Indigenous Girls Won’t go Home: They’re Worried About Their Uncles

An Alice Springs school principal has revealed the horrifying extent of the crisis engulfing Indigenous children in central Australia, detailing incidents where children are sometimes returned to school in handcuffs or wearing ankle bracelets and one in which a 12-year-old and his mates led teachers on a wild pursuit through the town in a stolen minibus. In a dramatic video of the minibus chase obtained by the media, a teacher can be heard screaming: “You little s…’s pull over!” as she leans from the window of a pursuing car. As Labor and Coalition leaders trade blows over allegations of neglect and child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory, Yipirinya School principal Gavin Morris has come forward with a desperate plea to help students like his who are “in absolute crisis”.

He said staff routinely had to contact magistrates to have bail conditions varied for children as young as 12 so they could participate in after-school programs, but added that his students saw the school as “a place of culture” and “a place where they want to be”. In one incident where a teenage girl had been raped, her young brother who had witnessed the crime came to school with serious signs of self-harm after attempting to take his own life. “For the teenage girls who don’t go home because they’re worried about their uncles coming in, these are the girls who are walking around Alice Springs unsupervised because they don’t feel safe to go home,” Mr. Morris said. A political storm erupted last month after Peter Dutton, backed by Indigenous senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, alleged rampant child sexual abuse in the Territory, only to be attacked by NT Police Minister Kate Worden for “absolutely opportunistic political game-playing”.

Despite the promise of almost $300m in extra funding in the NT and new restrictions on alcohol sales, children are still on the streets late at night, playing cat and mouse with police. The shocking catalogue of evidence produced by Mr. Morris, who has a PhD in Aboriginal trauma and lectures at Charles Darwin University, is set to focus attention on the NT’s beleaguered education system and efforts to keep Indigenous children attending school. Most important for Mr. Morris is that students see Yipirinya now as a place of cultural safety, a place where they can feel safe, and they can feel like they belong. “I’ve got kids coming to see me and saying home life is that bad that they’d rather be in Owen Springs (juvenile detention) and in incarceration where they feel safer.” “We need support to make sure that we get all these kids the support that they need,” he says.

In the minibus incident last August, a group of students – the driver aged 12, the oldest just 14 – stole the vehicle at 9pm, smashing through the school gates, and sped through the main street of Alice Springs. Mr. Morris recalled his phone suddenly “buzzing off its head” as teachers reported they were frantically pursuing the students in their cars, begging them to stop before someone was seriously injured or killed. Video of the chase shows the bus careening down the street as the teacher driving the car behind desperately beeps its horn and flashes its headlights. Tyres screech as they turn a corner, chasing the kids, who live in town camps around Alice Springs. “You f…ing wait!” one teacher screams. “Pull over!” The pursuing teachers are scared for the lives of the students and innocent bystanders.

As they head out of town, the car swerves onto the wrong side of the road, throwing up dirt when it veers off the bitumen. The kids drive down to an Indigenous camp on the outskirts of town, where the bus begins to slow. Ten kids jump out of the van while it’s still moving and scatter into the night, some vaulting fences. “They came to school the next day,” Mr. Morris said. None was charged. The bus was written off, with significant damage to the structure and axles. It was not an isolated incident, Mr. Morris said. “We’ve got a growing number of students at Yipirinya who come to school with ankle bracelets, who have got bail conditions attached to the upcoming court case, some of these are very, very young,” says Mr. Morris. Earlier this year, he says a caged police truck arrived at the school at 8.30am, with four handcuffed girls who had been “day-breaking” – staying up all night roaming the streets.

In the minibus incident “They didn’t want to go home, so came to school,” he said. “That’s not something that was seen as an emergency, that’s pretty much day-to-day operations. This is what we’re dealing with at Yipirinya, and it doesn’t define us. We’re a very strong cultural school, and the majority of our kids every day come to school, and it’s happy – and they love learning, and they love coming to school – but a lot of our families overcome a great deal to get there. “We’re not talking about historical events here; we’re not dredging up some of the big, bad dark stories from the past; this is the stuff that we’re dealing with regularly.” Mr. Morris said he took the students breaking into the school “personally” but added that most of it came down to lack of supervision, trauma and seeking attention.

He said many children who were arrested and sent to juvenile detention, were assessed, and “100 per cent” of them returned with a diagnosis, many with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. “Issues stem from alcohol and from households that feature alcohol and drug abuse and lack of parenting and lack of parenting support and families in crisis and families carrying unresolved trauma and and the use of alcohol to cope with that trauma,” he said. Mr. Morris said underlying issues as to why young children were on the street needed to be addressed. “What we’ve proposed and had on the table and have bipartisan support is around an accommodation facility built at Yipirinya,” he said.  He believes some of the $300m promised to address issues in central Australia by Anthony Albanese should be allocated to the project.

“For those students or families who choose or need that emergency accommodation, that safe, secure accommodation, we want to be able to offer that at Yipirinya,” he said. “We need more than just bipartisan support; we need the government to come to the table and fund it. You can’t have unsupervised children walking around the streets.” Mr. Morris said some girls were roaming around unsupervised because they didn’t feel like they belonged or were accepted. “They feel like they’re being left behind from society,” he said.  “Those homes in crisis that have chronic alcohol and substance abuse, chronic domestic violence, chronic sexual assaults, they need support. “This isn’t all Aboriginal families, but let’s get behind those that need the support.” Mr. Morris said homes with a lack of food, financial security and supervision often led to children presenting on the streets and at schools and in the community as being anti-social.

“But there’s certainly a growing number of families in crisis that need support, and the support they need is in respect to alcohol and substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence,” he said. “Mothers, in particular, are the ones who seem to be standing up in community, and it’s the mothers who are at crisis point.” Mr. Morris said schools needed to begin dealing with underlying trauma before traditional schooling such as literacy and numeracy. “It’s not punitive, it’s not reactionary … it’s about addressing the underlying trauma that these kids are bringing into the school,” he said. “Once you’ve addressed that trauma, then you can start talking about literacy and numeracy and employment opportunities and the rest of it.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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