Read back over our stories from around the State of strong initiatives happening thanks to the work of local Community Justice Groups.
Making Radio Waves
Out in Mackay, our evaluator Jenny Pryor sits down with Lyndon Francis, a young man who works with the Pioneer Murri Court Elders to promote youth engagement in the region using their innovative ‘Street Beat’ program. Lyndon was working in local community radio when he was asked to become involved with the Murri Court Elders Group.
How did you get into the Murri Court program and doing the “Street Beat” with the kids?
‘Well, I didn’t really get asked, I got recommended! The kids weren’t engaging with the Elders here on the Pioneer Murri Court. So now I’m here to get through to the young ones. And the notion was put that we might need younger people, like up-and-coming Elders, to be able to talk to these young kids and hopefully engage them better.’
‘The magistrate here in Mackay, they were very humble. I felt honoured when they put my name up and so I came on with the Pioneer Murri Court via Aunty Veronica [the Coordinator]. At the start, I was just sitting back and watching the court process, seeing how these young kids acted. And then we talked to the magistrate and said, look, before court, we just want to have a word with these young people, you know, just see how their week has been, see what they’ve been up to? Also, to give them a rundown on how the court process works, so they don’t tell the judge off or anything like that. And then it started coming down to having one-on-one conversations with the children as well. And coming from a different aspect of looking at things, because for these kids, if you look down the same path all the time, you’re only going to see the same thing. You’ve got to step to the side a little bit to see it from another angle, to be able to give a better judgement on what’s going on.’
‘Things changed with Aunty Veronica. She does a lot of work outside of the Pioneer Murri Court, constantly driving people around or on the phone to people, checking in on them. We had these young kids running amok up on the Cane Lands. You know when you have a lot of kids bored together? They get boisterous. And unfortunately, it can make people uneasy. So the local police actually approached Aunty Veronica and said, “Is there anything that you can do to try help us out? Especially for the people doing their late-night shopping?” Aunty Veronica, as she always does, steps up and says “Yep I’ll do that.”’
‘Aunty Veronica asked me, did you want to come up? And I thought, I better because Aunty Veronica is just one person. But now, over the last few weeks and months of going up there and walking around, we’re engaging the kids a lot more. I’ll go over and actually interact with the kids asking them what’s up or what’s been going on? How has the week been or what’s going on tonight? You know, is there any trouble up there? Is there anything I can help you with? It’s a different way of doing a night patrol. We’ll stay up there for a few hours and then Aunty Veronica and I will shuttle the kids home.’
With the Elders’ role, you were saying that the kids can come in and sit with you too in court?
‘Yeah, that’s just sitting on the panel with Pioneer Murri Court. It’s another opportunity to engage the kids as well, because while the magistrate is filling out paperwork and stuff like that, you can see it’s a more relaxed setting where they can go through all the events and find out what happened leading up to certain ones. The first time I’ve sat down with Aunty Mabel on the panel, we had a young man who got in trouble for abusing a person on the street. But there was a lot of actions that happened before that that led to that point. So you get the chance to actually break it all down and say, well, it’s not that person’s fault because they called the cops on you, it’s all these events that led to that point. And then you break it all right down for them.’
What do you think is the value of the Elders in the Murri Court?
‘Priceless, absolutely priceless. They’re doing a job that no one else is willing to take on because like I say to a lot of people, you know, we can sit around, we can whine and moan about all the problems that’s going on, kids breaking into cars, breaking into houses. But if everyone stood up and just did one thing, just one thing, it would make the world of difference, but it’s only the strong that take on the hardest challenges.’
And what if the Elders weren’t here?
‘We’d be losing these children to the system.’
What do you mean by that?
‘They’d be absolutely eaten up by the system. You know, we need to change the legal age of incarceration. That’s a must if you’ve got young children. I don’t want to see 10-year-olds getting put in the prison system. It’s even worse if their parents are in and out of prison or anything like that. Sometimes it feels like these kids are just set up to fail, you know?’
Absolutely. Four years ago, the elders were telling me that they had about forty-eight regulars going in and out of prison. As we sit here in the last six months, there have been none attending court. And they didn’t even realise it themselves, when you consider they were only funded to attend the Murri Court. Do you think this mostly due to all the annual activities and other things that you talk about having done, that you and others do?
‘Oh there’s probably loads of unspoken work that Aunty Veronica does, but I can imagine yes. Yeah, I see her pouring over the paperwork pretty much every night of the week to be able to get us ready for each fortnight with the Murri Court. She even gets me organized! She gets Aunty Mabel organised, she gets, you know, whether it’s Uncle Butcher or Uncle Ray or Uncle Bud, but yeah, she gets them all organised. She does it all.’
She really deserves the credit here then [laugh]. What does work with her look like?
‘Getting all my paperwork together, giving me the rundown on what’s happening, if we got new people, etc. Aunty Veronica does intake, she’ll sit down and go over everything, start from the start “What was your childhood like? What was your high school like? What’s home life like?”, you know? She finds out each little individual factor that could amount to what’s happening in a person’s life. She becomes a mother-figure for these young kids.’
If Aunty Veronica or the Elders weren’t here, like you said before, everyone would just get lost to the system. Can you speak to the impact of that work on the community’s youth?
‘The impact isn’t just dealing with kids; it’s dealing with the whole family unit. We’re making structural change within the family units. We’re making structural change within the community. The impact of it is to the whole community. If the Murri Court wasn’t around, I couldn’t imagine. I could not imagine.’
Like you said before, the kids get lost in the system. And it comes back to not understanding processes, but you’ve got the Murri Court and Aunty Veronica. You are able to break it all down in court with confidence.
‘Yeah, so instead of it being this flick and tick process, you know, “XYZ Offender broke into this house”, okay, instead we find out the thinking involved, how people think and how they lead themselves to situations. I fell in love with that process in the Murri Court at the start, because it’s just totally different. The judge actually sits down with you at eye level; he’s not sitting up at the galley or anything like that, looking down…he actually sits there and has a conversation with them and genuinely wants to help them.’
What does this Justice Group need to make life easier for the community and the youth?
‘Just seeing them once every two weeks isn’t enough, you know? Like, it’s hard to build rapport with a person when you just see them every two weeks at court. That’s another great thing about us doing the “Street Beat” because we actually get to engage with them. We’re letting them know that they’re family. But yeah, if anything, we need more – I hate saying it because it just seems like if there’s a problem we just chuck people in programs – but we need another program around family units. You know, make it engaging and involving families in the process. Like the Boys-to-Men’s program; I’d love to start another one up.’
A couple of other stakeholders were saying that you haven’t got bail house accommodation. And even when the kids are coming out of incarceration, there’s no transition to help them?
‘That is another big thing, you know? The kids they come out, they get put on bail and pretty much it’s a set up. They put these kids on bail but we know they’re going to go see their mates, and they’re going to go get in trouble.’
How can that change?
‘What I’ve been saying to the kids is don’t set yourself up for failure.’
Do they listen to you?
‘A fair few of them have. Others no; they’ll come out and get bail, and then they’ll go muck up, go back in. But you do need to ease that transition when they’re coming out from the institutions, because in there, they’ve learnt other mannerisms, you know? Unfortunately, [in prison] it’s just a big boy’s club in there pretty much. They learn bad behaviours and stuff like that. And there needs to be a transition space where they can come and readjust to normal life, but also have instilled in them the ability to be proud of themselves, become culturally strong and also general life skills and knowledge.’
‘Knowledge is everything. Knowledge, keeps you out of trouble.’
How a Grief and Loss Support Group is giving a small town a path forward through pain.
Speaking about community response to Doomadgee’s recent support initiative, Cynthia O’Loughlin, Court Coordinator for the Doomadgee Community Justice Group, tells ‘Our Community Justice’ about how an intimate support group has slowly become a pillar of shared understanding and emotional comfort in the remote town of Doomadgee.
‘They look forward to going, to talk. To just talk’
Merely six weeks old, the Doomadgee Grief and Loss Support Group was started by Justice Group member Uncle Steven McNamee, Adriel O’Keefe from the Northwest Remote Health Wellbeing Centre, Anthony Newcastle, who runs a local men’s group, and Cynthia O’Loughlin as part of her role as coordinator of the Doomadgee Community Justice Group, with assistance by Paul Denaro, a trauma counsellor.
Can you provide a small description of the group and the work it does?
‘The purpose overall is to assist those families who’ve experienced a loss in the family group and to allow them a voice to speak about their loss. We don’t hold sessions inside but outside, so people don’t feel trapped. People want to feel a sense of openness and feeling free.’
‘Within these sessions, after a member shares their feelings either Anthony or Paul will assist with giving context to those emotions.’
What does that look like sometimes?
‘For accessibility, we make use of visual aids.’
Cynthia begins to draw a wavy line. ‘At the beginning, Paul might say your emotions may feel like this – up and down, up and down, up and down’. Her pen traces the peaks and valleys of the squiggle. ‘Then the emotion might vary in intensity depending on the day until you reach the “flat” emotion.’ She ends the curvy line with a straight line. ‘You feel like you’re going back to how you felt before the loss of your loved one.’
‘He says, everybody is different. That the “up and down” of it all, some people might have that for a few years, you know? But, when you need to put your emotions in perspective one way of doing that is reaching out to others.’
‘Something else we might do is talk through the stages of grief and display that as a visual aid. Or sending around handouts that display what the physical symptoms of anxiety looks like – we find that’s very useful for our younger members. We’ve even recently sent elders to receive mental health training.’
‘When some members don’t understand their feelings, that’s when we see a strong response to the act of drawing. If Paul draws for instance feelings as “boxes” inside of a circle, maybe sometimes you take just one “box” outside of that circle to talk about it.’
You mentioned younger members; what is the age range of a typical group session?
‘Not only has attendance been growing since we started – we’ve had sessions featuring almost twenty participants – but we see people from as young as fifteen to as old as seniors in their seventies.’
Would you say the role the group serves in your community is impactful?
‘The role I believe is to reach out to community members who are grieving and would like to have a safe space to speak about how they are feeling, and how they can get some help if they need it, so in that sense, yes.’
When you’re looking at ways to create a group or service that can respond to a pressing issue that’s happening in the community, how did this one come about for Doomadgee?
‘Well sadly there’s been numerous losses in Doomadgee. At one stage, there was ten people waiting to be buried. They passed away one after the other. It’s not just deaths but also suicides. Our group gives community members not just a sense of relief in being able to talk about how these things affect them but also it gives them a way to understand their feelings and what they’re going through, either because they’re talking openly about it or seeing someone else talk about a similar emotion.’
‘One member told us she’s never been able to express these feelings in the past. That they weren’t able to tell their story.’
That inability to “tell their story” or express themselves, would you say that’s because they’ve haven’t felt a sense of safety to speak on that feeling?
‘Yeah, it’s really feeling that safety because there hasn’t been this kind of setting before that’s reinforced that. In getting feedback from the group, they tell us the people they’re used to speaking with about this has mostly been within their family. I think what we offer them is a step-back from that and they find it freeing.’
We spoke before about how when it came to identifying what sort of service or group Doomadgee would most benefit from, the most pressing thing in the town is this immeasurable sense of loss. Is it difficult to balance the process of healing when the community faces loss near routinely?
‘It can feel like hitting a reset button sometimes. When a close family member passes within a close family group, it re-triggers the loss of previous losses. We’ve had people come to the group who despite experiencing recent losses, they come to the group to talk about a loss from a much earlier stage of life.’
‘It’s very much this sense of cleansing an old wound, in order to heal a new one.’
So this group isn’t just about counselling people through past and present losses, it’s about strengthening the community as a whole?
‘It’s both really.’
And how is the community learning about the existence of the group?
‘We advertise using posters at the local shops, the roadhouse and at the council. We even organise pickups for people. But we do see people turn up on their own as well. Everybody knows where the Wellbeing Centre is in Doomadgee!’
And what are the outcomes you’ve seen from the work you’ve been doing?
‘If I may share a story, we had a teenage girl whose mother and siblings were lost in a car accident when she was quite young. She lives now with her grandmother. Since the accident, the girl has not been able to talk about that loss, or how it’s affected her. However, she attended a session of ours and at the next one, through her grandmother, read a letter about losing her mother.’
‘The grandmother told us she had never seen her grandchild be so open about that experience since the day of the loss.’
‘The girl only started coming to our sessions because her grandmother had been attending them, and since they both started coming, the grandmother told us when they both get home, they’re actually able now to talk about the accident.’
That’s quite a unique outcome; thank you for sharing that story with me. When you have members who aren’t related, is it challenging to broach such diverse ages within the group?
‘In these situations, I believe there is trust there. Sometimes, this is because we may have younger members there with older relatives or siblings, to be there with that young person. But mostly, I think our group knows this is a safe space for them.’
‘They know the group is non-judgemental, and this helps them feel safe.’
Was that a hard feeling to create in the early days of the group?
‘Yeah, it was. We started with seven people where now our average is something like ten. The largest it’s ever been was eighteen. So with these fluctuating numbers and increasing attendance you have to recreate that sense of safety each time.’
How do you do that?
‘Well, we give a welcome to thank people for being there, and then we offer them discretion and letting them know each time this circle is safe. Having those three things happen each time is key.’
Do you think remote and regional communities could benefit from similar social support groups?
‘Yes, if the community wants it. See, this community wants it, they want it up and running. It could vary from community to community, and if another community has felt they need it, there’s no rousing to be done about it. We would love to see that what we’re able to do here in our community could benefit another.’
‘We’d never jump up and down about it – if you’ve got an idea, share it! That’s what life is about, sharing and caring. Being open to how you can help others.’
What’s the feedback been like from Doomadgee?
‘It’s been so positive. People telling us directly they’re looking forward to going to sessions.’
‘They just want to talk.’
Mediation in Small Communities
Whilst conducting a local evaluation in the town of Doomadgee, our evaluator uncovers the vital strength of Community Justice Groups to small social eco-systems and the invaluable role they play in managing mediation between families.
In the small community of Doomadgee, the local Community Justice Group often finds themselves playing from strength to strength in navigating the intense social eco-system of the town.
Comprised of a group of Elders, an important part of the Justice Group’s role in the community is to help facilitate the resolution of disruptions or disturbances between family groups, and any other conflict within the community, in order to pre-empt and ultimately negate police involvement. Consequently, the service they find themselves frequently involved in is mediation.
“Mediation is probably the biggest thing that I’ve had to do with the Justice Group”, a local police officer police officer tells our evaluator. “Where there are feuding families or something where the Justice Group is involved and facilitates mediation between the parties. They’re also a good source of information within the community…particularly [in dealing with] the emotional side of things [and community] angst.”
In balancing the authority of their position alongside their standing as members of the community, the Doomadgee Justice Group is well placed to understand the anger often directed towards the police. This culturally and emotionally-informed approach underpins their relationship with both the police and families.
With reoffending juveniles, their families may not always understand what’s happened, or they have difficulty believing their kids have been involved. That is where the Justice Group is able to help come in and support those families, explaining what’s unfolded and how the justice process works going forward.
Occasionally their response to a family situation will involve a more hands-on approach and collaboration with the police.
During the evaluation, one standout interaction involved two girls feuding from different families that required facilitation. The conflict had become violent and the priority for the Justice Group was avoiding arrests during the mediation process as well as preventing bullying.
“….inevitably, the families get involved”, a community member tells our evaluator. “They hang on to the smallest thing and they expect if they don’t get an apology, it’s never gonna end.”
Justice Groups are fundamental in making everyone feel heard. To achieve a successful mediation, the Justice Group advocated for a support person for each side, in order to counteract group intimidation or bullying, which can jeopardise successful outcomes. Laying out a process for future conflict management helped build self-sustainability in their community, reducing the reliance on police services.
A core role of the government-funded Justice Groups is providing support to community members within the court process. But our evaluator notes that Justice Groups aren’t promoting the extent of the work they perform outside of the formal justice system. Reflecting on an exercise at a workshop, they tell us “One of the things I’ve done with Justice Groups in workshops was ask them to sort the work that they performed into these ten different domains. Basically, it’s an exercise of asking them to think of their time as twenty units and then organize them into different quadrants.”
“I was surprised by the amount of time they were putting into early intervention.”
“Any form of mediation, just talking to people and settling things down – the extent of what they do, the importance of that work, [has not been captured]. I asked them, ‘What should you be doing in the future?’ And there were two answers to that: one is they identified we need more training, but the other thing that they identified strongly was reintegration, when people are coming back to the community. How do we manage the period of post-imprisonment? … Everybody seems to think that’s a legitimate role for the Community Justice Groups to be involved in.”
The role of a Justice Group shines most in their ability to be an informal intermediary due to their pre-existing relationships within the community, work that local police have described as otherwise “impossible” without the assistance of the Justice Group.
Both the police and Community Justice Groups agree that not all interactions can or should be police-led. Our evaluator concluded: “I agree we need a notion of formal mediation in terms of what they’re doing but I also think the Justice Group is just [getting on with it informally without being noticed]. A lot of people just think of it like they’re just generally talking with the Elders. If they’re given more opportunities to do these [formal] mediations, the more respect they will gain in their role.“
“And then they’ll be more effective for their communities.”
Last year, a key cultural activity of Rockhampton’s Community Justice Group was organizing a screening of the documentary “The Art of Incarceration” at the Birch Carroll & Coyle Cinemas Rockhampton.
Following the journeys of four Aboriginal men in the Victorian prison system, “The Art of Incarceration” explores the healing of the men through their love of Aboriginal art as part of the well renowned “The Torch” Indigenous Arts program. Seen through the eyes of Indigenous prisoners at Victoria’s Fulham Correctional Centre, and narrated by Uncle Jack Charles (Boonwurring Dja Dja Wurrung), the feature follows the inmates’ quest for cultural identity and spiritual healing as they prepare for life on the outside. The program is the only one of its kind in the country where 100 percent of the proceeds goes back to the artist and also offer a post-prison release art program.
Community Justice Group Elder Aunty Elaine Williams performed a Darumbul Welcome to Country, followed by a panel discussion with other Community Justice Group Elders on the operations and promotion of Community Justice Groups, as well as a call out for new members from the community. Sandra Creamer, AM Lawyer and advocate, gave a brief presentation on her work around Indigenous social justice in the community and urged community to get involved in advocacy to create change.
The event generated positive feedback and a high attendance with a number of mainstream and Aboriginal and Islander organizations involved, including a few Murri Court clients.
The success of this community screening has created dialogue for a similar arts-led program to operate within the Queensland prison system.
“The Art of Incarceration” can be streamed on Netflix Australia. Watch the trailer here.
How Empathy is Key to the work of the Elders
He was a young offender, meeting with the court for sentencing and scared of the proceedings. With him were his mother, an Indigenous Justice Officer and the Doomadgee Community Justice Group’s Men’s DV coordinator for support.
It was a tense and hostile proceeding, and fearful for the outcome, the young offender tried to flee the courtroom. His strong reaction and how the Elders present were able to reconcile his response offer us a prominent and impactful look into the importance of having Community Justice Groups present for court proceedings.
Community Justice Groups have been a part of the fabric of remote and rural Queensland communities since the mid-1990s. While originally, these groups were established in but three remote Aboriginal communities, they have since grown thanks to elders and concerned community members to encompass more than 40 locations across the State.These groups strive to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system, and their advocacy continues to get stronger, united in the belief that solutions driven by the community offer the best chance of achieving justice for our First Nations communities.
Often, the relationships between the Community Justice Groups and the people of their region is intergenerational, forged between families and as present and familiar in the lives of the community as the sun setting. Their presence during court proceedings is a matter of cultural protocol, especially where children are concerned. When this isn’t recognised by the magistrate, this can complicate the proceedings and contribute to a breakdown in how First Nations defendants navigate the court experience.
Sitting down with an Indigenous Justice Officer, Mark Moran, our evaluator for Doomadgee, listens to their experience in witnessing the effect of the Elders’ presence in the case of a youth offender.
“So the magistrate started to do his sentencing and the child freaked out, and tried to run out of the courtroom.” The officer tells Mark. “The Community Justice Group Men’s DV coordinator at the time, he was able to catch him before he went out. The mother started yelling in the courtroom at the magistrate, because it made her feel upset that her child was frightened.”
The justice group involved on the day had been a constant in the youth’s life, having known him and watched him grow up, in contrast to other solicitors and Legal Aid guides who often are meeting their First Nations clients for first time during the beginning of their court experience. That oft-missing knowledge and context creates barriers for First Nations clients, from a social standpoint to a cultural one, conditions which are exacerbated when living regionally.
“These clients have never left their communities, so the attendance of a Community Justice Group there [during court] is more personalised for them.” The officer explains. “It’s not like a stranger meeting them for the first time.”
This most recent experience highlighted for the officer the importance of elders being present in the legal system.
“Usually, I travel into a region for a couple days. I’ve never been in a situation like this one, where it was so fractured and hostile, but it really demonstrated how more than any other stakeholder, elders need to be there.”
“The offenders feel overwhelmed by the system, and that it’s not built to facilitate rehabilitation, and that’s where the cultural protocols allow for the magistrate to understand their experience.”
“It’s that knowing that helps with breaking down the barriers”, says the officer. “I’ve always seen them [the Community Justice Groups] speak up for clients, and in this way, they turned a hostile situation into a moment of healing that was felt throughout the court, just by speaking with the youth”.
So you knew who the elders were?
“Auntie Luisa. She was the one who spoke and her husband.”
Were they related to the mother and child or were they just acting as Community members?
“As community members.”
How were they able to help?
“After the mother and child’s strong reaction, the elders were able to grab her, hug her, grab the child and hug him and just hold them, and speak to the magistrate.” The officer continued. “They explained, look I’m really sorry that this is what’s happened, but they’ve had sorry business; she just lost her child. So they’re able to speak about what the family had been through leading up to the sentence. Then the magistrate was able to speak with the elders, and then to the child and said you know, your elders are here to support you; please sit down, I’m not going to send you to detention, but I am going to sentence you so you’re going to have to stay with your elders and I’ll talk to you about everything. It just settled everything down.”
Is that unusual, for people to be hugging? That doesn’t happen often.
“The family had been going through sorry business just a couple of weeks before. Having that physical act of soothing, it was very powerful, like I have never seen that before in any case.”
The respect of the elders is key to establishing community, and indeed it is that respect which fosters empathy and innovative practice between the Doomadgee Community Justice Group and their region.
“They have the advantage of that, and it develops a different way of thinking. They know it goes both ways and empowers the relationships they have with their community”.
And that emotional experience resonated in court?
“Yes; I’ve worked for the Department of Justice for 10 years and most of that time I’ve been a deps clerk. I’ve never seen anything like that before so it was very powerful. It just made me realize the importance of having our elders in the courtroom.”
Making Headway in Mackay
This month, evaluator for North Queensland Jenny Pyror was able to sit down with Veronica Ah Wang, the coordinator of the Mackay Justice Group.
Veronica’s stakeholders include parts of the Queensland education system, both private and state schools. While this work is not part of Veronica’s contract, she feels compelled nonetheless to work in service of Queensland’s youth by way of presenting cultural talks and rundowns of the Murri Court.
So Veronica, what do you do with the schools?
“We go in, we do cultural talks or go in and do like a prevention thing with the kids. We tell them about my position and what I do with the kids in court and yeah, just give them a rundown of Murri Court and then what I do and then impart that hopefully that they don’t come through.”
Veronica has been providing this service for about three years and is often joined in her presentation to students by other elders.
“I have other elders who go out…Uncle Doug pretty much does his own thing with the kids under his own banner; that’s with his with his boxing. He doesn’t go out as directed by me, but by Auntie Mabel and Auntie Jenny. Those two have been the main two that go out as well to the schools.”
The success of these cultural talks extends even to the Catholic schools in her area.
They’re using a lot of contact with you?
“Yep. This year it’s been like nearly every two weeks, every two or three weeks or something like that. The overall coordinator for Catholic schools for the all the Indigenous students in the schools Carly Thatchell has been contacting me.”
The feedback to the initiative has been immensely positive from students and teachers alike, wanting to see Veronica’s return to present to fresh groups of students.
What are the age groups you work with?
“Well, because grade sevens start in high school, it goes from grade seven, grade eight, not so much grade nine because that’s when they start getting up. But we try to get year seven and year eight, we try to get them back on straight.”
Part of her duties, beyond engaging in cultural presentations, is to work alongside co-responders from the Queensland Police.
“A co-respondent is as it says; it’s what they do. I know two young ladies, they started out with Youth Justice and then they applied for these roles as co-responders so they go out with the police, they drive around and they help with curfews or they just pretty much if the kids need to go somewhere, they need to be at appointments or something like that, they’ll go and tell them what they need to do.”
When you say appointments, is that turning up for their legal service or youth workers?
“Yes, if we need them to do anything. Yeah, we just get in touch with the co-responders and then they will work their magic, hopefully. But like I said before, we don’t have any new offenders here, at the moment. There are a lot, but they’re not under us, under the Murri Court.”
Prior to 2017, the youth crime rate in Veronica’s region was up to nearly 50%.
“It was 47% when we first started, five years ago. And then now it’s dropped down. We’ve had zero on and off.”
“But this is like earlier this year we had some coming through, but they were like, how would you say the word? Recidivism. Where they’re constantly going in and out, in and out being so, you know, you stop them with one thing and then they go back and it’s just like swinging doors. But now I think some of our youth, because they have turned 18, a lot of them have pulled back and they start to mature. And we don’t have the younger ones coming up as much as it used to be. We’re waiting for this big wave to come through, but it hasn’t come yet.”
You said you had no new clients going through the courts in the last 12 months?
“Yeah. A majority of them don’t always go to ATSILS where they’ve been referred to us. They go to Legal Aid.”
So they’re using mainstream legal aid?
“Yeah, they’re using mainstream legal aid.”
What this can mean for young offenders in North Queensland, is that sometimes the only chance for Veronica to see them is when they’re already in court.
“It all depends if the magistrate will always ask you to report to us elders within seven days and, you know, go to wherever we direct them to.”
So that’s a compulsory direction on the magistrate here?
“And he puts it in there, though. They make sure they come down. But like I said before, a majority of them are with legal aid only because there’s a conflict with ATSILS or something like that, they might have one of the clients, you know, they might have been co-offenders. So they can’t go the same thing, obviously.”
This recent decline in youth crime is something Veronica and her board are very proud of in their region, and her advice to seeing that drop is straightforward and community-oriented; be a familiar face.
“Being a face, being out there.”
“And when we walk out, you know, like we know that the kids are going to respect us. When we go even shopping and things like that, the kids will come up to us. They’ll hug us, you know, even with social distancing, they still want to come up and hug you. But they look at us like grandparents or the big auntie and the big uncles. And it’s just that respect and knowing that they they’ve got us to turn to they see our faces in community. We’re always somewhere where they are and they always think I’m not going to do nothing.”
This is something Veronica’s brought even more forward within her justice group, being a part of her town’s police beat; a program that affords her recognisability with young people and the opportunity to mentor them.
How are you involved and how regular is that?
“Every Thursday night, just being a face there in the shopping centre.”
“When we’re there, we’ve also got one of the young mentors as well. For example, our young mentor Lyndon; he works at the radio station and the kids know him. And then we just sit down and just yarn with the kids. They sit around in the rotunda across from the shopping centre, and some of them are in big crowds. But we always make sure that we’re down there amongst it.”
“You know, if they go through we walk through the shopping centres and they know that we’re there and police beat of the police, they say that they say the big reduction on how the kids are reacting and carrying on in there. So they know that we’re going to be there. If it’s not me, if I don’t show up on my night, young Lyndon will or there’s some elders that they know about it and they just go out there and have dinner on a Thursday night at the shopping centre.”
The visual significance of Veronica and her crew is key.
“As soon as a kid sees an elder that they know, they shut down. So it’s good they got that respect.”
Even for a regional community, Veronica’s work is still subject to COVID restrictions, such as cutting into what were once regular visits to the Cleveland Youth Centre.
“Since COVID, we’ve pulled back a lot.”
What were you doing prior to COVID?
“We were going, to what was a once every two, three months or something like that. I can’t even remember now. Yeah, well pre-COVID it was good we were going up. We go up at NAIDOC time when they have their NAIDOC celebrations. It all depends whether I have it in November or whether they have it in October. But we try and join in the activities. I was doing WebEx link ups with Cleveland staff when they have their meetings once a Thursday, once a week on Thursday.”
Currently, only one First Nations offender resides in the youth centre, and for Veronica and her committee this is a victory in its own right.
Your committee must feel proud of that achievement? How does it really make you feel?
“Absolutely. It makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. It’s worth it.”
Good and Clean in Goondiwindi
The Goondiwindi Community Justice Group has kicked off an innovative new partnership with the Goondiwindi Regional Council for a court diversion program that will clean up the town common at the same time as working with local offenders to reduce recidivism.
Auspiced by Care Goondiwindi, the project will be delivered by the Goondiwindi Community Justice Group over three years with funding from the Department of Justice and Attorney General’s Courts Innovation Program. Engaging around sixteen young or vulnerable offenders each year, the program sees participants work under the supervision of the CJG Coordinator as part of a scheduled work program.
According to the Goondiwindi Community Justice Group Coordinator, Jason Scott, the initiative is based on a simple philosophy: ‘heal the land and it will heal the people’.
From the clearing out of noxious weeds to the removal of refuse and trash at the site, offenders will help to regenerate the Common whilst upskilling, receiving training and developing a strong work ethic to better equip them for success outside the program.
‘It makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. It’s worth it.’
– Veronica Ah Wang.
Coordinator, Mackay Justice Group.