Kimberley community leaders fear they’re losing a generation of kids to confusion and crime – ABC News

The mood is sombre as the Aboriginal elders greet each other. Some lean together and bury their heads, shoulders silently shaking with grief.

Key points:

They’re processing the loss of another child, another descendant who should have lived.

She died on a Sunday night two weeks ago, in a stolen car with seven unsupervised children, that hurtled along the highway and pitched into a roll on a dirt track.

The senior cultural people are gathered in Derby for a board meeting of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.

They don’t want to talk about the girl and her fatal injuries; it’s not their place.

But they do want to talk about the children and how they no longer listen; how deeply they care for the young ones, but fear some are now out of control.

“It was different when we were growing up because we had the old people still alive, and now they’re all gone and that’s why these young kids are all running amok,” Putuparri Lawford says

Preference for traditional punishment

Putuparri is a senior Wangkutjungka man, and maintains the cultural beliefs and practices the missionaries tried to stamp out.

Part of that is a preference for traditional punishment, involving a tightly regulated system of penalties still practised in parts of central and northern Australia.

“Tribal punishment is discipline really, it teaches you what’s wrong from right. If you do wrong, you get a hiding,” Putuparri says.

“It still happens, but now the police don’t want it to happen. They take the person away before they can be punished in a cultural way.”

smashed windscreen on a truck from a rock impact

Supplied: G&V Roberts Transport

The punishment can be violent, anything from a clip around the ear for a child, to a public whacking with sticks performed in a public place.

Videos online capture the scene at remote communities in the Northern Territory. Dozens of people circling the accused person, shouting and wielding sticks. The videos cut out before the hitting begins.

Putuparri says a moderate form of physical discipline would restore order within families, as well as the diminished authority of Aboriginal elders.

‘How do we discipline our kids?’

It’s a view shared by Gordon Marshall, who is the chairman of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.

He’s a former police officer, and has spent decades navigating the murky intersection of ‘Western’ ways and the traditional cultural beliefs that dictated life in the Kimberley for tens of thousands of years.

“I think some form of traditional punishment is appropriate, because the way we are now with police and welfare, you can’t discipline your child in any form,” he says.

“When I was growing up, you used to be frightened of doing anything wrong because you’d get flogged for it, and that would deter you from doing something wrong.”

Two men sitting together, one, Gordon Marshall, has a big bushy beard.

ABC News: Erin Parke

But Mr Marshall acknowledges the problems are more complex than anything a smack can fix.

Families are struggling, he says. There’s trauma and cultural confusion and children are paying the price.

“We need to stop the kids from doing break-ins, but we need to educate the family about how to look after the kids, like checking at 10:00pm to make sure they’re in their room.”

“These kids wander the streets all night and some of them have got good reason – it’s because of the alcohol and the abuse that’s happening at home.

“They don’t want to go home while everyone’s drinking, so they’ll go home at three or four in the morning when everyone’s asleep so they know they’re safe.”

Which Minister is taking responsibility?

The WA Government is developing a Kimberley Juvenile Justice Strategy to try to reduce the number of children getting caught up in crime.

But just who is providing leadership and drive within the government on reform of these issues remains more uncertain.

The Department of Communities, responsible for directly addressing and working through many of the underlying social issues contributing to ongoing dysfunction and youth crime in the region, reports to ministers John Carey, Simone McGurk, Dave Kelly, Reece Whitby and Don Punch under their various portfolios.

Stephen Dawson, meanwhile, holds the critical portfolios of Aboriginal Affairs and Mental Health.

But the Juvenile Justice Strategy falls under the purview of Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston.

Mr Johnston was asked about the strategy during a visit to Broome, 10 days after the young girl died.

“The KJJS is not completely within the Corrections portfolio, as Corrections deals with sentenced and remanded prisoners and community corrections,” he said.

“The [strategy] will be further developed and talked about in the budget, so I’m not in a position to talk about that today.

“But the government understands we have to invest into communities to make sure young people don’t become engaged with the criminal justice system.”

Image of an Aboriginal woman wearing a blue patterned top, standing on the banks of the Fitzroy River with a grey sky.

ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke

‘Abnormal behaviour has become the norm’

Community leaders like Denise Andrews say there is no point throwing money at the issue without addressing the trauma lurking within families.

She is a Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing, who says workshops on intergeneration trauma made her realise the impacts of the past on Kimberley families.

“The biggest thing in our homes now is how do we set boundaries for our children when we’re trying to deal with our own trauma as parents and grandparents,” she says.

“I think understanding trauma would be a big eye-opener, because there are responses that are triggered that don’t make sense otherwise.

“The abnormal behaviour has become the norm and we’re living in this, thinking it’s the culture that belongs to us — but it’s not.”

Sorry Camp

The family of the young girl killed are gathered at Sorry Camp close to the crash site.

Tensions have been simmering in the local community. Some want payback for the teenage driver of the stolen car. Others are angry at reports of a local hotel worker who was following the stolen car when it crashed.

Meanwhile, 400 kilometres west, the two women assaulted during the theft of the car are recovering in Broome.

They are also now dealing with trauma and physical wounds; another rolling wave of hurt, sweeping across the Kimberley.