Saturday, June 30, 2007

Aboriginal poverty, neglect is our own backyard

from The Sydney Morning herald

Erin O'Dwyer

AS troops and doctors descend on the Top End to tackle the national indigenous crisis, NSW communities are quietly waging battles of their own.

At Bowraville, on the Mid North Coast, young lives are being wasted by substance abuse, severe truancy and parental neglect.

The scale of the problem has prompted one front-line community doctor to call for welfare benefits to be paid in kind to Aboriginal families so children are properly clothed and fed.

Dr Vivian Tedeschi, from Bowraville Aboriginal Health Clinic, said truancy and child neglect were major problems in the town.

"Welfare payments [should be] paid out in kind, or in vouchers, so that payments go directly to food, clothes for the kid, school costs and rent," she said. "If you throw money at people for doing nothing, they will do nothing. It's displaced white and government guilt."

Dr Tedeschi, mother of acclaimed concert pianist Simon Tedeschi, left her practice in Willoughby on Sydney's North Shore to work on the Bowraville mission.

She said she knew of one 11-year-old boy who had attended school twice in the past three years. Another mother sent her child to school every day but he did not arrive.

"It must be emphasised that there are many, many Aboriginal children who go to school every day and never miss a day," she said. "But there is a small group who truant regularly."

Dr Tedeschi said substance abuse was often to blame, and not only among the parents. One seven-year-old boy habitually smoked marijuana. "The parents make great noises and promise [to send them to school] and it doesn't happen," she said.

Substance abuse often prevented parents from being able to get out of bed in the morning and get their children off to school, Dr Tedeschi said, adding that one mother told her: "I've got problems with drugs, I don't have money to buy shoes - we're alcoholics."

NSW National Party leader Andrew Stoner, who represents the region, said Bowraville was typical of Aboriginal communities across NSW. "It's right in your backyard - don't turn a blind eye to it. As long as the community does, little children will continue to get hurt."

A breakfast program - attended by almost half of the 320 children enrolled at Bowraville Central - was welcome, Mr Stoner said. But it indicated the extent of the problem.

Breakfast programs are an attempt by community groups to ensure children's basic needs are met.

Barwon state MP Kevin Humphries said funding was so scarce that police officers acted as quasi social workers.

He said in towns such as Burke, Brewarrina, Wilcannia and Moree, police were rescuing at-risk children from the street and keeping them in holding cells because there were no safe houses. A Northern Territory-style military takeover would be the state's only option unless urgent action was taken, he said.

Inspector Mark Minehan, the local area commander for Moree, said police were involved in breakfast programs but denied police were taking children back to the station.

Bowraville mother of six Marjory Buchanan urged stable Aboriginal families to foster children in need. She and her partner, Thomas Duroux, who are in their 50s, have applied to foster another child after their foster daughter turned 18.

"Aboriginal carers are needed urgently," she said. "They haven't got enough for all these poor kids."
Source: The Sun-Herald

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