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In June 2007, the federal government staged a significant legal and political intervention in the Nortthern Territory. This is known as the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or more colloquially as the NT Intervention. The catalyst for these measures was the release of the Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, titled Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: ‘Little Children are Sacred’.
The Australian Government announced the NTER and moved to adopt new legislation, suspend the Racial Discrimination Act and initiate programs to “protect Indigenous women and children in the Northern Territory.” In 2012, the Stronger Futures Legislation followed on from the NTER and is the current policy framework for interventions and policy provision for Indigenous Communities in the NT.

What do community workers need to understand in order to work at the interface between Indigenous communities and social, legal and political institutions?


Acknowledge the themes necessary to understanding indigenous issues

start by adopting the first issue - the nature of disadvantage

Explain the Stronger Futures Legislation, and the criticisms of it.

The purpose of this essay is to provide an alternate approach to resolving the issues faced in indigenous communities.

There is little debate in development circles on the hardship experienced by Indigenous Australians and their communities. The Little Children are Sacred report, released in 2007 collated the experiences of Indigenous communities and the cycles of sexual abuse, addiction, poverty and unemployment as a result of government neglect and a number of contributing factors. Though the report made 97 recommendations as to how solutions could be found, the government at the time chose to adopt a handful of them in what would come to be defined as the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

In 2012, the NTER was revised and reimplemented by the Rudd/Gillard Government as the Stronger Futures Policy. The policies included a series of measures to aimed at tackling alcohol dependency, truancy, poverty and land management.

Five themes:

Culture - language barriers, lack of cultural competency,
and Spirituality

  • need to cover the history of missionary work in removing indigenous culture and re-educating aboriginal children

Family and Community Kinships

historical, social and economic factors

Fear and education

  • under-reporting
  • pornography, alcohol
  • consent


The Stronger Futures Policy received criticisms from several organisations on several fronts. Submissions from various organisations to the Review of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012 noted that there was a lack of consultation of any kind with the affected communities before the policies were introduced (Australian Lawyers Alliance, 2014). They also noted that the ‘special measures’ aimed to tackle alcohol dependency, land reform and food security did not facilitate the advancement of Indigenous rights and freedoms. Instead policies of Income Management violated people’s right to privacy over their own income, restricted their movement by preventing them from making purchases at smaller retailers, second hand stores (North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, 2014).
The Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory in their submission noted that the measures to reduce alcohol consumption and land reform lacked an evidence base and stigmatised indigenous communities (Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory, 2014).

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to the approaches taken by the Howard and the Rudd/Gillard Governments was that the lack of effective and ongoing consultation with indigenous communities in developing policies. Consequently this resulted in a paternalistic approach that inadvertently disempowered indigenous people by taking away the decision making process from them.
So what can community workers learn from this process?

The value of Community Work

One of the key criticisms of the Stronger Futures Policy was the lack of participation by Indigenous communities in creating those policies. Community workers can remedy part of this by working with affected communities involving them in the design and implementation of activities aimed at alleviating some of the issues. This is perhaps the key difference between community work and service provision. Where service provision views the community as client/customer and a recipient of services, the community worker views the community as its own change agent. The community worker recognises that the resources to improve the wellbeing of the community lies within the community itself and the community worker plays the role of the facilitator (Twelvetrees, 1993; Popple, 1995). It is through working within Indigenous communities that the issues raised in the report can begin to be resolved.

Ypinazar et al. (2007) posited that five themes need to be acknowledged when providing mental health support to Indigenous Australians. They are i.) Culture and Spirituality, ii.) Family and Community Kinships iii.) Historical, Social and Economic factors iv.) Fear and Education v.) Loss.
This essay proposes that the understanding of these themes is essential for all community workers aiming to work with Aboriginal communities.

Culture and Spirituality

Community development often draws its frameworks from the works of Marxism, feminism, ecology and post-colonialism. Rarely is the role of spirituality discussed or used as a guiding model. In the context of development, spirituality can be taken to mean the process of finding personal direction or purpose through a connection to the spiritual realm. Spiritual beliefs can offer people a sense of hope in times of hardship, as well as a code of ethics on how one must act (Ver Beek, 2000; Lunn, 2009). Religion and spirituality have often also provided communities with the notion that human rights are inviolable due to our connection with the divine (Gearon, 2002). While Western epistemology has pursued empirical methods of understanding the world, Indigenous epistemology often recognises that the subjective and the objective are often part of the same grand narrative, commonly referred to as the Dreaming (Rumsey, 1994).
Community workers must recognise that affirming Indigenous spiritual narratives and resolving community problems are not mutually exclusive. For example, the Safe Dreaming Trail to School Initiative developed by Noarlunga Health Services aimed at teaching the lessons of injury prevention through Dreaming stories (Morriss, Mann, & Byrnes, 2000).


A study in Mount Isa on the cultural barriers to accessing health services by the Indigenous community found that often the service aimed to make Indigenous people comfortable by focusing on physical environment and systems because they believed this is what facilitated help-seeking behaviour (McBain-Rigg, & Veitch, 2011). However, Aboriginal patients valued interpersonal relationships more highly and viewed the efforts by the health services as ‘token gestures’. The preference for the provision of physical supports at the expense of building relationships with Indigenous communities plays out in the implementation of the Stronger Futures Policy as well.

The Little Children are Sacred report noted that government professionals often showed a poor understanding of Indigenous culture, values and their worldview (Wild, & Anderson, 2007). The consequence of this often led to a reluctance in reporting abuses as well as a general mistrust in the authorities on handling Indigenous issues. There are numerous studies done on the effect of learning Indigenous Cultural Safety in improving the relationships with Aboriginal people. Cultural Safety means implementing practices that allow Aboriginal people to feel safe and secure in their identity, community and culture (“Chapter 4: Cultural safety and security: Tools to address lateral violence - Social Justice Report 2011 | Australian Human Rights Commission”, 2017).The Australian Human Rights Commission notes that one can go further and in understanding cultural security where one goes beyond an attitudinal shift to incorporating cultural values into the design, delivery and evaluation of services (Coffin, 2007). Use of cultural safety training has been reported to benefit professionals in the health industry by improving patient outcomes and building better relationships between health and counselling practitioners and indigenous patients (Nguyen, 2008; Shephard et al., 2016; McLennan, Taylor, Rachow, South, & Chapman, 2016). As community workers play a more active role through facilitating community engagement, it may be necessary to consider culturally secure practices. This would involve applying Indigenous values and methods to communication and facilitation practices - a task that isn’t as complex as it may seem. Lin et al., (2014) notes that the process of ‘yarning’, a two-way communication style improved the dialogue between health professionals looking to treat chronic low back pain in Aboriginal people. The Western Australian government produces drug and alcohol resources based on Aboriginal models of physical and mental health (“Cultural Security and Aboriginal People Resources”, 2017).

Historical, Social and Economic Factors

In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commenced his term in parliament by delivering a historic apology to Indigenous communities across Australia for the impact of the stolen generations (SEVEN NETWORK, 2008). The act was significant because it acknowledged the history of suffering and trauma set in motion by the government through the forced removal of children from their families, culture and land. Indeed, much of the trauma experienced by Aboriginal people stems from Australian government policy and its systematic destruction of Indigenous culture, its people and their wellbeing. From a community impact, the stolen generations broke up communities and families and created a number of psychological issues that led to alcoholism, lower education outcomes, unemployment and anti-social behaviour (Dudgeon, & Hirvonen, 2014; Armstrong, 2002; Petchkovsky, San Roque, Napaljarri Jurra, & Butler, 2004). The Stolen Generations chapter was only one of the hardships experienced by Aboriginal people. Indigenous Australians were paid less, sent to schools that rarely led to tertiary education and weren’t allowed to vote until the 1960s due to a series of Australian policies that aimed to systematically disadvantage them at every social and legal stage aimed to progress white Australians (Korff, 2017). So pervasive was the impact, it led many critics to refer to the treatment as Australia’s very own apartheid (Wright, 2002; Watson, 2009).

Often service providers treat aboriginal issues by treating people individually. However, the reality is that many of the issues affecting Aboriginals have a collective and a societal element to it - one where often the cause is the Australian government through its legislation. Community workers need to recognise the impacts of these legal and societal obstacles as causes of their hardship, and the experience of growing up Aboriginal in Australia is one often

Family and Kinships
In order to work with Aboriginal communities, it is important to understand the role of kinships and the significance of family ties.
Conventional notions of a family in Australia often define the concept as a group of people related by blood or ceremony living under the same household. For Aboriginal Australians however, the definition of family is vastly different. Morphy (2006) identified that in Indigenous families, parental lineages define a family and consequently does not neatly fit into the nuclear family concept.

Just as in Asian cultures different levels of respect are accorded to elder and younger siblings, so too, it is with Aboriginal families. Aboriginal elders typically play a leadership role within community. They are also regarded has holders of cultural knowledge and often make decisions on behalf of the community (McIntyre, 2001). Consequently, community workers would be best to understand the significance of Elders when communicating with them. Frances Peters-Little (2004) noted that often leadership development programs aimed at Aboriginal communities ignored traditional roles of community leaders in favour of individuals that could be ‘trained’ in Western notions of leadership, or someone that could simply be appointed from a given community - even community as a concept, defined according to Western definitions. Having an understanding of how family and community kinships define Aboriginal communities can help community workers in a number of ways (, 2017). Community workers may need to work with clients outside of normal working hours if they’re part of a kinship groups. They must also recognise where the decision making power lies within a given families rather than consult with people individually. It may also be necessary to share information and resources with family members rather than just the individual.

Ypinazar et al. (2009) also noted that the loss of community kinships meant that youth couldn’t turn to the elders for emotional and spiritual support. Often, this resulted in young indigenous men and women in being left to resolve their issues through alcohol and substance use. For community workers, the recognition and restoration of these traditional kinships may be paramount in restoring the dignity to Aboriginal communities.

Fear and Education

A significant portion of the recommendations in the Little Children are Sacred report (2007) pointed to a necessity for education and awareness campaigns around the issues of sexual abuse, alcoholism, truancy and child support. Many of the practices had been a result of ignorance of the law, but also of concepts of sexual consent and mental health. Often conventional sources of such information fail to take into account language barriers, or Indigenous models of health and wellbeing. Community workers must recognise that efforts to educate Indigenous communities must be culturally specific. Preliminary reviews of culturally adapted and culturally based interventions have higher success rates that unadapted intervention programs (Leske et al., 2016; Andersen et al., 2015). Successful programs have also involved Elders and community members in the design and implementation of their programs (Singer, Bennett-Levy, & Rotumah 2015; Fagan et al., 2015; Mooney-Somers et al., 2011; Biggs, Walsh and Ooi, 2016) . Other studies have noted that adopting Aboriginal models of learning, themes and languages results in improved education and awareness outcomes (Hinton et al., 2015; Bennet and Moriarty, 2015; (McLaughlin and Whatman, 2015). The AIME programme presents a unique approach to student education by adopting elements of Indigenous ways of learning as well as an egalitarian peer-education style of teaching. AIME’s evaluations consistently show a high satisfaction of the program from the recipients (McMahon et al., 2016).
Community workers can take a number of lessons from current experiences in designing education programs for Indigenous communities. Successful programming involves the active participation of Indigenous Elders and community members in the design, implementation and evaluation of the program. A further lesson is that embedding Indigenous epistemologies and models of health helps affirm their culture and identity yielding better program outcomes.


Ypinazar et al. (2009) identifies the theme of loss as depicting the loss of culture, identity as well as family members through suicide, incarceration, alcohol and family violence - just to name a few.
There is extensive research on the psychological effects of intergenerational trauma (Walters, 2012). Survivors of the Stolen Generation and other dehumanizing government policies
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are twice as likely to suffer from psychological distress, and consequently more likely to suffer from substance abuse as a way of coping (, 2011). Causal factors were often reported to be coping with illness or an accident or with the loss of a friend or family members. Leading causes of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders between 2008-12 were circulatory disease, neoplasms and external causes such as suicide (, 2014).
Indigenous Australians are more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, with an increase of 51 percent on the imprisonment rate on average compared to the general population (Weatherburn, 2014). This has significant consequences for Indigenous communities, where it is likely children will grow up with at least one member of their family in prison. Imprisonment also leads to reduced rates of employment which in turn leads to higher rates of crime. A rate that increases when people come from poor families and when family members already have experiences with prison. Mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feature higher in Indigenous prison populations compared non indigenous people.

The high prevalence of psychological distress in Indigenous communities has significant implications for community workers (Green, 2011). Community workers need to understand the impact of trauma in affecting the behaviours of men, women and children. They must also understand the range of reactions people can experience as a response to trauma, from anger to withdrawal and how to work with that.
Community Workers must understand that though members of the community will continue to feel the effects of loss from intergenerational tragedies, others will experience the theme of loss from current events and consequently, will have to work with the impact of the psychological stress associated with it. Mental Health First Aid training would also benefit community workers as the recognition of the s

For instance, the process of ‘storytelling’ among Aboriginal communities in Australia plays a significant role in teaching youth knowledge about the world (Iseke, & Moore, 2011).

From oral history to leadership in the Aboriginal community: a five year journey with the Wagga Wagga Aboriginal Elders Group Incorporated

Putting principles into practice

Involving Aboriginal leaders in the decision making process

Incorporating language and culture into education programs