Plea for evidence-based policy

Recently significant attention has focussed on Indigenous family violence and child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory. This attention began in 2006 as a consequence of a very explicit and confronting interview given by Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers on the Lateline program in 2006. The public outcry resulting from this interview spurred the Federal Government into action, an Intergovernmental Summit on Violence and Child Abuse in Indigenous Communities, involving Ministers from the Australian Government and all States and Territories was convened and in June 2006 the Federal Government offered States and Territories $130 million over four years to address social problems in remote communities. The package included funds to:

  • build police stations & police housing;
  • provide drug & alcohol rehabilitation services;
  • to establish ‘strike teams' to gather intelligence on Indigenous violence through the Australian Federal Police;
  • provide safe houses & other support for victims;
  • conduct health checks on approx 2000 children in remote communities; and
  • establish a national truancy unit to monitor school attendance in Indigenous communities

This funding was conditional on all references to customary law being removed from the Crimes Act in each State and Territory.

Twelve months on and following the release of the “Little Children are Sacred” Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse prepared by Rex Wild QC and CRCAH Chairperson Pat Anderson, the Federal Government announced yet more measures to respond to what has now been deemed a national emergency - the abuse of children in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The measures include:

  • introducing widespread alcohol restrictions in the NT;
  • introducing welfare reforms;
  • enforcing school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance and providing meals for children at school at parents' cost;
  • introducing compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children to identify and treat health problems and any effects of abuse;
  • acquiring townships prescribed by the Australian Government through five year leases;
  • increasing policing levels in prescribed communities, including requesting secondments from other jurisdictions to supplement NT resources;
  •  improving housing and reforming community living arrangements in prescribed communities including the introduction of market based rents and normal tenancy arrangements;
  •  banning the possession of X-rated pornography and introducing audits of all publicly funded computers to identify illegal material;
  • scrapping the permit system for common areas, road corridors and airstrips for prescribed communities on Aboriginal land, and;
  • improving governance by appointing managers of all government business in prescribed communities

It is interesting to note that some of these measures are a replication of the Federal Government's 2006 announcements and it begs the question what progress has been made in implementing the 2006 interventions? A Senate Estimates hearing in February 2007 sheds light on this, revealing that six months after the Federal Government announcement of a package of $130 million to combat family violence, not one cent had been spent on the ground to prevent violence in Indigenous communities. When this is put in the context of a further Senate Estimates Hearing in May 2006 in which it was revealed that approximately $5 million, or 15 percent of the $37 million budget allocated to the problem after an Indigenous family violence roundtable convened by the Prime Minister in 2003, had not been spent it begs the further question – how serious is this government about responding to the problem of Indigenous family violence and child abuse?

Already some of the proposed initiatives have been watered down in particular the compulsory health checks which now are now voluntary and do not look for signs of sexual abuse. Legislation relating to some of the other initiatives is due to be tabled in Parliament this week – the details of which have not been made publicly available at the time this article went to press.

It has long been recognised in two decades worth of reports that family violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities is a problem in all jurisdictions across Australia. Responding to the problem requires, as Anderson & Wild stressed in their Little Children are Sacred report, the establishment of collaborative partnerships at all levels of government and service provision so that appropriate joined-up support can be provided to those affected by violence. Of critical importance to this is that “governments commit [in this process] to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities whether these are in remote, regional or urban settings”. The measures announced by the Federal Government contradict not only the Anderson and Wild report recommendations but more than a decade of recommendations of how to respond to such sensitive issues in an appropriate and coordinated manner.

As Indigenous community members we know that the answers to the problems of violence lie within our communities. These are initiatives that are guided and supported by community autonomy, capacity and development. However, they often operate outside the mainstream and remain largely unrecognised. At best such grassroots and community level programs are poorly documented in one-off newspaper, magazine and/or journal articles, and fail to be noticed in the broader context. It is now time, given the current context that a concerted effort be made by researchers and practitioners to support and promote such initiatives so that an evidence base of what works and does not work can be made available more broadly.

Dr Kyllie Cripps, an Indigenous (Palawa) woman, is a CIPHeR Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit at The University of Melbourne.  In 2005 she was awarded her PhD entitled Enough Family Fighting: Indigenous Community Responses to Addressing Family Violence in Australia & the United States.  She has also been involved in the development of national policy in this area.  Her current work focuses on the social context of violence and how policy/programs can support Indigenous communities in responding to the problem.