An early childhood program working with Indigenous communities in west Arnhem Land is trying to divert young people from the child protection and justice systems.
The program is driven by elders and the local Bininj community to improve the education, health and wellbeing of their young people.
It targets children struggling in mainstream education and has now expanded to include primary school classes, after school care and a men’s group.
Children’s Ground chief executive Jane Vadiveloo said she watched children cycle through the welfare and criminal justice systems for years and the program was an attempt to stop this.
“The system is failing the children, the system is failing the families, the families have no agency in it,” Ms Vadiveloo said.
“There’s very little that reflects their culture, life, identity and aspirations for their own children.”
Surrounded by Kakadu National Park, Children’s Ground is based in the mining town of Jabiru, about 250 kilometres east of Darwin.
During magpie goose hunting season, a Kakadu creek bed often becomes a classroom.
A child eating magpie goose with Children’s Ground teacher Annie Ngalmirama. (ABC News: Felicity James)
Community elders and Children’s Ground directors May Nango and Mark Djandomerr said they felt a sense of urgency for change, fearing what would happen after they had gone.
“I want this history to go on for the kids,” Mr Djandomerr said.
Roxanne Naborlhborlh was behind the push for primary school classes to be included in the program, after watching her eight-year-old son Kayless struggle in the mainstream system.
“It was hard for Kayless, my little boy,” she said.
“He felt that he was lost without family and he couldn’t focus on his work.”
During magpie goose hunting season, a Kakadu creek bed often becomes a classroom. (ABC News: Felicity James)
Ms Naborlhborlh said Kayless was now excited by school and she had been employed as the program’s family engagement officer.
“It’s great, they sit down and they listen and they respect,” she said.
“Because we’ve got two teachers, one is Bininj [Aboriginal], one is Balanda [non-Aboriginal].
“That’s how they learn. We don’t speak English back at home. We don’t speak Kriol back at home. We speak our language and that’s their first language when they’re growing up.”
25-year plan needed, not a ‘quick-fix’
Ms Vadiveloo said the program was a 25-year plan that would follow this generation of children through to adulthood.
“Aboriginal people bring their children up beautifully to have confidence in their environment. It’s the greatest strength of Aboriginal culture, it’s been refined for 60,000 years,” she said.
“We want to grow that approach and embed numeracy and literacy upon that foundation, not to push that to one side and to ignore that it exists.”
Fiona Arney, from the Australian Centre for Child Protection, has provided advice to Children’s Ground and believes the model, which aims to build community control, has national relevance.
“The Children’s Ground approach really says ‘we are here to make a difference over a generation, this is not going to be a quick-fix solution’,” Ms Arney said.
“We’ve seen communities make plans for early intervention and prevention.
“Those plans aren’t always able to implemented because of a lack of resources or government remits.”
Children’s Ground is based in the mining town of Jabiru. (ABC News: Felicity James)
The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) funds the program from a charitable trust, set up by the Mirrar people to distribute royalties from the nearby Ranger uranium mine.
“Outside major capital expenditure, this is the biggest spend that the Mirrar have ever done on a single project. It was a difficult decision to make,” GAC chief executive Justin O’Brien said.
On average, the organisation said it employed 50 Bininj people each month with a retention rate of more than 80 per cent.
“So that’s pretty unprecedented around here. I think it’s because people are offered a diversity in their work and a style of work that really fits with them,” Mr O’Brien said.
Children’s Ground is reviewing its funding model given the mine’s operator Energy Resources of Australia has announced milling at the site is not expected to continue beyond 2020.
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- Felicity James