Monday, 14 March 2016

Dark Times

Dark Times

by Siv Parker

You can not be involved in any grass roots campaign without knowing about child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities.  You can’t be a feminist without knowing about physical, mental and financial abuse of Aboriginal women. 

You can’t call yourself an Aboriginal leader if you haven’t faced these issues head on.

You can’t be a suicide prevention advocate without considering the link between abuse and violence to the high rates of suicide in adults of all ages and children under ten years old.

You can’t be a black politician without being aware what runs deep in your community.  

You can’t be a perpetrator without people in your own community – your own family – being aware of your behaviour.

Despite the recently reported findings in Queensland,  it is still not bad enough for a commitment to act outside of comfort zones, to agree to extend ourselves to caring for the most vulnerable in our community.  What is comfortable about this current situation? 

What is acceptable about violent sexual assault, and places where child prostitution is a common practice?  Where some people will tell you, ‘the kids are bad’.

- Extract -

A place rotten to the core, I lived for a while in an outback town not much different from hundreds of others with large Indigenous populations. The kind of place where child sexual assault happens inside and outside the home.  I hadn't been aware just how much it happened locally, when I took up responsibility for running a youth centre.

On a warm night, stars out and perfect for a stroll, I walked down to the bowling club to get a packet of cigarettes.  Three or four boys were sitting on the kerb between the parked cars.  Young boys, all under ten years old.  Very small boys, with bare knees and their feet in the gutter.

I said hello and didn’t think much of it until I scanned the patrons inside the club.  There were no parents or even family to any of the small boys outside. 

I’d have been surprised to see Aboriginal people drinking in the club.  It would take a job to have the option of having a few quiet ones mid week at the club.  White* men sat on the stools, fingering their keno stubs and watching the sports playing on the big screen.

I was more to the point when I walked back down the ramp, ‘What are you boys doing here?’

‘Nothing, just…sitting.’ 

Something about their aimless sitting late at night outside a bowling club caught my attention, especially when one said, ‘seeya’ and waved me away.  A little man directing me to leave. 

I headed back across the well-lit public park, past the gazebo and disappeared from view before turning back and making use of a stump to sit in the darkness and watch.

It didn’t take long.  One by one, the club emptied of men each carrying a large bottle of soft drink and a packet of chips.

The boys, single or in pairs, climbed into cars and I could see their silhouettes taking big swigs of soft drink as the cars drove away.  I knew most of the boys and where they lived.  Where were they going just shy of midnight with middle aged white men towards the other end of town?

This kind of child prostitution has been in practice for a very long time. Older children had other after-dark haunts, all as well known as the town bowling club sitting in its meticulously pruned gardens.  Conversations with the police ACLO and the police themselves confirmed just how much they already knew.

The dark stretch opposite the 24 hour roadhouse was a convenient pick up point.  The town council had decided the area needed to be rezoned.  Previously residential with houses that lined both sides of the thoroughfare, the kids had been known to throw stones at passing traffic before slipping away, impossible to identify, find and punish.  Now the bleak stretch with its smashed street lights and overgrown trees turning shadows into pitch night was used by truck drivers to pull over for a sleep spot, and for passing vehicles to cruise. 

Makes me wonder why the kids were throwing stones in the first place.

The convenience of having a car to collect kids who most likely came from a home that had never and probably would never have a family car, for the purposes of prostitution was sickening.  
Two old men, real salt of the earth types were memorable.  
I was laughing and joking with a group of teens on the pavement one day, and in front of my eyes, these old men, brothers, pulled up in their small ute and beckoned one of the girls over.  She snarled back at them, the driver laughed, before holding a twenty dollar note out the window. The other kids started to snigger and ‘T’, a 15 year old started to swear at the ute and its grinning elderly occupants.  They gave a cheery wave and promised to ‘catch up with you later’.

Some days later, so the story went, he announced to a public bar during the Friday night rugby that he [paraphrased] had just had sex with a under age girl.  The movement of throwing his chest out caused his shorts to slip down and they landed around his ankles.  An elderly man naked from the waist down, in a stained t-shirt laughed heartily and dragged his filthy shorts back up his pale veiny legs.  Friday night at the pub.  I have no idea if any observers reported this announcement.

And then there is the abuse within the community.   I could guess at what was hidden from me, and then there was one case that was right in my face.

He was known as an Aboriginal community leader. I have no doubt that the media would continue to call him a leader without hesitation. He was prominent on every local board and committee and had been for years. 

I didn’t realize the extent of his interactions with young girls until one of my teenagers turned up to the youth centre with black eyes, swollen face and a torn and crusted lip.

The story gives a glimpse of the extent of the problem.  She (17) and her sister (15) had been collected from the street by the Leader (50s) and taken down a bush track on the outskirts of town. As they explained to me, they like to go in pairs, as a form of protection. I think it’s a rule but this is only a guess, that local Aboriginal men would not negotiate sex for payment with their own relatives.  All three were well known to each other.

Shortly after they arrived, another car pulled up beside them.  It was a small town. If a person had it in mind, they could find and follow people fairly easily.

And the driver of the second car, ‘BM’, wife of Leader, had intended to follow them.  She proceeded to beat both girls, the one inside her husband’s car with far more severity than the sister who had been sitting outside on a mound of dirt.

BM then warned them to ‘leave my man alone’, before both cars departed, leaving the two girls, one bleeding heavily from her nose, to walk back to town.

And this is where the first responsible adult stepped in.  The girls went home to wash their faces and change their ripped clothes, and were confronted by their mother.  She then matched both girls down to the local police to report BM for beating up her daughters.  

I have no idea what she thought of the prostitution.  

I met her once - she told me how angry she was that BM had flogged her daughters.  She spoke very softly and I think it would have taken a mighty effort to get as involved as she did. 

The matter involved three large families, with two well known adults both facing significant charges. They both drove to the courthouse.  BM would patrol the court house halls and stand outside on the pavement with no detectable shame. The girls’ family didn’t have a car, they had no adult to accompany them.  Their mother just couldn’t do it.

Proceedings were protracted and frequently delayed.  Long days spent waiting on a narrow bench, on the wide front steps, or in the park across the road while BM glowered at us.  Only to be told it would be another week, or a month or sometime in the future, they’d be in contact.  In the meantime, all of these people continued to live in the same small community. 

And then the yarns around town started to get bigger. 

Melbourne Cup, and there is a big crowd at the pub.

I walked in and happened to be closely followed by the loving couple.  Like any old country pub, the women drifted into the salon while the men were thick in the public bar. 
BM was dressed to the nines and her voice was as loud as usual. She told anyone who turned an ear – and we all did – that she had made a deal with the husband. He had to pay her $5000 or she would tell the police that she had caught him in the act with an underage girl.  The money and threat was a means of keeping him on a short leash. And if he was convicted, maybe even went to jail, it was a nest egg. 

I was finding her saloon oration hard to follow.  It turned out I wasn’t able to watch the Melbourne Cup - I was forced to leave due to a sudden attack of profound disgust.   

And this is where people ask – were the accusers threatened?  Not exactly.  Not directly.  But the general feeling that the girls were somehow at fault followed them.  They were a bit of a nuisance, bunging it on a bit, considering so many of the girls were getting around town doing the same thing.

I would stare down anyone who was tempted to ask me why I was bothering.  I found it best to be blunt and straight to the point when a person would ask, ‘how do you stand the kids?’  My response: it's the adults that are the problem.

Some eight months later I transferred out of that town as I’d long planned, and have no idea of the outcome.  I can guess.  The man involved continued in his positions.  If it was ever discussed, was the decision made that he could continue in his employment - he didn’t actually work with kids, after all?  And when he was part of this working group, and that regional committee for justice reinvestment, and cultural heritage, and community safety either people had short memories or turned a blind eye?

I have no idea how he explained himself or if his wife continued to re-enact her double fisted lunge to drag an undersized girl from the backseat of a car, as some kind of party trick.

I can still picture them.  His expression, bemused mostly, and her defiance with it’s implied warning.  I wondered about the age difference between BM and Leader.  He was much older.  I did the sums.  Was BM under-aged when she struck up a relationship with a much older man?  Did she beat up a girl she regarded as her competition?

Alcohol and drugs are enablers, it numbs and disguises the depravity.  It turns it into a party of the twisted kind.

If a child safety and family support task force came to town and said, 'ok, we need some input, some ideas' – who would they talk to?   What process identifies those who are able and willing to make a difference?

What is the solution?  These towns are a world unto their own, disconnected with what happens 100kms down the road, let alone further away in the cities and the national capital.  They are not following Indigenous politics unless it impacts on their payments and access to alcohol and drugs.  

There are not enough houses.  Overcrowding and homelessness are both grave problems.  People circulate between homes.  Imagine if you had a revolving door of visitors, eating your food, turning the beds into communal sleeping pods.  And where they have mental health issues, bringing that into the home, self medicating or paying their board by ‘shouting a party’. 

Picture Christmas, your house full of family and other visitors.  Imagine if that lasted 365 days.

In rural and remote areas especially, there are no jobs. Mentoring, training, every other word that translates into support pays the trainers and mentors for their career, while the black people they ‘support’ remain in poverty for their life. 

Young people want dance parties at the youth centre, free entry to the town pool, BBQs down at the oval, trips to far places, and visit the cities to see how other people live with all their choices and wonder how they don’t have the same. 
These are things that can allow kids to be kids, while they live in poverty with no hope of local jobs and watch the old white men and their children and grand children take all the jobs, live in the big houses in the well lit part of town and drive past them in their cars. 

To call the town’s establishment figures out on their suspected racism or to demand they promote ‘empowerment of Aboriginal men’ or teach ‘self respect’ to children is the limpest of responses.  

Efforts to protect and nurture children continue to stall while people are unable to admit ‘we have a problem.  We have had this problem for a very long time.’ 
If Aboriginal people are unable to confront what is broken inside, they have no capacity to negotiate with governments on any level.

There have been exposés of two Prime Ministers in the past three years, both suspected of failing to manage their power in a responsible way.  There has been months of hearings for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse telling us that child abuse is everywhere.  

And the reason is not racism, poverty or colonisation in all cases.  How can child removal be the blanket solution when we continue to hear that children are not safe and better off in these placements?

The fear that exposing violent sexual abuse of children and young people dehumanizes Aboriginal men, and risks Intervention-style bureaucratic top-down disasters is misplaced.   Sacrificing children and decimating families dehumanises us all.



* 'white' denotes non-Indigenous people. In larger townships and cities, the divide between white and black is not so clear cut.  In a country town, labels are for life and come loaded with generations of baggage.  Based on figures from Census and other data collection, over 70% of Indigenous people have non-Indigenous partners, so applying 'white' becomes more problematic every year, and is used for want of a more accurate word.

This includes an extract from a longer piece of work, soon to be published that provides additional background to the location, and further account of my experience supporting families, and working with other agencies on community safety projects. 

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