A town where sexual abuse is a cancer

Above the town, a cloudless cobalt sky. Beneath, red dirt. To the north, to the south, to the east, to the west, the undulating, scrubby, iron-rich Pilbara. In a late 19th Century gold rush, it was the biggest settlement between Perth, 1600 km south, and Darwin, 2600 km northwest. Nowadays Roebourne, Western Australia, is the child abuse capital of the nation.

According to a searing report in The Australian newspaper last month, Roebourne is “a festering mess of intergenerational child sexual abuse where kids are more likely to be raped than almost anywhere else on earth”.

More than half of the 1,400 or so people in Roebourne and its surrounding communities are Aboriginal. About 80 percent of the inhabitants are on welfare. Recently-retired West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan says that the rate of alleged child sex offending in Roebourne is “staggering” and that the community was in an “almost unrecoverable crisis”.

The problem is so widespread that many locals believe that child sex abuse is just “normal”. Not long ago police charged 36 local men (out of 124 suspects) with more than 300 offences, past and present, against 184 children. It’s hard to calculate percentages from these figures, but to give some idea of the scale of the abuse, Roebourne’s kindergarten to Year 12 school has only 200 enrolled students.

Michael Woodley, the CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, points the finger at drug abuse. “The issue is more to do with self-harm, by young girls in particular, than straight-up paedophilia,” he told The Australian. “An alarming number of young children are getting heavily into drugs. To feed their addiction, young girls are going to men and selling themselves.”

The grandmothers, and great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers have been left with the job of keeping many of the children out of harm’s way. Many are too frightened to stay with their alcoholic or drug-addled parents. "They walk around and look for safety, somewhere safe to go, especially at night," says one of the community elders. "You can't go to a place that is crowded with alcohol. Parents are not doing what they're supposed to be doing."

How can such a dysfunctional community recover? It’s not for lack of government support. In 2014, 63 government and non-government providers were delivering more 200 services, at a cost of A$58,719 a year for each resident. After all that effort by well-intentioned bureaucrats, The Australian still tagged Roebourne as “the town of the damned”.  

To be fair, not everyone in Roebourne agrees with this assessment. "That's a sensational headline that will scare a lot of people," says local documentary film maker Tyson Mowarin. "I live here. I've lived here for long time. I've never heard of that sort of stuff. That's bullshit. Personally, I don't think kids are that desperate, not so drugged or alcohol affected, that they are going to do that. That's very insulting.”

But this is far from the first time that alarming allegations have surfaced. As far back as 2009, the Western Australian government commissioned a report on the situation in Roebourne.

Insofar as the bureaucrats have a strategy, it seems to be this: give 11-year-old girls contraceptive implants, arrest the sex-abusers, restrict sales of alcohol, and make welfare payments largely cashless. The despairing police commissioner has even suggested that some of the Aboriginal communities should be closed, forcing residents to move to larger towns where they can get more help.

“If we facilitate the existence of communities beset by substance abuse, family violence and child abuse hundreds of kilometres from support or intervention services, then we must accept the loss of yet another generation of Aboriginal children,” O’Callaghan wrote a couple of years ago.

Year after year, decade after decade, Australian governments, state and Federal, have poured billions of dollars into communities like Roebourne. And many of them are still hellish. Perhaps no place on earth confirms the wisdom of Ronald Reagan’s quip better than this isolated town: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.’”

There seem to be two fundamental flaws in the current policy.

First, the assumption that steady, self-supporting, honest work is not fundamental to human dignity and that welfare is an adequate substitute for a job.

But this is almost criminally wrong. “Sit-down money” – as it is called in Australia -- robs men, especially, of their sense of self-worth. “Unless our passive welfare dependency is soon addressed, it will inevitably cause the disintegration of our communities and the annihilation of our culture,” warns Noel Pearson, a prominent Aboriginal leader in the Cape York Peninsula, on the other side of the continent.

Second, the assumption that only individuals, and not the family unit, needs to be protected. This notion is, for lack of a better word, simply wicked. Article 16 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. But Australian society (like most of the West) is sceptical of this great truth. Divorce and co-habitation are common and unremarkable. Same-sex marriage is on the agenda. 

Noel Pearson suggests that these two errors are intertwined. Passive welfare destroyed both the will to work and family cohesion:  

“We have allowed Aboriginal policy to forget that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents struggled mightily to preserve our families and communities – our society, our laws and values – against great and constant attack, and we survived. Whatever our material deprivations, whatever our poverty, we had a strong if bruised society... [But] we are socially poorer today despite vastly improved material circumstances.

And Pastor Marshall Smith, of Roebourne’s Pilbara Aboriginal Church, who is Aboriginal, contends that over several generations the town’s residents have just forgotten how to be good fathers and mothers:

"If our parents stopped disciplining us then, and stopped teaching us our teachings that were needing to be handed down, when I became a parent how can I pass on anything to the kids when I don't know? And that's what's happened, but it's over many generations now."

White Australia can withstand a certain amount of family dysfunction. The children of its fractured families suffer, but they still go to school, they eat regular meals and they have shoes on their feet. Some university students live in a boozy hook-up culture, and they somehow survive.

But what makes white Australia sneeze is deadly for indigenous Australia – just as white colonists in the 19th Century shrugged off smallpox infections which killed countless thousands of Aboriginals. Unless governments do whatever it takes to encourage indigenous communities to rebuild their families, they will continue to sink ever further into Roebourne’s quicksand of substance abuse and sex abuse.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  


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