From tragedy to strength: the difficult path for Indigenous children

Justin Mohamed, Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People. Photo supplied.
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Trauma and lack of support are a common background for Indigenous children caught in the youth justice system. Gideon Aroni talks to Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Justin Mohamed about creating positive change.

“I’d like to have a person in my life I can rely on.”

It’s a plea that comes all too often from Indigenous children caught in the justice system, says the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Justin Mohamed.

“Often by the time a young person comes to my attention, something has broken down or they have been treated wrongly,” Mr Mohamed said.

“When you ask them what they want, some of things they’re looking for don’t cost a lot of money, they aren’t asking for the world.

“They’re saying, ‘I’d like to have a person in my life I can rely on, or someone who can just listen to me, or a safe place to go to. To sleep, just to rest my head’.”

The commissioner works with Indigenous youth offenders, trying to address the issues that cause high conviction and recidivism rates. High rates of out-of-home care are among them.

“A child in protection or foster care who commits a crime is most likely to be remanded to youth detention while they await their court date because they have nowhere to be bailed back to,” he said.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report shows Indigenous children are 9.2 times as likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children in Australia.

“Often they end up in these homes due to abuse or neglect,” Mr Mohamed said.

“This can often be the root cause of their offending, but it never gets brought up. You get a ream of paper of all the offences they’ve committed, but only a short half a page on how they’ve grown up. Often that’s the most important part.”

Change in approach is needed

Experience of trauma has been shown as common among young offenders.

“A lot of the time it never gets brought up as a way we can support them, and it does contribute to the numbers that we see,” Mr Mohamed said.

“The drug and alcohol areas are also something we can’t underestimate.

“We had a lot of young people, 13-14 years of age who were telling us they were addicted to a certain drug and wanted help for it. Society doesn’t have a place for a person that young to get help.

“We all know that regardless of background, drugs are too available. It makes sense that people will access them and get addicted at a younger age. We need to adjust our approach.”

To address these issues, Mr Mohamed said he will often speak directly to young offenders to understand how the system has failed them.

“We need to look at how the system can be part of a young person’s life to make them stronger and contribute positively in their community instead of the other way around,” he said.

“A problem that I see is these youth detention centres are so much like prisons that it’s almost getting these kids used to the prison environment.

“Young people don’t leave in a stronger state of mind or more ready to contribute to society, they end up reoffending.”

Mr Mohamed is a Gooreng Gooreng man from Queensland, and was appointed to his role in Victoria’s Commission for Children and Young People last year.

Jesuit Social Services spokesman Andrew Yule said a successful system has “a positive emphasis on rehabilitation, re-socialisation and skill development to ensure young people who have contact with the system have the best opportunities to get their lives back on track”.

“Rates of Aboriginal youth incarceration remain too high,” he said.

In 2017-18, 601 children aged 10, 11, 12 and 13 were locked up across Australia – 69 per cent of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, he said.

“All of them could have been responded to more effectively by understanding the drivers of their behaviour and working with them in an age-appropriate and culturally appropriate way to address their challenges.

“Any work with children in this age group should also consider and work more broadly with family and community as well.”