Three children together attempted to end their lives. Such was the despair they felt from a sense of hopelessness in an Australian community where no one completes school. Three children, aged six, eight and ten climbed a tree. Older children saw them and ran to them and held them up and saved their lives. What drives children so young to fathom all as bleak and insurmountable? It is a tragedy all too common through remote Australia – but predominately for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
What I describe above occurred in a central Australian community, earlier this year, but it could have been so many other remote and regional communities and towns I have journeyed right throughout the Australian continent.
Last week, I spoke at The National Indigenous Education Forum in Darwin. Educators and leaders in their field presented their good works with predominately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. But I felt a sense of emptiness for the far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who do not attend school, who live without hope and who despair at the hopelessness and are traumatised by the degeneration into various aberrant behaviours.
In listening to a variety of strong educational leaders and educators I remembered those three children. The conference though a national effort did not represent them nor many thousands of others.
Thirty per cent of Australia’s child suicides (aged 17 years and less) are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise only five per cent of Australia’s child population.
Eighty per cent of Australia’s child suicides aged 12 years and less are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
I was asked to present at the conference because I represent the children and older individuals who were not represented by the rest of the conference presenters and attendees. I spoke about work being done on the formidable need to educate children and individuals that everyone else has given up on, whom schools suspend or boot. I spoke about individuals who are relegated to the too tough to deal with basket. There are projects I am involved with where we are assisting these individuals with with year 12 completions and tertiary or trade qualifications. We are working at pace with former inmates, the homeless, the marginalised, those living below the poverty line and in particular remote and regional living peoples.
I did tell the conference audience that the conference was not truly national and that it does not represent all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I criticised the collectivised Closing the Gap education targets and data and argued that the data masks, hides grim realities. I called for the disaggregation of the data to peoples living remote and regional communities.
The majority of the Northern Territory’s communities have few year 12 graduates and the majority of young people do not attend school. That one government after another has allowed for this is an abomination. In fact one government after another has perpetuated and escalated this crisis.
I have long challenged the closing the gap education data and have demanded disaggregation so we leave no-one behind. When we leave people behind we discriminate.
At the conference I argued, “The National Indigenous Education Forum is presenting the good works of educators but the conference is not national in the sense that it represents all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. It does not represent the individuals who never attend school and it does not represent the communities where no child completes schooling, where no child completes Year 12. This is the grim reality of remote and also regional Australia that we are not telling Australia, and by not telling it we are leaving people behind. This is an abomination. Leaving them behind to rot. It is no coincidence that communities where no-one completes school, where no-one graduates, that they have both high and increasing suicide rates, and particularly of child and youth suicide.”
“This conference held in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, but the Territory hides a horrific narrative of degradation and deprivation. The majority of its remote communities have staggeringly low student attendance rates, and the majority have few Year 12 graduates and many have no Year 12 graduates.”
“Ntaria also known as Hermannsburg, only 125 kilometres from Alice Springs has not had a single Year 12 graduate for seven years. The community is living in harrowing despair, deprivation, collective hopelessness. Where are the relentless psychosocial supports and the equivalency of infrastructure that non-Aboriginal communities and towns enjoy?”
“Ntaria is fast becoming a corral of human misery and suffering and these corrals of human misery and suffering are the degradations, the abysmal works of one government after another; of governments that have neglected these communities since their abomination as missions and reserves.”
“Gunbalanya’s first Aboriginal female high school graduates were in 2013. Groote Eylandt has three communities but only three students in the whole of the island’s history have graduated from the island’s school. Without education the risk factors to aberrant behaviour are through the roof. There arises the guarantee of a tsunami of ruined lives.”
“The majority of the Northern Territory’s remote schools are an abomination, an insult to dignity, they are reductionist and minimalist, they are racism. But it is not only the Northern Territory, it is also Anangu Country – the APY – that is northern South Australia, which has had very few graduates over the last two decades, with most communities having no graduates.”
“It’s a similar story in Western Australian remote communities and in other regions.”
“The Closing the Gap data on education targets is collectivised and whatever little worth these Closing the Gap targets are in the very least they should be disaggregated so that the soul destroying debacle in the remote and the regions I am describing is not masked. If we do not disaggregate we discriminate, we leave people behind. We must report as part of the closing of the gap education targets the remote communities standalone, their data and outcomes.”
“There is one community in central Australia where earlier this year three children, aged six to ten years attempted to hang themselves, from a tree, together, and only to be saved by older children who held them up. This is collective trauma, driven by dirt poor narratives and by the outrageous neglect and deprivations of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.”
“We should tell the stories of those who despair, who the grim realities subsume. Let us be fearless in this, for in the telling of their stories the imperatives of the ways forward will be reinforced.”
“High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than employment. More education translates to a dawn of new meanings, to a better understanding of the self, to a more positive psychosocial self, to the pursuit of what happiness and its contexts can and should mean.”
“Nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people living below the poverty line. Nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people without substantive education, of poor quality education, of people without education, and therefore without hope. It is in the high cultural content regions where the highest proportion of suicides occur. The diabolical dirt poor poverty is killing Aboriginal youth, killing young parents.”
“It is the dirt poor poverty that prohibits so many from going to school.”
“So the suicides and aberrant behaviour are not occurring because of a lack of cultural content, connection to traditional, historical and contemporary culture but because of abominable poverty and deprivations. These disgraceful levels of poverty in the world’s 12th biggest economy translate toxically as racism. Children internalise the grief, and it debilitates them.”
“Officially, one in 59 Australian deaths is suicide but one in 18 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide and this abomination will become even more catastrophic.”
“Between 2001 to 2010, officially there were 996 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides, and that in effect is on average 100 suicides per year but in the five years from 2012 to 2016 there were 718 suicides, and that’s 144 per year, a 44 per cent increase. Unless we improve the living conditions and life circumstances of degraded remote communities and unless we adequately educate instead of minimalising education in these communities I estimate that by 2030 that one in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths will officially be a suicide and more children than ever before will be taking their lives. At present, 80 per cent of Australia’s child suicides are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”
“It is possible to change the lives of the poorest and most neglected. Behavioural issues should not be trapped into mental health issues and trauma diagnosed subsume the human experience. Let us improve lives and contextualise traumas to wounds, scars as opposed to letting them predominate. I am part of projects successfully mentoring, training and employing the poorest, those who were chronically unemployed, without an education, illiterate. I and colleagues brought scores out of homelessness and prisons into tertiary education and with relentless multi-layered psychosocial support we got them across the line, they graduated and they are leading the way for their families, breaking and ending cycles of poverty and aberrant behaviour induced by one Australian government after another.”