchers in languages and geneology. Over the past year the program has settled into themes: the Stolen Generation, identity, culture. Each session starts with a yarning circle, but the curriculum aims of the day’s program are also inked on the whiteboard to provide structure.
“It’s the most natural thing in the world, to bring people together to learn about their culture,” Uncle Jim says.
Except, he adds, that it’s not been the reality till now for many of the kids in Parkville. Other staff talk also about the damage to identity and sense of belonging of many of the kids who have grown up in out-of-home-care, away from community, culture and country.
One of their guest speakers, Andrew Jackomos, the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, has been sounding the alarm for years about the highly vulnerable ‘second stolen generation‘ of young Aboriginal kids who are removed from kin at increasingly high rates.
He called for urgent action as the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care soared by 42 per cent in Victoria. It makes for a terrible pathway to prison: according to Victoria’s Youth Parole Board, 62 per cent of its clients are or have been under Child Protection.
Still, Uncle Jim reckons he can trace the family tree for 99 per cent of the kids who come into the program. It gives them a bit of confidence, some pride to know that they belong somewhere, he says. “Some may not talk up a lot but they listen and learn.”
Harsh impact of rising remand numbers
Victor Hugo’s famous quote – “He who opens a school door, closes a prison” – provides inspiration on the wall at Parkville.
But these words do not reflect the reality of growing numbers of remand prisoners in the wake of the former Coalition State Government’s changes to the Bail Act and justice diversion options that have sent many more young people to Parkville ahead of their day in court.
Victoria’s former Commissioner for Children and Young People Bernie Geary last year said the numbers languishing on remand were “absolutely scandalous”; of the 83 young people at Parkville the week before he spoke out, only 19 had been sentenced; 10 of those on remand, or 15 per cent, were aged between 10 and 14 years old.
Jesuit Social Services recently released a report – An escalating problem: Responding to the increased remand of children in Victoria – showing a 57 per cent rise in the number of children in remand in Victoria over 12 months (from 112 to 176), including a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children (from 12 to 32). The number of those aged between 10-14 years rose from 1 to 12.
The numbers have been significantly driven, it says, by breaches of bail conditions that apply equally to children as well as adults (despite many warnings of the potential implications) such as residing at a particular address, being subject to a curfew or geographical exclusion zone, not driving a motor vehicle, and not contacting specified persons or classes of persons.
There’s been major relief this year with the passage last month (February) by the Victorian Labor Government of bail amendments, which are expected to significantly reduce the number of children ending up in detention on remand. But they will take time to come into effect, “so it will be a while before we see the effect in Parkville,” says Smart Justice for Young People convenor Tiffany Overall.
The rising remand numbers were breaching the recommendation from the Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that prison should be a “last resort”. From the Parkville College perspective, they have also disrupted education and rehabilitation.
Simon Lenten, Director of Strategy & Services at Parkville College, says the College operates with a careful understanding of how to work in a context that is “trauma saturated”, informed by attachment theory and the work of John Bowlby, along with a humanistic physiological approach championed by Carl Rogers.
The College has also tapped into the work of US psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry from the Child Trauma Academy, which has close links in Melbourne with the Berry Street Childhood Institute. Perry’s work is focused on what happens to a child’s mind when he or she is traumatised, and what is needed for healing. He spoke last year in Melbourne to community sector workers about how hard it is, neurologically, for traumatised kids to think and learn when they live in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Parkville staff and visitors say that being on remand only exacerbates that, and they ask how can the College meaningfully engage young offenders in education and create a therapeutic environment of learning, when so many are cycling in and out on average for just three weeks.
“If it’s their first time in, they’re pretty much poo-ing their pants (about just being here) – it’s a very daunting place, a maximum security facility,” Evans said. “The sentenced kids are more settled, they’re not awaiting their fate. The brain can’t concentrate when it’s in panic mode.”
Lenten says the rising remand numbers “fundamentally changed the way the place runs”.
He says: “The issue with remand is the terrible waste of resources and the terrible impact it has, to have a huge group there for a very short time: the remand group really only has the opportunity to experience disruption, without the opportunities to add value, rehabilitate or educate because most remand children aren’t there very long. It has changed the nature of the place because it creates the dominant theme as that of a churn of students entering and re-entering the College…and that impacts disproportionately on Aboriginal children.”
“Everyone is learning”
At the end of today’s session, the Koorie Cultural Program group gets together for a party pie lunch. At the end of each term there’s a barbecue. For some kids it’s the first steak they’ve ever had.
Today it’s cold outside, so everyone squashes in together in the kitchen and yarning room: five Parkville students – two girls and three boys, Shane and Uncle Jim, three Aboriginal Liaison Officers and two non-Indigenous Secure Services staff (employed by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services which manages security at Parkville and Malmsbury). It’s one of the few occasions at Parkville where the boys and girls, and remand and sentenced students mix.
I’m welcome to speak to the young people but asked not to try to find out why they’re in there. Shane Evans says he’s never queried that: ”I want to have a clear mind, not judge.”
It’s a bit awkward, interrupting what is clearly a welcome break from prison routine, but I ask one of the girls what she likes about the Koorie Cultural Program. “There’s lots of jokes and laughter, and good food,” she says.
One of the non-Aboriginal Secure Services staff members is also on board with the program.”I can see how important it is for them to come (each week), they get really upset if we’re short-staffed (and they can’t). Whether they’re coming for the culture or interaction with other Aboriginal people, I hope it works for them.”
In fact, the cultural learning is also aimed at him – staff as well as students.
“It’s important to have non-Aboriginal teachers and others working alongside Uncle Jim and me,” Evans says after the group has left. “Everyone is learning, not only the students. I’m learning from Uncle Jim: I learn wisdom, how to be humble, professionalism, integrity. I learn the old stories, the old ways that my mum talks about. For me it fills in pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.”
For rehabilitation, he says, education is key. “We have to make that a priority, a protective factor, alongside and interconnected with healthy culture, families and relationships.”
Evans talks about his own early years, of growing up in a public housing estate in inner city Melbourne, one of six kids; his Dad was Welsh Irish mix, his mum Gunditjmara, born and bred on Framingham. He admits to having got into “heaps of trouble” with police. “I was no angel, got into some petty stuff, on the perimeters of gangs, drove cars illegally. I make no bones about that.”
He also copped abuse, discrimination and assault “for the colour of my skin”, including being allegedly bashed by police on Smith Street in Fitzroy for wearing an Aboriginal T-shirt in 1988, the Bicentennial year. “I got assaulted, handcuffed, bashed in the back of a divvy van,” he said. “It really traumatised me”.
So, given the pathways in the justice system, how has he ended up on the other side of the fence at Parkville?
“Call it lucky”, he says. He credits a number of interventions along the way: a couple of very good PE teachers “who cared for us kids from the Commission flats when no-one else did”; youth clubs that “kept us engaged in sport”, a strong family, “grounded, embedded in culture”.
The importance of those “protective factors” are underlined when his Parkville colleague Clayton talks about what some of the kids experience on their way into prison, and which is likely to lead to a cycle of offending. There’s also the question of what support is around for detained children and young people on their release.
“For some, this is a better home than they’ve ever had,” Clayton says. “When you’ve come through residential care, even the best one in the world is not necessarily going to be ‘home’ for you. With one guy, we had to talk him into going to court to apply for bail because it was better for him here than on the outside.”
Accountable to Elders and community
Simon Lenten makes the point that the Koorie Cultural Program was set up in consultation with and at the urging of Aboriginal Elders and the local Aboriginal community, and that the College knows it must be accountable.
The program has now been expanded to the Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct, set up under Victoria’s unique dual track system to allow adult courts to sentence young offenders aged 18-20 to serve custodial sentences in youth detention instead of adult prison.
Lenten says it’s early days yet for the program but the “hope and desire” is to see Koorie education embedded formally in Parkville programs, to become a formal Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) vocational subject, and to drive content in other subject areas.
“We want that to be formal, thoughtful and properly resourced, connected to communities and Elders, and guided by people who understand that space well,” he said. “I think it’s really good (so far) but I think we can get better and better at it.”
“Aboriginal students are such a big group in our school community that we needed to respect and honour that in a way. The Elders and community members had indicated it was important to do, as had lots of literature and research of course.”
In her recent report on the State’s prisons, Victoria’s Ombudsman Deborah Glass focused on the need for and efficacy of cultural programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, saying they were currently run “haphazardly” in the prison system.
There’s been no formal evaluation yet of the Koorie Cultural Program at Parkville, though that will come, Lenten said. For the moment, the College assesses its value in the willingness of young Aboriginal people to participate.
But it fits firmly inside the school’s rights platform that sees the role of education – particularly in a youth justice context – as much more than just learning content or curriculum.
“Numeracy and literacy are important and will always be measured and valued by us as a school but we also have a much bigger responsibility and purpose in developing young people who have been denied access to education previously,” Lenten said.
“And that’s the truth of our students if you like, along with almost universal experience of trauma, abuse and neglect in their backgrounds, along with a lot of other complex issues in terms of family dynamics and other issues around mental health, disability presentations, drug and alcohol issues…. So when that’s applied to particular groups of cultural overrepresentation, led by Indigenous Australians and compounded by the fact that it’s their country too, that asks of us to understand and think carefully about how we offer that to our students. For Aboriginal children, it also means understanding of identity and where they come from as a really valuable part of building a relationship which is a great vehicle for all learning.”
Uncle Jim and Shane Evans have documented all that they’ve done from the beginning. They want, Evans says, to develop a best practice cultural program that can be shared with any school in the state, whether there are Aboriginal kids there or not, “that accurately tells the story of this country” and that builds pride and identity early.
“You need goodwill and people that really value that white Australia has a black history. I think our school is heading in the right direction, it’s profound what we’ve achieved in a year but we’re only scratching the surface. Koori cultural programs should be in every school in the state, in the country.”