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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.”

Outback Cinema

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.

For more information on this story, read here.