Standing Still

So here I sit, 2 weeks after sending the Premier, Jay Weatherill, a desperate call to action. A last ditch effort to get him to speak with me and address my concerns, in the hope that we can drive some real, tangible, meaningful change for the children of the APY Lands. I responded to offers to meet with the Minister for Education’s Chief of Staff, and with Tony Harrison, the CEO of the Department of Education and Children’s Services. Radio Silence. Two weeks of inactivity. 

I’ve since been told that the Amata people (again, I don’t know who this is referencing, and the Anangu Coordinator of the school knew of no such thing) approached the government asking for help. The sexualised behaviour of Anangu children in Amata was at an unprecedented level and the community knew they needed help. They allegedly asked the Government for help in exchange for media silence on the issue. CAHMS was part of the response.


My understanding is that open cases of child sexual abuse in the APY have risen from 217 in 2013 to over 300 as we stand.


The Fifth and Final Annual Report by the Minister for Education and Child Development into child sexual abuse used vague benchmarks to determine whether or not they had implemented the recommendations that had put forward by the Mulligan Inquiry in 2008:

“The work of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in responding to sexualised behaviour of children has resulted in a shift in the willingness of communities to recognise, acknowledge and respond to problem sexual behaviour”.


Sarah Martin of The Australian has addressed the issue of child abuse in the APY more than once;


“In South Australia, the Mullighan inquiry into child sex abuse on the Lands in 2008 made a swathe of recommendations, most of which were “adopted” in theory by the state government but have been generally ignored or poorly implemented. And in her report of 2002, retired West Australian magistrate Sue Gordon identified the need for more co-ordination between service agencies to try to protect vulnerable children.”


I never thought I’d say this, but I actually agree with Liberal Opposition leader Stephen Marshall:

“No child on the APY Lands should be disadvantaged because of the government’s inability to co-ordinate a response to these issues,” .


On Thursday I was sent a message from a service provider in the APY who is in a position that I would consider ‘senior’ with regard to my statements regarding media contact: “questions being asked re media article anangu are really sad n angry”


I was taken aback this. Firstly at the social media platform that this person used to contact me, and secondly, what I felt was a blatant attempt to silence me, emotionally blackmailing me in an attempt to stop my campaign lest the shame of my ancestors rain down upon me.


To that I have only one thing to say: I am Anangu. And I am sad and angry.


I’m sad and angry that Anangu children are forced to endure this, and whilst I acknowledge that the issues are many and complex, the response, as demonstrated by the maths, is pathetic. And despite this, the government has removed the funding for Clinical Psychologists within CAHMS teams in the APY lands. Whilst I may not necessarily agree with the ethos and approach that APY CAHMS seems to deem appropriate, and whilst I wholeheartedly admit that I am not an expert, something has to be better than nothing. How any minister can justify revoking clinical services in the face of such damning figures is beyond me. About this I am sad and angry.


That said, I would like to make my letter to South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, dated the 19th of August, 2015, public. I have attempted to follow what I have thought to be an appropriate chain of command in my endeavour to drive change in a manner that is more discreet. I did not set out to create a media circus of sensationalistic headlines that shame my people. The problem is, is that this is not new information. But the APY are so far away, and so ‘out of sight, out of mind’, that the lack of transparency and accountability goes unchecked. And this must change. I’m conscious of my speaking out sparking a Northern Territory Intervention type event which would be inherently racist and problematic for Anangu. Worse yet, a Stolen Generation/scale removal of children. But as I’ve said before, the edict that I live by is: ‘the standard that you walk past, is the standard you accept.’ I just cannot walk past this, I must stop, stand still until I am heard, and I encourage you to do the same. My hope is that somewhere, someone who reads this will care. And will share it with someone else who cares, and with enough action we can actually achieve positive, meaningful change for my people. And if Anangu (and I hesitate to refer to us as a homogenous unit with some kind of hive-mind) truly are “sad n angry”, then for that I’m sorry. But please know this comes from a place of love, deep respect and concern for our children. Let us stand idle and at the hands of government no more.

Dear Mr. Premier, 
This letter is addressed to you in the final hope of action on a thus fruitless merry-go round of political inactivity.
I have been the victim of sexual assault, as have my son and daughter on the grounds of a DECD school. I was an employee of DECD at the time. These assaults occurred in the APY Lands; an environment that children exist in, that is so prolific, abusive and depraved in sexual nature.
This letter is further to my discussion with a staffer of your Department, Diane, on the 19th of August at 4.42pm.
I would like to make an appointment to meet with you regarding serious concerns I have about what is happening in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands and specifically, the DECD response. 
I also wish to state at the outset that I have approached the Minister for Education with no response. 
I owe it to my children and those of the APY lands to seek meaningful change. My patience in seeking change through political means is limited however, and decreasing daily. I have my fair share of journalists and other outlets I am prepared to spread my observations and experience in order to affect change.
I am an Anangu Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara woman and have lived in the APY and other remote communities as a child and have visited several as an adult.
I have recently returned from Amata Anangu Community where my (non-Indigenous) husband had won a leadership position in the school. We had been seeking employment in the Lands for some time. We had hoped to ‘return to Country’, to introduce our two young children (4.5 years and 18 months) to their traditional lands and culture, lost due to stolen generation intervention. My husband had further leadership ambitions. 
We have since returned to Adelaide because of the prolific sexual abuse and its ramifications for my family, of which there was no prior disclosure, despite a week-long induction process to the APY Lands.
I and my baby daughter were sexually assaulted in the school grounds by a student, while I was under the employ of DECD. No action was taken by the school toward my welfare. No disciplinary action was taken toward the student. 
I was completely unaware of the extent of the “sexualised behaviour”. This is a term that completely diminishes what is happening day in day out for, and to, the students. 
My husband exhausted every avenue he could about the risks that we might face before we moved our entire lives to the APY Lands. He met with the District Director many months before he won the job at Amata. He spoke with the incumbent Deputy Principal, he spoke with the current Principal, and on another occasion the Principal came to our home and met with us there. Furthermore, and as I have previously mentioned, there was a week-long induction process that included talks from the Principal and District Director. At no stage was the sexualised behaviour and the risk to our families explained to us or alluded to. This information, common knowledge on the Lands, was not made apparent to us until week 3 of the school year. At this junction in time it was CAMHS who discussed the issues and how a “Confidentiality Clause” existed behind this knowledge. At no stage have I found anyone who has been able to explain to me by whom this clause was put into place nor how it impinges upon one’s capacity to effect change with the horrendous knowledge it entails. They spoke only of an agreement with “The Anangu”, as if they are one homogenous unit. Several elders in the community and the Amata Anangu Coordinator (a respected Anangu member of the community) state that they are not aware of any such agreement. By this time, however, my children had already been placed at risk. This was not information that we were privy to until our family had been placed at risk, and harmed as a result. 
There was precedent which aggravates me even more. The person who had my husband’s role previously left Amata (under the same Principal) because his kids were assaulted and the staff member was told by the same students who hurt my family that they “were going to rape his daughter”.
It is not only my opinion but that of the AEU lawyers (who worked with my husband) that DECD were negligent in their obligation to keep us safe in our workplace or at the very least, advise us of the risks to us as employees and our family as an extension of that. We did not make an informed choice. We should have been afforded the right to make an informed choice about what we were going to face as a family.
CAHMS advised the school staff of the extent of said sexual abuse in week 3 of term 1, stating that 100% of children were affected and that there were 300 open cases of child sexual abuse and “problematic sexual behaviour” through the Lands amongst 700 students. There were open cases of problematic sexual behaviour within the preschool, in which my child was a pupil. According to CAHMS, sexual assault, including rape are commonplace in the school toilets and classrooms, and there is a fluid movement between perpetrator and victim. Students in the pre-school are simulating sex.
Prior to my awareness of the danger he was in, my young son was touched inappropriately and coaxed toward the school toilets to be molested, whilst standing only 15 meters in front of me. The Deputy Principal stopped the molestation and a mandatory notification was made. No action was taken by the school. The Principal suggested my husband approach this students’ parents as a parent and speak with them, which is a clear breach of the Code of Ethics for South Australian Teachers.
Mr. Premier, you do not know shame until you look into the face of your child knowing that there are several mandatory notifications, and reports to SAPOL, about your own children because you placed them into an environment that was not safe. 
The failure to keep them safe was because DECD knowingly and negligently put them at risk.
My husband also sought to meet with the Principal on at least 2 occasions to discuss the ramifications of my son in the Pre-school and this was not acted upon. Essentially we ambushed him and demanded a meeting and we took the site AEU representative in to discuss our concerns with the Principal. The Principal asked “Did I know about this?” despite my husband speaking to him more than once about the assault that I and my two children had endured. I told him quite clearly that I felt that the lack of prior disclosure was utterly negligent, he suggested that informing people of the issues they may, and likely will, face would be “alarmist”. At which point we politely ended the meeting in disgust.
We subsequently applied to DECD for a transfer back to Adelaide on compassionate grounds; it was denied. I’m not sure what one actually needs to demonstrate for a compassionate transfer to be granted but this is one area of DECD that needs significant overhaul. 
Knowing DECD was not willingly going to facilitate our return to enable us to seek counselling and remove the threat of further abuse and payback/retribution (as we had been to SAPOL), we approached the AEU. Finally someone listened and cared. The Union were astounded by our revelations and took us to Chris Wellington of Wallman Lawyers. As such, the Chief Executive received a document at on the 16th of July at 4.25pm. 
The Union advised us to return and pack up our possessions to return to Adelaide. We did. On our last night in Amata we were approached by an Anangu man with an axe and bow and arrow at our front gate, heightening our fears over payback. Had it not been the intervention of the Amata School Anangu Coordinator we may not be here now.
My husband has not been transferred in as much as placed as a Supernumerary at a school, an hour drive from our home in Blackwood. 
Technically we are currently homeless because we rented out our house. Then our tenant has stopped paying rent. We cannot afford to pay our mortgage and also rent another house, so we are “couch surfing”, kids and all, until we are able to gain position of our house again.
Whilst in Amata, I resigned in disgust from DECD. I operated as an SSO within the school, although I am a Registered Nurse by trade. The Principal failed to provide me with a safe workplace, and failed to provide me with any form of restorative justice. In fact, he failed to even ask after my welfare and that of my children. Rather, he joked about killing the student and asked if that would help. I am no longer a DECD employee, and I am highly aggrieved at the way my family has been treated by DECD. 
I am a passionate advocate for my people and I want to help drive some meaningful change in the APY lands. I would like to meet with you to so that we may be able to address my concerns.
After discussion with my husband, who takes his obligations as an employee of the Minister very seriously, we have decided not to forward you the document that was sent to the CEO via Chris Wellington of Wallman Lawyers. The information contained within is of a sensitive nature. 
As I mentioned previously I have contacted the Minister for Education with no response from her other than an email from a staffer of Tony Harrison the CEO of DECD, asking to meet with me. Mr. Harrison has already had nearly six weeks to make that conciliatory act of his own accord and has not done so. This is an issue that demands leadership and change of a significant nature, hence this email. 
Mr. Premier, I have met you in your time as Minister of Education when you visited the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Science and Technology at the Australian Science and Mathematics School. I was the Senior Aboriginal Mentor, and my husband, the Lead Teacher. What struck me then was your warmth, compassion and genuine interest in Aboriginal students and their education. I ask you again for that same generosity of spirit to enact change for APY students and bring resolution and closure to my personal pain.
I look forward to discussing this with you further.
Yours sincerely,
Elizabeth Close

Edited to add; I’ve received an invitation to meet with Chief Executive Tony Harrison and Chief of Staff to the Minister Tim Ryan. I’ve also been in talks with a retired Professor of Psychiatry and former head of the AMA who has extensive experience in working with Aboriginal people in remote communities in crisis. It is my hope that we can enact something positive from this horrific experience. 


12 thoughts on “Standing Still

  1. You are an amazing woman. Thank you for speaking up, for not walking past, for saying that this is not acceptable.

    I will be sharing this, good luck and keep us updated x


    • As a clinician myself I can only imagine how challenging remote medicine must be. I wrote a blog post on how I perceived the clinic in Amata – it was less than glowing. Perhaps I didn’t consider the working conditions and other external challenges that one would face!


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