For the Children

Throughout her life, Pat Anderson has played various roles in the movement for Aboriginal justice in Australia. She has been an education union officer, community education instructor, and health worker. Now, she is speaking out perhaps more publicly than ever before. Along with former prosecutor Rex Wild, Anderson co-authored “Little Children Are Sacred,” an inquiry report from the Northern Territory government that was prompted by allegations of widespread child sexual abuse—committed by both Aborigines and whites—in Northern Territory indigenous communities.

Statistics about the prevalence of sexual abuse are difficult to come by. Everywhere, and especially in remote, under-served communities, abuse is grossly under-reported. Indigenous communities in Australia suffer from cultural breakdown, an alcoholism epidemic, a lack of social services, and a housing crisis in which many homes are stuffed with 10 to 20 people, crowding that exposes children to pornography, violence, and substance abuse. Historical racism’s effects also linger. For a century, the Australian government forcibly removed large numbers of indigenous children (known as the “Stolen Generation”) from their families, sending them to orphanages and foster homes where they could be indoctrinated into white culture. The victims are still reuniting with lost family members to this day.

“There’s been a great dislocation in this country, sort of a planned way to wipe us out, get rid of us,” Anderson says. She is adamant that the social problems facing Aboriginal people must be addressed in order for the abuse to end. “The cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing, and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence,” the report states, “and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children.”

Anderson says her childhood laid the foundation for her work. Her Alywarre mother, a member of the Stolen Generation, and her Swedish father, a sailor who jumped ship in Australia, instilled a strong sense of identity and a “healthy suspicion of all forms of authority” in Anderson and her five sisters.

“Even when we were kids we were questioning authority, so it was a natural progression to work in the nongovernmental sector,” she says. “The consciousness was always there. It was a seamless transition from Parap Camp, where I grew up, into the world of NGOs and lobbying and speaking out.”

Australia’s Aboriginal communities need to be involved in the design and implementation of programs and services that will help end the child abuse crisis, she says. The report was clear that the government should consult extensively with indigenous people and service providers to learn about their solutions to the abuse. The report makes other recommendations, too. Community-based offender rehabilitation should be implemented more widely. Comprehensive health, wellness, and social services for families should be increased. A short-term, crisis-intervention strategy is not enough. “Clearly, a greater investment in prevention of abuse and the structural forces or factors that impact on the health and wellbeing of a community (e.g. education, substance abuse, housing, attitudes to abuse and violence, and building on cultural and other community strengths) are required,” the report says.

So far, though, these things haven’t happened. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has ignored the report’s 97 detailed recommendations and instead launched an emergency intervention in the Northern Territory, calling up police from other areas of Australia to “restore law and order”; bringing in the military and doctors to perform health checks on children; withholding the welfare payments of parents whose children are not in school; and taking control of indigenous lands, eliminating the ability of Aboriginal land councils to decide who can enter remote communities. The goodwill and openness that Anderson and Wild found when they were conducting the inquiry has turned into suspicion. Some parents, scarred by memories of the Stolen Generation, even fear the government will again take away their children.

“I felt like a kangaroo caught in the glare of the headlights of a car,” Anderson says. “We need the federal government’s intervention . . . the Northern Territory doesn’t have the money. But we always expected that the Northern Territory would manage the whole assistance intervention. At the moment that’s not what’s happening. I don’t know why [Howard] did what he did.”

In contrast to the flat-out alcohol bans that the Howard government is instituting in indigenous communities, she advocates community-developed alcohol management plans as a way to prevent child abuse. High rates of alcoholism, she explains, make children more vulnerable to abusers who supply them with food and attention.

“Prohibition doesn’t really work,” Anderson says, noting that residents of “dry” communities will sometimes drive hundreds of miles to drink and then drive home. There are a range of better strategies for dealing with alcohol. “The Northern Territory has had an alcohol report done. We know a lot about this,” she says. “But that report’s not even been looked at.”
Another problem highlighted in the report, the underreporting of child abuse, is exacerbated by a shortage of Family and Children’s Services workers.

“Some communities don’t see them until there’s a crisis,” Anderson says. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the local FACS worker was someone who actually came from that community? Why can’t we train local people to be three-year-trained social workers? We’re not stupid. But that doesn’t happen. Often there’s a lack of political will here, there’s an acceptance that near enough is good enough. This is not rocket science. It is clear as a plane crash what needs to happen, but it doesn’t, because people don’t give a damn.” Her voice gets steely. “But they’re starting to now, because it’s embarrassing.”
Schooling also has an important role to play. “We’ve found that there is no sustained sex education program in schools or even a general health and hygiene course,” Anderson says. “No one talks to kids about protective behaviors, good touching, bad touching.”

Anderson wants schools that make students fluent in English and competent in both mainstream and Aboriginal culture. But she says she isn’t advocating assimilation. Years ago, when she was delivering a community education program in Kalkaringi, the kangaroo-hunting old men of the community told her of their intensive study of kangaroo habits. “We need to know everything we can about the kangaroo so we can catch it and eat it,” they told her. She says Aborigines need to treat mainstream Australia like the kangaroo. “We don’t want to be a kangaroo,” she says, “but we need to know everything about it so we can use it for our benefit.”

Still, she says the Howard government did one thing right: defining child abuse as a nationally significant issue needing federal intervention. In spite of all the problems with Howard’s approach, there are people working behind the scenes to translate his increased attention to the issue into an expansion of funding for community-based initiatives. “Of course we need extra police,” she says. “[But] it’s an interesting view that if we just got more child protection workers and more police it might be OK. There’s no sustainability there. You’re not equipping and empowering families and communities to play their own role. It’s all punitive in the end, you know? We have to get to it before it happens.”

To work toward this goal, Anderson has moved to the Australian capital of Canberra. On August 23, she started work as a special advisor to the Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.

“We don’t need the army,” she says. “We just need to start delivering proper programs.”

Rebecca Harris is a Cultural Survival intern.

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