One room attached to the police station, sometimes even a school classroom. People are standing outside, waiting. Sometimes, during the wet season in the Northern Territory, they could be waiting for hours in the rain. Those who are here as victims of family violence share the same space with their perpetrator, waiting for the call to come in. This is the so-called ‘bush court’. This is what the courtroom looks like in remote areas of Northern Territory.
For a young Melbourne lawyer, Christie George, it was far from what she expected her first experience of the formal court setting to be. But it was her passion for human rights and child protection that led her to the very top end of Australia.
Having volunteered at the family law clinic, it was women − primary carers of their children and stay-at-home mums, a lot of them with no understanding of the financial situation of their family, left with no support after separation − that sealed her passion to advocate for vulnerable members of the society, women and children especially.
And her first job, four years ago, was to help those most in need – at the North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Services, in Darwin, Christie found herself assisting Aboriginal people, victims of domestic and family violence.
An everyday job included travelling in a small aircraft to remote top end communities of the Northern Territory, meeting with clients and providing legal advice and representation in court.
“What was most surprising was the strength of my clients and how resilient they were. They were facing a lot of difficulties – family violence, poverty, systematic discrimination. English usually wasn’t their first language – so we would use interpreters, who were not always readily available when we needed them,” Christie tells Neos Kosmos.
In Christie’s experience, the violence was not only within the family, but also between different family groups.
One of the Top End communities Christie visited more often than others. Port Keats, previously known as Wadeye, was a community known for having fights between the very family groups.
“The problem was in the way Wadeye was set up – there were different family groups living in this community, which traditionally wouldn’t live together in such a small area.”
Still within the Northern Territory, Christie moved to work with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), as a lawyer in the area for family law and child protection.
Here, her clients were often vulnerable young Aboriginal women, who had often experienced family violence.
According to Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, Indigenous people are two to five times more likely to experience violence as survivors or offenders, while Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence related assaults. And this is not the only issue Aboriginal people have to struggle with.
“Generally speaking there are issues with unemployment in Aboriginal communities, there is a lack of services and support services.”
Counsellors visit this part of Australia only once a month.
Sometimes there is a waiting list, and a lot of these communities’ members don’t have the means to travel to Darwin to engage with services there. It’s expensive to fly, and during the wet season in the territory, roads get closed and it’s impossible to drive.
“There is also a lack of affordable housing, so there is a chronic crowding in these houses, sometimes up to 20 adults living in a three-bedroom house. Because of the unemployment, people don’t have a lot to do, and I think that’s where some of the drug and alcohol issues come into play,” Christie explains.
With Aboriginal law still strong in these traditional communities, the notion of ‘white men’s law’ is very foreign to them.
When Christie meets her clients for the first time, the first thing she explains to them is the meaning of the word ‘lawyer’. For most of the clients – typically an Aboriginal mother – it will be the first time she has ever seen a lawyer in her life, and first time she has explained to her what a lawyer does and what services one can provide to her. It is the first time she will hear about the fundamental parts of the relationship between the lawyer and the client – like confidentiality, and that the lawyer acts on its client’s instructions.
“You have to build trust with the client, and there was a lot of mistrust to begin with, as I was white, I wasn’t one of them. Once I was able to do that, my clients were the loveliest clients I ever had. Warm and welcoming, easy to work with.”
While in a stressful and challenging job, it was the similarities between Greek and Aboriginal people that Christie now credits for connecting with her clients fairly quickly.
“Just like Greeks, they highly value their family relationships; they have extended family groups; they share the care of their children. It was something we could connect on, that made me feel more comfortable.”
With the job within Aboriginal communities also came learning on how to assess clients’ literacy level, in order to be able to write them a legal letter they would understand.
Discussing the legal problem with the client meant the presence of an interpreter. If there was not one available, the issue would be postponed for a month – when the interpreter flies in again.
Recently, an ABC Four Corners report brought to light the miscarriage of justice in the Northern Territory Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre, whose detainees were tear-gassed, stripped naked and spit-hooded, and sometimes left in isolation for weeks at a time. The Royal Commission is now under way to investigate possible human rights violations.
For some time now, Christie’s former workplace, The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, has been advocating for major changes to Don Dale and asking that the NT government do more for Aboriginal youths in detention or those breaking the law.
“It is welcoming news that a royal commission will investigate the youth justice and child protection systems in the Northern Territory, but both the NT and the federal government need to consult with Aboriginal communities and people at each step of the way, given the over-representation of Aboriginal children among NT juvenile children. Past governments have not properly consulted with Aboriginal communities − it needs to be a two-way discussion, we all need to be involved in the healing process together,” Christie says.
A NT Youth Detention System Report from January 2015 has shown the proportion of Indigenous children in penal detention centres in the NT is higher than in any other state or territory – 97 per cent of children in NT juvenile detention centres are Indigenous. The territory’s youth detention rate is six times the national average.
Christie partially assigns this to NT laws.
“In the NT there are laws that mean that you will end up in jail quicker. There are higher incarceration rates for Aboriginal people across Australia, but in NT it gets worse because of those laws.”
While in the Northern Territory, Christie has briefly worked on an advisory group to inform the NT government about the strategy on how to work towards reducing family violence in the territory. It must be through the understanding of historical and current suffering that Aboriginal people have endured. Intergenerational trauma − that is, trauma that is passed through families for generations − is a huge contributing factor.
“There is a great deal of literature and reports that speak to the complex reasons for the high rates of family violence experienced by Indigenous people in Australia. It is a combination of historical and contemporary reasons, starting with colonisation and the dispossession of land, stolen generations and loss of traditional culture. Contemporary reasons include lack of employment, health and drug and alcohol problems, lack of public housing or affordable housing, lack of access to essential services for health and social wellbeing, direct and indirect discrimination, poverty and high incarceration rates.”
It is also widely accepted that there are unreported incidents of family violence due to the fear of intervention by child protection services or the fear that a family member will be sent to prison.
Along with drug and alcohol abuse come issues with mental health, and support services to deal with them are not readily available in remote communities.
“It’s complicated, and I think we have to look at what Aboriginal people have experienced in the past to understand why we are seeing these problems now. Aboriginal people have a really strong relationship with their land that has been affected with their displacement.
“Not knowing who your grandparents were or trying to understand where you came from … depending on which clan or family group you belong to, you might have a traditional dance or ceremony that is specific to your clan – and that is very important to Aboriginal people,” Christie tells.
A New Chapter
After three years in the Northern Territory, Christie is now working in central Victoria, in Bendigo, as a lawyer in the area of child protection for the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Service. The service provides legal advice and representation and outreach services for those who cannot afford a private lawyer in the Bendigo and Greater Bendigo Region.
Her position is part of a new pilot program to assist people, including young people over the age of 10 years old, in the child protection area.
“It’s rewarding and challenging work − my clients are often experiencing a number of vulnerabilities such as mental health or a disability, drug or alcohol addiction problems, family violence or homelessness. It is a great feeling when you get a great outcome for a client. I do believe that people have the capacity to change and grow and this has driven my work in the area.”
Her first impressions of Victoria are that a lot more support and funding is being given to assist families so that those behaviours are tackled earlier on, with focus on preventative rather than the punitive measures of the Northern Territory.
And that’s something she would like to see changed, through common efforts of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“The best thing we could do, as non-Indigenous people, is speak to Indigenous people about what they want for their community, what support they need, what they see the issues to be.
“We need to have open dialogue and be consistent with the dialogue for real change to happen in this country. This is their country, every day we enjoy Aboriginal land, and I think we need to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis.
“Another thing we could do is support legal aid and community legal services in their work. The federal government continues its agenda to cut funding to legal aid services and community legal services, and these services do vital work for the most vulnerable people in our country.”