Post by Shy Ted
I had visited a number of remote Aboriginal communities for 1-3 days at a time so I was getting a feel for things but this was my first live-in community, a 2 year contract and it had a far better feel than I had experienced thus far. 100% school attendance (up to the age of 13), high enrolment in CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects program) and even a small pub with little in the way of trouble. And then the additional duties/expectations began.
First, take the Justice of the Peace exam and fulfil local requirements.
Or you don’t work here.
Second, undertake activities related to your portfolio as we determine.
This included child health.
It broadens the horizons and makes better working relationships with other services.
As a JP I would be visited by the police first thing and asked to sit in on a suspect interview. “No local JPs available?” The police shook their heads. In truth the pass rate for the locals was just about zero, failing due to poor literacy. So off to the cop shop where young lads would have been arrested, identified on CCTV, having broken into the pub and stolen as much grog as they could carry. Usually they would be too drunk to be interviewed but occasionally in alcohol withdrawals, very unusual in teenagers. Putting my nurse hat on I recommended they be taken to hospital for assessment, which they were. Back to my office. Shortly the phone would ring – “can you come up? 2 young lads and we’re not sure if they’re drunk or withdrawing”. Short walk to the hospital. Positive breathalyser, sweats and shakes meant withdrawal. Unusual, except it wasn’t. This allowed me unfettered access to their medical records and it all began to make sense.
There was a multidisciplinary working group aimed at treating medical issues in the students and enhance their learning. Ear, nose and throat infections, visual problems, scabies, STDs and more. Lots of learning and behavioural problems. A long way from my role but interesting.
The principal became my fishing buddy, most of the teachers being new graduates, not yet cynical or realistic. He had a tried and tested formula for getting 100% attendance, do that which the parents or guardians don’t/can’t. Daily child health nurse visits dealt with the many minor problems and got bigger one’ priority with the doctors. Scabies – cream. Toothbrushes, nit combs, fresh uniforms for dirty and teach the kids to use a washing machine. And so on. At 13 the kids were meant to pick an academic stream but as the average kid, despite the interventions, still struggled with the 5 times table and 4 letter words, he discretely introduced vocational skills, carpentry, metalwork, domestic science, sports program and more and this was attractive to the 13+ers.
“Won’t be for long”, he said. “ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) visiting next month. They’ll dismantle it”.
My role, investigating causes of the learning and behavioural problems, was enlightening. “Mum” wasn’t always mum, “Dad” wasn’t always dad. Much was not to be talked about but, bit by bit, the truths emerged and led me to biological mum’ medical records. One file read much like the others – alcoholism, violence, poor health and diet, smoking, drugs on occasions and STDs. Complicated pregnancies and births and “failure to thrive”, the worst start to life. Not being qualified to diagnose I was content with writing up formulations – “biological mum had hospital presentations with complicated alcohol intoxication, tobacco use, physical assaults, anaemia, syphilis x 2 and positive on admission to maternity unit, during pregnancy”.
It was hard to resolve that an Aboriginal health worker colleague had once been like that, left that life behind and was now a diligent worker, well presented but not particularly literate or numerate. Over time, one or two opened up about their past selves, times in prison and the first opportunity to be free from the pressures to be like many of their family. The facts were laid bare. In stark contrast were the mums with strong Christian backgrounds and the adoption of a healthy and committed lifestyle. Their kids met normal academic and behavioural standards, a little group who wouldn’t dare run wild with their peers.
It was “ATSIC week” and everybody was on their best behaviour. Painted kids doing cultural dances, smoking ceremonies, cultural songs in a language nobody spoke. Basically a show facilitated by music teachers as part of their job description. “Can you come along with your reports?”
“No” wasn’t an option. The faces of ATSIC you know, some were present, openly hostile and unwilling to listen to the principal. They had tick sheets – “Are health services being delivered at culturally appropriate health services?”
“No, if the child has scabies, teaching staff will using anti-scabies cream daily for a week”.
“Are parents routinely attending parent-teacher events?”
“No, despite our best efforts attendance is low to nil”.
“Are parents getting their children to school, on time and in a clean uniform, having had breakfast at home?”
“No, the school monitors this carefully and where the parents can’t or don’t provide these, the school does including pick up from home”.
On it went. Scowls. Crosses on tick boxes.
The principal asked if they would like to hear my mental health reports on the children.
“Are you a child psychologist or a paediatrician?”
“Your reports have no authority”. End of.
Fishing with him at the end of the week he was unusually glum. “In a week or two we’ll get a report saying we’re doing it all wrong, the parents need to be empowered and step up, we’re not culturally aware, we’ve breached XYZ policies, we’ll stop what we’re doing, attendance will fall off a cliff, we’ll lose funding, staff and in due course, when it’s forgotten, a whole new team will restart what has been stopped and I won’t be able to get a reference. We won’t be able to employ your wife anymore (Special Needs Teacher Aide) as she has no qualifications but she’s done a great job and the kids love her. They want to go into the Special Needs stream”.
My wife was in constant pain from a back injury but highly committed to whatever she turned her hand to and didn’t stand for any nonsense. She used scented oils as part of her regime and these seemed to have a very calming effect on the kids. Some of the teachers has taken to squeezing citrus fruits or having aromatic plants in their classrooms and were impressed by behavioural improvements. Not allowed under “policies”!
“The 13 year olds will stop coming all together, run wild and get into the grog, drugs and get pregnant. They’re just not academic, that’s why we went with vocational skills, it’s what works”.
The report came in, panned everything as “culturally inappropriate”, “paternal” and “prioritising Western values and systems over traditional practices”. “The mental health nurse has taken on responsibilities well outside his remit and his reports should be disregarded. Additionally, we have made this known to the mental health team in the district”.
“Good, get me out of here”, I thought.
And so it transpired, slowly, over several months, exactly as the principal had predicted. Concerned bureaucrats from several agencies flew in, interviewed, nodded, tutted, empathised, left and made recommendations. Better functioning parents were irate their kids weren’t going to school and their CDEP was being interrupted. Kids with snotty noses, scabies and dirty clothes turned up at school and were directed to the hospital, from there to return to school. They did neither. Naughty kids got slips and were sent to the principal’ office. They just left. Referrals were made to Aboriginal Liaison Officers. Petty crime and chaos reigned. Seeing the writing on the wall, teachers had sought other remote area jobs and left. I managed to hang on and complete my 2 year contract but the powers that be made my life a misery. “They” can save $9000 by not paying out the end of contract bonus if you leave in week 103.
One thing I learned was that ATSIC would “blitz” remote communities, visit them all in a short period of time, deliver near identical reports and the communities all implode at the same time, more or less. Nurses and teachers send expressions of interest to their preferred communities and essentially “swap” one for the other. As one leaves, another is already in the system and ready to start, with perhaps a few weeks back in civilisation between jobs. Everybody knows what works and the school programs and such are rebuilt with what works over the next few years.
These remote communities are not making progress, they are going backwards and ATSIC (as was) should take some of the responsibility but won’t/didn’t.
On reflection, despite living in the most remote areas, including where the last nomads were discovered in the 1960s, I never saw anything that remotely resembled a traditional culture. No hunting, no gathering. Everybody lives in a house and 99% of food is from the supermarket with maybe some fish or a kangaroo shot by an illegally held rifle to supplement. Few are sufficiently occupied and, like it or not, they love alcohol. Recent high profile cases and academic pleas of “psycho-neurological developmental problems” in young offenders partially expose the extent of the problem. I stopped using the term “foetal alcohol spectrum disorder” because it assumes alcohol is the only problem. It’s not, it’s just one of the many cerebral assaults during pregnancy and in the early years. How common is using petrol to sedate a crying baby? It’s common.
My last contract was in the central desert in early 2019. Objectively it was more dangerous than in previous years and I made the call to hang up my remote area boots before I became one of the statistics. The Rolfe case and similar others clearly shows the government throwing you under a bus. The ATSIC mentality remains in the many Aboriginal advocacy groups despite their absolute failure to improve the lot of those in remoter areas. At a clinical level it would take several generations of everything going right for progress to be made. The system will ensure that doesn’t happen.