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Voice to Parliament a chance to minimise Indigenous child imprisonment

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(Screenshot via YouTube)

Establishing the Indigenous Voice to Parliament will provide an opportunity for First Nations Australians to make a better life for troubled youth, writes Eleanor Limprecht.

I RECENTLY HIKED the Larapinta Trail, a wilderness area on Tyurrentye country along the spine of the West MacDonnell Ranges. It was a chance to leave our teenagers with their grandmother and spend time with my husband, walking and talking, our first childless trip in five years.

I’d been thinking about the Voice to Parliament before we left, as someone who has chosen to make Australia my home. It was even more on my mind in Alice Springs, where you hear the Arrernte language on the streets and where a quarter of the population is Indigenous (compared to about three per cent of the population of Australia). It is no secret that Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory experience high rates of social disadvantage and poverty, high rates of mortality and incarceration.

Our walk finished on Friday and, with tired legs but high spirits, we headed back home on Saturday 16 September.

Alice Springs Airport is quiet and we arrived early out of habit rather than necessity, a good hour and a half before our flight to Sydney via Brisbane was due to depart. Waiting to drop our bags, we saw a cluster of people enter from the other side of that high-ceilinged building and what struck me at first was how close they were to one another. Normally, you don’t walk with two people glued to either side of you. Unless, I realised suddenly, you are a prisoner being escorted.

But these were no ordinary prisoners. They were two boys who looked about the age of my children, somewhere between the age of 14 and 16. They were Indigenous boys who had some height but were still thin as reeds, with maybe a little peach fuzz on their upper lips but no reason to shave for a few years yet.

They had waistbelt restraints with chains attached to their handcuffs and each had two enormous male guards on either side, holding on to their belt restraints. The boys seemed even skinnier and more childlike in comparison to the beefy men who escorted them. They wore civilian clothes: t-shirts and acrylic shorts, thongs on their feet.

We only saw them briefly as they went through the security scanners and they grinned at one another in that way that teenagers do when they recognise they are above their heads in trouble but don’t want to show fear to the adults watching.

I wondered if either of them had a jumper. It can be so cold on a plane. But you can’t even put a jumper on when you are handcuffed and being cold was probably the least of their worries.

We went to our gate, the boys were escorted to a separate waiting area and I wondered, as I watched them slip away, if they were going to the Don Dale Detention Centre — the other flight leaving that morning was to Darwin.

I’d heard the news in July that dozens of children were being moved from Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre to the Don Dale facility to allow for “upgrades” to the Alice Springs site. This is despite the 2017 Royal Commission having recommended that Don Dale be closed down, saying it was wholly inappropriate for children.

I knew too there’d been an inquiry launched into those transfers after advocates protested that moving vulnerable children 1,500 kilometres from family, community and support services was done without adequate planning or consultation.

I don’t know if this is where these boys were headed; I don’t know what they were arrested for. But I do know that we can’t repair intergenerational trauma by incarcerating children, and that we are spending millions of dollars to do so when that money could be spent on family and community support, education and health outcomes.

The NT Government Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities publishes a regular youth detention census. As of the week commencing 26 June 2023, in the Northern Territory, there was an average of 50 children in detention. Of these children, 49 were identified as Aboriginal: 98 per cent.

Since changes to the Youth Bail Act in the Northern Territory in 2021, children on remand are kept behind bars if they can’t make bail and this has, by all accounts, increased the number of Indigenous children in youth detention. At the same time, as we continue to incarcerate First Nations children – any children – multiple studies have shown that children who are incarcerated have frequently experienced trauma in early childhood and that those who are imprisoned are more likely to re-offend.

I recognise the space between Australia’s prisons – run by state governments, or frequently, by private companies contracted by state governments – and the Voice to Parliament, which would be an advisory body to the Federal Government. And I know that the scope of 65,000 years of Indigenous history on this continent and the complexity of systemic prejudice are enormous to grapple with.

This is why I can’t stop thinking about those boys, who seemed so alone despite the guards that flanked them. How much better it would be if their families and communities could have a say in the justice meted out to them. I know from first-hand experience that teenagers test boundaries; I know they can make terrible mistakes.

The Uluru Statement says:

‘Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.’

An advisory body is a step in the right direction to have a mechanism for proper input, allowing Indigenous Australians to have a say in matters that directly impact them, their children, their futures.

Returning home, I hugged my own children tighter than they liked. They acquiesced for a moment before pulling away. They had spent the past week between homework and TikTok, walking the dog and going to class and messaging with friends.

How those skinny boys grinned at each other past the scanners, with all the bluff and bluster of youth. How I wish their families could hold them close.

We have a rare chance in this Referendum to reframe our relationship with the First Nations of Australia, to show our love for all of Australia’s children.

Let’s not allow it to slip away.

Eleanor Limprecht is an author, constant reader and creative writing teacher. She is the chair of the board of directors at Writing NSW.

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