The Kimberley is an exceptionally beautiful part of the continent.
None of its natural splendour can be seen in one of the region’s courtrooms, however. The only noteworthy feature is the Western Australian coat of arms, with its iconic black swan and kangaroo paw. Opposite the magistrate’s chair sits a wide screen television, used in part to reach young offenders via video link.
This screen streams in young people from the state’s sole juvenile detention centre, which has the misleadingly cheerful name of Banksia Hill. Young people in the Kimberley who find themselves incarcerated are flown down to the centre on the outskirts of Perth, thousands of kilometres away from their ancestral lands.
In time, a young man is escorted into the court to be tried. He’s not so much fearful as confused as to why he is there, bewildered and unsure of himself. With guidance, he pleads guilty to his charges and, with the promise of ongoing support from my colleagues and I – his caseworkers – is released on an intensive supervision order.
Case closed, it would seem. Yet another kid who broke the law and was let off by a lenient magistrate at a time when the justice system is increasingly subject to criticism.
This is only part of the story, however; not all was revealed in the courtroom. We caseworkers advocated against incarceration because we strongly believed that there was something insidious present, something affecting his thoughts and behaviour.
Our concerns were validated a week after the sentencing. Doctors advised that the young man had previously been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, the information lost in transit when he moved from one town to another. Had he not had our support in court, odds are he would have ended up in the “big house”, suffering from auditory hallucinations and insomnia.
He hadn’t been seen by mental health clinicians for over six months, nor had he been taking medication during this time. He had suffered trauma earlier in life. There was every possibility that he had been exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero, and he remains a heavy substance user today. Only now, following the case, is he receiving regular medical attention.
His case is shocking indeed, and is but one example of the alarming levels of societal dysfunction among young people in the Kimberley. You cannot dismiss, nor dilute the statistics. In the last year, it was reported that the Kimberley region has the worst rates of suicide in the world.
When figures like this are raised, the reaction from the media is inevitably one of hopelessness and dismay. It presents the Kimberley as some sort of failed state, which cannot be repaired. Recently, life in one Kimberley town was compared to Syria, with young people creating a “war zone” in the streets.
Reports like these certainly reinforce the hackneyed view that there is a never-ending cycle of trauma in northern Australia; that this is the way it always has been and ever will be.
Improvement can and will come – but it requires a shift in mindset.
A great many young people suffer from cognitive disabilities in the Kimberley, and the logical first step to addressing the rates of social dysfunction is to recognise that there is a causal link between these mental conditions and crime.
In many instances, young people are not offending with a clear, cognitive process. They are, often, very unwell. The recent figures highlight that nine out of 10 inmates at Banksia Hill – if you can call children as young as 10 inmates – have some form of neuro-disability. This is among the highest reported rate for sentenced youth in the world.
With this knowledge, the narrative alters. It becomes less a discussion of how to discipline young offenders, and more a case of addressing young people’s mental welfare before they break the law.
At the same time, it is important to note that recognising the connection between mental conditions and crime is in no way dismissing other factors. Social elements – boredom, a dysfunctional home environment, learned behaviour and a lack of opportunity – all flow, like open veins, into offending.
However, it is imperative that the link between mental health and crime becomes common knowledge soon. Victims of crime are growing impatient, and the spectre of retribution lies smouldering in the north’s wet season heat.
In recent months, the Kimberley’s police force have implored furious locals not to consider taking the law into their hands, subconsciously raising the case of Elijah Dougherty in Kalgoorlie just over two years ago. This anger has been stoked by comments on social media, echoing the perception that the authorities are unwilling or unable to act effectively.
They could not be further from reality. The police in northern Australia do a thankless job, with limited resources. No one should ever have to bear witness to some of their call outs. In frustration, it is easy to forget that, like magistrates, the police operate inside the constraints of a legal system which evolves slowly to take into account social change and scientific evidence.
And it will evolve; only in recent times have mental conditions been considered when young offenders are sentenced. Perhaps most notable among these is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Deficiency (FASD), the so-called “invisible disability” which hinders decision making, the understanding of cause and effect, and the ability to learn from past experience. This condition is irreversible, often undiagnosed, and is prevalent in prison as well as juvenile detention.
In the interim, young people in the Kimberley will be supported by a community services sector that, like the police, is under resourced, understaffed and constantly in jeopardy of funding cuts.
Wider society does not share this responsibility. However, it does have an obligation to ensure that the rate of mental conditions in young offenders forms part of the public discourse. Everyone should know that there’s often so much more going on below the surface when a kid breaks the law.
This piece has been published anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the writer’s job