With First Nations children twenty-five times more likely to end up in prison than their non-Indigenous counterparts, it’s clear that the current youth justice system is not working for Aboriginal kids, particularly in the Northern Territory where the youth incarceration rate is three times higher than the national average. For the last few years, several Aboriginal women from across the territory have been volunteering their time to support children who end up on the streets at night, often simply by being a safe person that they can talk to. Calling themselves the Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert, these women are helping the next generation of young Aboriginal people get the help they need before they get caught up with the police.
It’s estimated that 1128 children in the Northern Territory don’t have a safe space to sleep on any given night due to issues at home, such as overcrowding, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Many of these volatile situations are the result of centuries of violence and discrimination against Aboriginal people, creating systemic inequalities and generational trauma that households struggle to cope with. These situations were only intensified in the Northern Territory by the 2007 Intervention, which displaced many families and increased police powers so significantly that it required suspending the Racial Discrimination Act. Today’s children and teens have grown up under this dehumanising system with families that were torn apart and unable to fully support them, causing the children to take to the streets while also trying to cope with the personal impact of this mistreatment.
While most of the children on the streets late at night are simply meeting with friends or looking for food, a small number are more violent, vandalising property and breaking into homes and cars. The NT government has responded with a ‘tough on crime’ approach, using police and tougher bail laws to enforce order, but many believe that this authoritarian response does not protect kids or the community. Many young Aboriginal people do not trust police police and similar authorities due to the way they and their families have been mistreated. There is also concern that using juvenile detention as a solution puts these kids at risk of physical abuse by guards and fails to address the complex circumstances that lead to their crimes in the first place, resulting in high rates of reoffending.
They are caught in a toxic environment … It is a known fact across the world, [that youth in these situations] eventually turn on each other, hurt others and damage property. This crisis situation needs to stop. It needed a community-wide approach to stop high-risk dangers.
The Grandmothers Group offers a grassroots alternative to these vulnerable kids. In the towns of Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, older women are going around the CBD streets at night to ‘act as a buffer to prevent young people being picked up by police’. Although they are not always the children’s biological grandmothers and great-grandmothers, as older people in their communities, these women have a commanding but nurturing influence that deescalates tensions and provides security. They are able to talk to the young people with a greater understanding of the issues that they are grappling with, as compared to the police, and can direct them to safer sources of food and shelter before they get themselves into trouble. Kalheel Galminda, a member of the Traditional Owner ‘foot patrol’ that operated before the Grandmothers Group in Tennant Creek, says that ‘the grandmas are powerful – … [t]hey can tell the kids to go home and they’ll just listen’.
The women in Tennant Creek have focused on guarding a frequently-targeted service station, often staying out as late as 5am, while those in Alice Springs patrol the streets in high-vis jackets three nights a week to actively look for kids in need of a loving hand. Many of women take inspiration from their own grandmothers and Aunties; for example, Doreen Carroll describes how she felt able to overcome hardship as a child because ‘I grew up with two strong people, two strong grandmothers’. These women see a great amount of power in being able to support at-risk young people within their communities, rather than sending them to a prison thousands of kilometres away from their Country and already-disrupted families. While the young people don’t always listen to the grandmothers, NT Police Commander (Southern Command) Craig Laidler has noticed a positive change. The Grandmothers hope that one day, the resources that go into the systems that lock young people away will be used to expand their work, funding community hubs and education programs that help kids stay safe in the first place.
Us grandmothers love you from the bottom of our hearts. … That’s our responsibility as grandmothers – to be a safe and loving space – but we all need to be accountable for looking after our children.
These grandmothers are providing the supportive spaces that vulnerable children have missed out on, proving that community-based solutions have an important role in helping improve the lives of Aboriginal children across Australia. To learn more about these women and support their important work, follow The Strong Grandmothers Group from the Central Desert Region on Facebook here.
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