“We know that many children who are part of the child protection or youth detention systems are traumatised. So are their parents and so is the whole Maningrida community. In each of the suggestions set out below we have thought about trauma and how we can begin to repair the damage done by it. Each of us has personal experiences of both the child protection and the youth detention systems and we have drawn on those experiences to compile our list of suggestions for the Royal Commission. Our passion is to help our children survive.”
– Excerpt from the Burnawarra Justice Group’s Submission to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
This is the story of a member of the Burnawarra Justice Group and her mission to transform child protection in the remote community of Maningrida, Arnhem Land. At 36 years of age, Mrs Wala Wala is a respected young Marakirrtj leader in Maningrida, and has been working in her community since 2004. As a qualified and trained lecturer at Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in Maningrida, she lectures on topics including wellbeing, as well as literacy and numeracy for adults and young adults. Mrs Wala Wala also runs the Kinship Gurrutu Wellbeing Program, an emotional and social wellbeing program for children and young families.
Her previous work in child protection at Malabam Health Board Aboriginal Corporation was her first opportunity to address the issues facing children in her community.
“My heart is for the children. I used to work with child safety; work with skinny kids,” says Mrs Wala Wala.
“When kids are taken away from the community to Darwin and elsewhere it’s a bit risky and it hurts the family. It’s negative for the family with all these emotions and feelings. They end up suicidal, which shouldn’t be happening like this. It’s pretty sad that it’s like this.”
Mrs Wala Wala tells a story about how a woven mat reminded her of the old days and how things used to be.
“That mat was hanging on the wall. It tells my story. I just took that story from that mat about leadership. In those days there never was violence. In cultural law the mothers that lived in their own community kept the kids in their own boundary and kept them from danger – kept them from snake and dangerous animal. It was their activity, training and educating their kids: food-wise, right and wrong, bad and good. There never was domestic violence in those days.
“It’s a big mess now. The biggest changes for me looking at this community are health, lack of leadership, education, help for eating disorders. People end up hospital every day – dialysis, mixed up emotions – they don’t know where they stand; they are caught up with false education, not trained properly. They came in with their knowledge, the [Aboriginal] people that stayed here, their own ritual with their own knowledge, welcoming services from external [such as government] coming to visit, but they never listen to their needs.”
Mrs Wala Wala used her experiences to develop an emotional and social wellbeing program for children and young families, called the Kinship Gurrutu Wellbeing Program. Initiated through the pastoral care of the Maningrida Uniting Church, Mrs Wala Wala works with young women to mentor them about parenting, and provide them with emotional support and guidance. The program has grown over the years, demonstrating how grassroots, culturally-appropriate programs are valued by the community.
Mrs Wala Wala also developed a child safety framework for Maningrida community.
“My framework is why I was chosen to speak at the Royal Commission [into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory]. They asked me lots of questions.”
The Burnawarra Justice Group is comprised of prominent community leaders who submitted their recommendations to the Royal Commission in a powerful statement, along with Mrs Wala Wala’s framework.
It details the traumatic history of child removals in Maningrida, and the devastating impacts they continue to have today on children and families. Recommendations for improving child protection services include local cultural awareness and education for external child protection workers; early intervention programs; foster care houses located within Maningrida community; strengthening the kinship care system and localised child protection decision-making.
The statement closes with these thoughts:
“The thing we want most from this Royal Commission is our power. We want to be able to exercise Burnawarra authority over our community. Self-determination is our number one priority. Self-determination is crucial to effective youth policy.”
“Self-determination is how we managed to live in harmony and how we managed to survive for such a long time. We want to have formal input into policy and legislation. We want to increase the localisation of child protection services as the best way to secure our children’s future.”
– Excerpt from the Burnawarra Justice Group’s Submission
“They [government] just have to come in and listen and we can work together; help each other, not just take them [the children] away and leave them with negative emotions,” says Mrs Wala Wala.
To date Mrs Wala Wala has self-funded her work with the children and families in the Kinship Gurrutu Wellbeing Program. With the support of government funding, and by adopting Maningrida’s child protection framework, all of Maningrida’s children can grow up safe and connected to family in their community.