By Keenan Mundine
Keenan Mundine spent his early adulthood in and out of prison but now runs a consultancy guiding agencies on Aboriginal affairs. (ABC News: Jack Fisher)
The trajectory from out-of-home care to the justice system is glaringly obvious to many Aboriginal people. I know: I have lived it.
As a young boy, I lost both of my parents. I was placed with family in what is considered “kinship care”, but I was separated from my two older brothers at the age of seven.
My involvement with the criminal justice system started when I was 14. I found a way to survive, to support myself, to escape my pain: taking drugs, then breaking the law to support myself and my habit, cycling in and out of juvenile custody.
By 18, it was only natural that I progress to the adult criminal justice system — everyone that I called “friends” or looked up to were already there, including my brothers. Each time I was released over the next 10 years I received no treatment or support.
I then had the opportunity to participate in a drug treatment program while in custody which addressed my substance abuse and offending behaviour. It supported me with obtaining identification and engaging in pro-social activities and facilitated my slow transition back to the community.
I have been out of custody since completing the program in 2015 and my three year parole order will be completed this Friday April 13.
Keenan was placed in “kinship care” at a young age after he lost both his parents. (Supplied)
Losing my brothers hurt the most
Taking me away from my brothers was devastating. I had already lost both of my parents and I just wanted to be with my brothers.
I found solace playing football and trying to remain connected to my family and culture.
My carers weren’t equipped to deal with the loss I had been through. Living in disadvantaged circumstances, this was not a priority. There were no agencies involved or community support and no attempts to reconnect me with my brothers.
During my early adolescence, I found my brothers. They were living chaotic lives and couldn’t find the time to reconnect with me. They were already dealing with their own trauma, substance misuse and involvement with the justice system.
I didn’t understand why they couldn’t fit me into their lives, not realising how damaged they were from the same processes that I’d been through.
What happened to us is still being felt today and will continue to challenge us for the rest of our lives.
From foster care to jail
The connection between Australia’s child protection and justice systems is a key theme of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent report into Indigenous incarceration.
The report summarises that “the links between these systems is so strong that child removal into out-of-home care and juvenile detention could be considered as key drivers of adult incarceration.”
The rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was 10 times the rate for non-indigenous children in 2016, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The ALRC report concludes that:
“the incarceration rate of adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cannot be fully and satisfactorily addressed without a national review of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection, and the state and territory laws that see such children placed into out-of-home-care.”
My life after custody
In my three years out of custody, I’ve gotten married and started a family. I’ve also started an Aboriginal-owned and led consulting agency advising clients who’d like to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people in community and health services.
My story is not an isolated one. I know many Aboriginal people with almost identical narratives. The devastating effects of previous and current government policies play out today.
Aboriginal people have the solutions to their own issues. We need to invest in community-led initiatives and innovative solutions.
Statistics and stories like mine tell us that what is being done is not working.
I want a future for my two young boys and Aboriginal children across Australia that doesn’t involve being removed from family, culture and community.
Keenan Mundine is the principal consultant and owner of Inside Out Aboriginal Justice Consultancy.