How can we move forward?

It should go without saying that ten year old child cannot consent to sex. Sex with a ten year old child is a crime and few crimes are more reviled in our society than rape or paedophilia.

It should go without saying that the safety and welfare of children is paramount. There is no argument, cultural or otherwise, that the best interests of any child are served by the child being returned to a situation of violence, abuse or neglect.

The revelations last week of the treatment of a ten year old girl from Aurukun on Queensland’s Cape York demonstrates that our criminal justice and child protection systems are continuing to fail the women and children of our remote indigenous communities. In the last decade, some 40 reports have detailed high levels of sexual violence perpetrated against indigenous women and children by indigenous men and boys. How can we move forward?

There are a number of steps that can make an immediate difference in the short term. First, the criminal justice system must stop tolerating crimes against indigenous women and children. The rule of law requires that we treat like cases alike. The sexual assault of a black child demands the same response as the assault of a white child. It should not matter that the perpetrator or the victim is indigenous.

As Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson told the ABC’s 7.30 Report last Wednesday, judicial leniency towards indigenous offenders contributes to the breakdown of social norms in our indigenous communities. He argued that, in the long term, we will need to have a low tolerance towards crime if we want to lower the number of indigenous offenders in our prisons.

Second, governments can commit resources towards providing law and order to these communities. We know that many cases of sexual assault in indigenous communities fall through the cracks of our judicial system. Just last year, Northern Territory Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers told the ABC’s Lateline that the levels of sexual violence were much higher than reported and that even reported cases too often fell through at the prosecution stage because witnesses and victims refused to give evidence in court.

A committed police presence is imperative. The Valentin audit of policing in our remote communities revealed in March that even many of the larger communities do not have a police presence. In Queensland, for example, communities like Badu Island, Mornington Island and Bamaga do not have a resident police presence and many of the Torres Strait Island communities do not have a police presence within 75 kilometres.

Any police presence must be more than a few young officers on a six month rotation. It requires rostering experienced officers with excellent records in communities for extended periods of time. The officers need time to build relationships, understanding and respect and communities need a stable police service.

Third, governments must act immediately to stop child protection system from operating under the misguided notion that the best place for abused children is communities in which they are not safe from abuse. We must accept that there will be situations in which foster care will be in the best interests of any child. This is not another ‘stolen generation’ – unless we continue to allow more children to have their childhood stolen by choosing to ignore abuse or violence.

These three measures will bring some relief in the short term. If we want to make real progress in the long term, the key will be for governments to invest serious resources in school education in our remote indigenous communities.

It is not acceptable that primary schools in communities like Aurukun are staffed largely with first and second year teachers. Remote schools are some of our most disadvantaged and they need more teachers with a track record of effectiveness in the classroom – both in systematic literacy and numeracy instruction and in robust classroom management. Good teachers who are willing to take on the challenge of teaching in remote schools need to be better supported, recognised and rewarded.

The welfare of children in remote indigenous communities must be an immediate concern of the new Rudd Government and this message must be transmitted in the strongest terms to the state and territory governments. The welfare of children in our indigenous communities must start with physical safety, but it must extend to the choices and opportunities that a full school education will open up to them.

Kirsten Storry is a Visiting Fellow on the Indigenous Affairs Research Programme at the Centre for Independent Studies.