Aboriginal adolescent offenders study

Criminology Research Council grant ; (15/78)

This study was conducted by a small multi-disciplinary team based in the School of Medicine of the Flinders University of South Australia. The study investigated the offences committed by Aboriginal adolescents on a remote Aboriginal settlement in South Australia. It also considered petrol sniffing behaviour which was apparent from time to time in the community.

The Aboriginal population was approximately 300, of whom 57 were adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 (37 males and 20 females).

Data were collected over a two-year period (1979-80) on offences which resulted in appearance at court or before Children's Aid Panels. During 1981 further data of an anthropological nature were collected through participant observation in the field.

The study was set up in such a way as to involve Aboriginal community members in the collection of data, and throughout the research period, researchers met with the community's Council to keep it informed of progress. At the end of the first year of the study, a series of feedback meetings were held with different groups in the community to pass on to them the findings to date.

As a result of a literature review conducted by the researchers, a booklet on petrol sniffing has since been published by the Australian Foundation on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency in Canberra (R. Morice, H. Swift and M. Brady, Petrol Sniffing Among Aboriginal Australians: A Resource Manual, 1981).

The researchers have tried to be circumspect when referring to the community concerned, because of the sensitive nature of some of the material collected and out of respect for the Aboriginal people whose lives are described. For this reason the community is not named.

It was found that offending behaviour which resulted in appearances was predominantly a male activity, with 59 per cent of the male adolescents being charged during 1979-80, compared with 10 per cent of female adolescents. Appearances at court among males increased with age, and occasional offenders were significantly younger than frequent offenders. There was no statistical relationship between petrol sniffing behaviour (as indicated by blood lead levels) and offending behaviour, although some offences were committed as a follow-on from petrol sniffing gatherings. The majority of the offences which resulted in court appearances were offences against property owned by European Australian staff on the settlement. Break, enter and steal, and illegal use of motor vehicles were the most common charges. It was found that theft did occur away from the settlement, in the Aboriginal camps, but that these offences were rarely reported and thus did not result in court appearances.

Data were collected, with the help of Aboriginal assistants, on family circumstances and background for the adolescent population, but analysis of these data (size of available family, primary caretaker, bereavement) did not produce any distinguishing features to separate offenders from non-offenders. It was virtually statistically normal for adolescent boys to have at least one court appearance.

Relations with the local police were found on the whole to be cordial, however adolescent males were arrested more frequently than they were summonsed (89 per cent as against 11 per cent).

Members of the community engaged in acts of social control involving the chastising of wrongdoers, but it was not often that such sanctions were applied to those adolescents who were offenders against Australian law. The community on the whole did not see its responsibilities extending to the punishment of adolescents who broke into whites' houses or stole their cars. Adults did not accompany their adolescent relatives to their court appearances and they did not participate in any way with the activities of the court. These affairs were perceived as falling under the jurisdiction of the police and 'the welfare'. The court hearings had on occasions in the past been conducted at the settlement- itself and this had facilitated a degree of participation and involvement by the adult community members. The practice was discontinued, apparently for logistical reasons.

The study found that despite assumptions by some European government officers that the community was culturally or 'tribally' disintegrated, Aboriginal social structures and religious life were relatively intact. The people pursued their traditional affairs with enthusiasm and commitment. In spite of geographical isolation and dispossession of land, they had retained important spiritual and kinship links with their country and their northern relatives. In the opinion of the researchers, such links should be encouraged and facilitated wherever possible in order to further develop the community's own strengths. This would necessarily benefit all members of the Aboriginal community including the adolescents.