In Fitzroy Crossing, Nindilingarri Cultural Health Services is working with families, local organisations, the shire and others to build a positive pathway for the community’s youth and children.

Three nights a week, they run sports and cook dinner for local kids. On three other nights, different organisations step up to put on activities. The collaboration has established a full-time plan to engage with community members.

Nindilingarri Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health officer Anthony Collard told the National Indigenous Times that they took their program directly to the children, who had begun to gather outside the town’s information centre but had nothing to do there.

“We are talking a lot with the shire to collaborate with the services in town to deliver that youth engagement,” he said.

“Garnduwa, Gurama Yani U Men’s Shed, Clontarf, Marra Worra Worra, Shooting Stars and others set up a committee and are delivering programs in a collaborative approach… We are getting on average around 50 kids each night engaged with the programs.”

In recent months, some children and youth in the area have engaged in antisocial behaviour, and a smaller number in serious crimes including break-ins and stealing cars.

Among the driving factors behind the collaboration was a desire to empower local people, and the need to address the problem of kids sniffing fuel and other substances.

“Before we got started, you would see 100 kids on the streets each night just hanging out, with nothing to do.

“Kids were either going into the road houses stealing food and drinks or they were stealing petrol, coming late at night and breaking bowsers to get petrol.

“We decided to pull everyone together and create a task force focused purely on delivering programs, no politics, none of the other stuff.

“Without the silo approach, without competition, not chasing funding – purely about how to help these kids,” Collard said.

December was the third month of the program collaboration running.

“These kids were not used to engaging with services or to engaging with adults in our profession.

“We started off with portable basketball courts… handed out basketballs, set up the portable footy goals and a couple of footballs, and cooked up a feed each night. Then we get them on the bus so they go home.”

Information Centre, Photo By G Torre.

Mr Collard said that after building trust and rapport with the kids, they’ve been able to dig deeper into their stories.

“We have started to get conversations with kids about what they are up to, and why are they doing what they are doing… The majority of people are consistently drinking, and for some of these kids the safest place is on the streets.”

His colleague Louis Marcel-Jones said it’s heartening to see the children’s enthusiasm for the activities, but more fundamental measures are needed for long-term solutions.

“If kids tell us something is going on at home, we can refer that to a service that can best support that kid.

“Engaging parents on things like VSU [petrol sniffing] education, on family support… We support the kids and support the families to support the kids.”

Mr Collard said some parents are in denial at first when told their children have been involved in criminal activity, but security footage around the town “helps to ID the kids before we go to see them”.

Mr Marcel-Jones said while more parents are coming down to encourage their children to participate in the evening programs, long-term support to address fundamental problems in the community is needed.

“It’s not enough to remove the kid from a situation at home for a short amount of time.

“At the end of the day, if you are not working to fix the problems at home they will still be in a negative environmental at home.

“You need the parents to be supported and have that help as well.”

Fitzroy Crossing Police Station Officer In Charge, Senior Sergeant Larry Miller, has also recently called for the underlying factors behind antisocial behaviour and crime to be tackled.

The consolidated calendar for the month of November shows all the activities and programs being run by groups and services in the area. From a breakfast club in the morning through to events finishing at night; 12+ hours of planned events and activities for the community.

“Before there were no activities being run for kids… Gurama Yani U has set up a program to re-engage boys at school, working with them to get them engaged in education and back to school.

“Garnduwa runs sport and recreation and there’s the Men’s Shed breakfast club,” said Mr Marcel-Jones.

“Some of these kids they have no privacy at home, they don’t have beds at home, there is no food security… You walk into people’s homes and you see them lying on mattresses, a child doesn’t have the basic things that a person would normally have, a bed of their own, room of their own.”

Mr Collard said the communities need people who live there to deliver key services.

“The biggest issue we have is the regional services are drive in and out. We get people driving in once a month, maybe once a fortnight, they tick a box and they leave.

“We are on the ground and we are here every day.” 

“[With drive-in, drive-out] You can gain trust with someone, build rapport, and by the time the person gets to trust you… their contract is up and there is a new person.”

Environmental health is one of the underlying problems in the area. Mr Collard said it is “very hard” to get contractors such as plumbers out to provide repairs and other services in the 35 communities in the Valley.

“The current system makes it take twice as long for everything to get done. Preventative measures are vital.

“A simple thing like a tap leaking it can start to rust a metal frame of a house and then there is a big issue.”

Mr Collard notes that with five language groups across 35 communities, a “one size fits all” approach isn’t enough.

The National Indigenous Times attended one of the evening events for local children – to see Nindilingarri in action, engaging around 60 kids in positive behaviour.

“If five or six play up after we leave, the rest have had a positive night, they are not going to engage in trouble after that they have been engaged, having fun, wearing themselves out and having a feed,” Mr Collard said.

During the evening, a group of kids playing football nearby rushed to where Nindilingarri was set up, and said a man was coming “with a big stick” who had threatened them.

The man, clearly drunk, was carrying a star picket. He was walking slowly but shouting threats at the children, threatening to cripple them and threatening to kill them.

He turned around and left, and the kids returned.

“This is what the kids get exposed to,” Mr Collard said. “It’s what the kids are faced with.”

He called the police and alerted them to the incident.

Tom (not his real name), a 12-year-old boy from Fitzroy Crossing, told the National Indigenous Times he had been coming down to the gathering spot since Nindilingarri had started the evening activities.

“It’s something so I don’t have to stay at home, something where I can actually get outdoors.

“Before I would usually be at the pool [which closes at 5.30pm] or at home. I prefer to be here, I can see my friends, having fun.”

When asked what he thinks needs to change in the town, Tom said he would like to see “not so much litter”.

“And the fact there are not so many jobs for Indigenous people. Without enough jobs, there is not enough money to go around, people can’t buy the supplies that they need.”

Now in Year 7, Tom said once he finishes high school he will get a job.

“Or keep practicing and being a professional basketball player,” he said, then turned and made his shot.

Andy (not his real name), also 12 and local to the town, told National Indigenous Times he has been coming down to the spot for “the last couple of weeks”.

“I’m doing it every day to build my muscles up,” he said with a grin. “Playing footy and basketball.”

Before the program started, he “had nothing to do except go to school”.

He said he would like to see “organised junior footy, and a basketball tournament”.

Andy’s plan after high school is to get a job, and he noted that if he couldn’t get one in the town, he would move elsewhere.

Amanda Till, born and raised in Fitzroy Crossing, was there with five of her grandchildren.

“Before this, my grandchildren were at home with me all the time, but for other kids there were no options, they were walking around, begging for money down by the shop, stealing, walking around all night; there was nothing here for them.

“We have an organisation – Marra Worra Worra – they should take kids down to the river, go fishing, go hunting, take the old people with them, the Elders. Our generation used to do that.”

Ms Till said she would like to see more lighting around town to “brighten up the town and make it safer”.

“My uncle got attacked by kids… They were chasing him – I had to shout out and tell them to clear off.”

She said early intervention was important to set the children on a career path.

“The schools should be encouraging the kids to go to TAFE, and this is the best time to talk to them, when they are in year seven, years six – start now.

“I have two brothers they went away for schooling, and they live in other towns, they got good jobs – they don’t want to live here because there was nothing here for them.

“I want to see these young ones get a job in the future. Some of these kids don’t even have birth certificates.

“Some of them don’t have a parent, or their parent is drunk somewhere… I have two of my grandchildren that I’ve raised since they were little ones. My daughter doesn’t live here… she lives in Broome, that’s where the drugs are. I am trying to get her into rehab and to get her back here with her kids but she has to be on a waiting list, and then you have to pay a lot to get in there. She is struggling.

“You also see a lot of gambling here in Fitzroy Crossing. People playing cards, and their money goes down the drain.”

Belinda Damm, who was there with her 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter, said if her children “had their way they would come every night that it’s on”.

“They enjoy it… and I know where the kids are, it’s a safe place. And there is dinner provided here, which is good for these kids. Some of these kids would be home if this wasn’t on, but some of them would be walking around the streets.”

The following evening, at the community Christmas party in Fitzroy Crossing, Mr Marcel Jones told National Indigenous Times that fundamental change is needed to get the children on the right track.

“It’s all about the underlying issues at the end of the day. It’s about dealing with those underlying issues so you can move to the more targeted things. But when you have such large general issues, you can’t do the therapy groups, for example.

“You can do education and prevention the way they want you to – doing talks, running sessions about the dangers of alcohol, but if they are going home to a place where they don’t have beds, they don’t have resources to live a comfortable life, there are no jobs, of course they are going to turn to something else”.

By Giovanni Torre