We must stop Kimberley crime wave at its source, says worker

Millions in funding just promised for the beautiful but troubled West Australian Kimberley to address skyrocketing youth crime will not fix the problem at its core, say those on the front line.

In an opinion piece on Monday, a Kimberley-based youth worker, who cannot be named to protect his job, called out a lack of screening for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder despite a decade of pleas, as crimes linked to the disorder range from petty to spectacularly violent.

The youth worker said children breaking the law and being sent to juvenile detention suffered from mental impairments such as FASD at almost endemic rates and are far behind their peers, both emotionally and cognitively.

This is echoed by prior research which showed almost all children in youth detention at Banksia Hill had a cognitive impairment, mostly FASD.

Last week, a $40. 4 million package to tackle juvenile crime was handed down in the state budget, including a $15 million youth residential facility in the Kimberley; an on-country alternative to youth detention. In addition, a $6. 1 million funding boost was given to WA’s Preventing FASD Project, which is focused on public education and prevention, not screening for children who already have FASD.

It followed a leaked briefing note from a meeting involving WA government ministers and community leaders, citing information from WA Police that youth crime rates in the region had increased 54 per cent over the past two years.

But the youth worker said funding needed to target the times before these young people break the law and that prevention is cheaper (and more beneficial to the child in question) than cure.

Curtin University’s Dr Jocelyn Jones has expertise in how FASD is impacting the Kimberley community and said the biggest problem was the cost to improve screening services and provide the training required.

I think there’s a big investment that needs to happen. Maybe the way to do this is to not only focus on training for screening FASD, maybe it’s providing training on neurodevelopmental disorders as a collective, she said.

It’s then about funding that training and resources, and being able to provide screening for FASD in the remote areas, rather than having people come down to the city or go into the more populated parts of the regions.

At the moment, FASD is commonly misdiagnosed as autism or ADHD.

Jones also said there needed to be better communication between the remote Aboriginal communities and state government agencies.

A lot of women don’t come forward, even if they suspect their child could have FASD because they are scared the Department of Child Protection will take their kids away, she said.

We need to break down that barrier with child protection because early screening is important, but would mean less if people don’t come forward for help.

I think it’s also an education and awareness issue. People have heard the term FASD, but they don’t know a lot about it.

She said the lack of screening was having a huge impact on the remote communities and that misdiagnosis or failure to understand FASD was a contributing factor in a range of other social issues.

A state government spokeswoman said all children entering care underwent a health assessment and from that point, any specialist assessments required, of which FASD might be one, were initiated.

Assessments for children in care for FASD were regularly approved.

It is important to note, at this time there is , as indicated by the Telethon Kids Institute study, she said.

FASD screening is not universal for children entering the justice system, but is completed when requested by the Children’s Court. In addition, youth justice staff are provided with FASD training.

She said the government was committed to improving outcomes for vulnerable children. This included a commitment to a five-year strategy for Commitment to Aboriginal Youth Wellbeing in partnership with Aboriginal-controlled organisations and communities. The first progress report was released in September 2021, with the next due for release later this year.

The state also in March announced $3. 5 million for the Healthcare Navigator Pilot program being trialled in Mirrabooka and the South West employing health staff, including Aboriginal people, to ensure children in care got the medical checks they needed.

This month it announced $11 million for the Target 120 program to address youth crime drivers (named as substance abuse, lack of housing, domestic violence, trauma, mental health issues and poor attendance at school) in nine new locations – Broome, Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing, Derby, Karratha, Newman, Carnarvon, Mandurah and Ellenbrook – for 10-14-year-olds at risk of becoming repeat offenders, a program already shown to be effective in the early rollout sites of Bunbury, Armadale, Kalgoorlie, Kununurra, Northam, Albany, Port Hedland, Mirrabooka, Geraldton, Rockingham and Midland.

With Emma Young

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