You are probably familiar with the concept of parenthood. It denotes a certain set of responsibilities in relation to a child. It’s not difficult to grasp and the obligations associated with being a parent are not especially obscure.
This makes it all the more difficult to understand why the ABC’s The Drum can devote fifteen minutes of earnest discussion about yet another report into the incarceration rates of Aboriginal kids without once mentioning ‘parents’. The discussion was inspired, if that is the correct term, by a report, ‘Our Youth, Our Way’, which was last week tabled in the Victorian Parliament. It was presented to Parliament by Justin Mohammed, the Victorian Aboriginal Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, and he came on The Drum to explain to the audience why Indigenous kids are ten times more likely to end up involved in the youth criminal justice system than non-Indigenous kids.
Ellen Fanning was hosting the show and was shocked hear that kids had complained about being beaten and sexually abused by police. There was, as usual, no right of reply from police authorities and no specific details of when the alleged assaults took place. Fanning has form in this area. Last April, I wrote an article accusing Fanning of not knowing what she was talking about or deliberately avoiding the truth (‘Fanning the Flames’) in which I pointed out that the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was marginally lower than that of non white prisoners. Fanning spent most of that episode of her show expressing shock and outrage at the inordinate number of Aboriginal deaths in custody without once acknowledging that the rate of the two populations was roughly comparable.
This time again, Fanning’s outrage and despair was directed at the criminal justice system for failing to help prevent Indigenous kids from being locked up. There is no disputing the statistics and they are not shocking because as, Mr Mohammed noted, the situation hasn’t changed for the thirty years that he has been involved in this area. Aboriginal kids get into trouble with the authorities at an early age and are doomed to a cycle of arrest and incarceration as they progress from juvenile detention to adult jails.
The solution for Mohammed is to integrate the troubled kids into an Indigenous network of support and protection. He argues that ‘when they have connection back to family and culture, they can move forward’. For fifteen minutes, Ms Fanning and her quartet of experts droned on about why Aboriginal kids are getting into trouble with the law without once considering the role of ‘parents’ in child rearing. Not one of them asked why kids who are wandering the streets at night are not being supervised by their parents. It is a question so obvious that the only reason that it wasn’t asked, is because all five of those informed ‘experts’ knew the answer.
In a survey of Aboriginal women in Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley region, 50 per cent reported drinking while pregnant and 1 in 8 Indigenous kids born in that region were diagnosed as suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome (‘The Liliwan Project’). This is one of the highest incidences of FASD in the world and goes a long way to explain the incidence of Indigenous incarceration in that region.
The recent tragic incident in Adelaide in which an Indigenous 13-year-old boy was crushed to death in a garbage compactor in which he and two friends were sleeping is another example of parental failure. Had the poor boy been white, the media would have been onto the family immediately and asked, not unreasonably, why they didn’t know where their child was spending the night. Because he was Indigenous, the media tiptoed around the issue of possible parental neglect. It is a pattern we see repeatedly in the media’s discussion of dysfunctional families in Aboriginal communities. The Fanning world view believes the reason why kids are locked up is not because there is no parental control, not because they keep stealing cars, not because of substance abuse. It is because they are victimised by the police.
There are many reasons why Indigenous kids become enmeshed in the youth criminal justice system and it is time that ABC journalists started doing their job of investigating those reasons instead of presenting an ideologically driven account of white supremacists masquerading as police.
ABC journalists could start by looking around the world at incarceration rates of different ethnic groups. In the USA, the rate of incarceration of Hispanics is three times that of whites and the rate of black Americans imprisoned is almost six times that of the white population. Do we conclude from this that the American police victimise blacks at twice the rate at which they victimise Hispanics, and if so, why? The same inconsistencies are seen in incarceration rates in Britain’s ethnic minorities where people of Islamic background from the Indian subcontinent are incarcerated at almost twice the rate of Hindu and Sikh migrants from the same region. What this suggests is that structural factors within a particular ethnic or racial group can influence rates of incarceration and yet at no time in the frequent discussions of this topic on The Drum, do we see any deeper analysis of the issue.
In Papua New Guinea, a major problem is emerging in cities where criminal gangs of young kids are a making it dangerous to walk at night on the main streets of the cities. They are not being arrested by racist police merely because they are black, nor because white people stole their land. The root cause of the criminality is the difficulties involved in the transition of the society from a preindustrial tribal subsistence economy to a modern national state and the breakdown of traditional family structures.
Fanning and the rest of the social commentators on the ABC are peddling grossly distorted explanations of the rate of incarceration of Indigenous kids. By constantly claiming that the state is inherently biased against Indigenous kids they are preventing an honest exploration of the problem and unless the approach is changed, in thirty years from now we will be no closer to a genuine solution.