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Both our political class and Indigenous communities have failed troubled Aboriginal young people in Northern Australia

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Monday, 4 April 2022

The shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker in the remote Northern Territory town of Yuendumu was instructive in many ways.  To most people the telling aspect of his sad lifewas that he was in danger from the time he was a baby.  This led him to sustain injury while still in the womb, and become embedded in a criminal lifestyle before even his teenage years.

He had all the disadvantages you could imagine, yet the authorities and his Aboriginal community largely ignored his predicament.

His mother was a “sniffer”, who drank heavily while pregnant.  He was given away shortly after birth and grew up in an environment of alcohol abuse and severe domestic violence.  There were community concerns that he was not thriving as a baby, that the home he was living in was "filthy", and that he suffered from ear and chest infections, nits, and scabies.  As a child he was moved around between families, and (at school) was categorised as a "special needs" student.


Walker began committing break-ins when he was 11.  By age 12 he was considered to be a “dysfunctional child with poor impulse control and inability to control his emotions”.  There were concerns about his cognitive function due to his “prolonged exposure to domestic violence”, and it was suspected that Walker may have suffered frontal lobe damage as a result of his biological mother’s petrol-sniffing.  His guardians struggled to control him, and he had a problem with anger management.  He frequently wagged school, and by age 13, regularly drank alcohol and smoked cannabis daily.

He reportedly would steal spray cans from adults in Yuendumu to inhale the petrol, paint or deodorant that he was addicted to, despite saying they “made him feel dizzy and hurt his brain”.

At age 13 his behaviour escalated to a new level.  He broke into buildings, damaged property and vandalised vehicles.  In April 2014 he broke into and trashed the Yuendumu Medical Clinic and the newly built early childhood learning centre, causing an estimated $130,000 of damage.  He was suspected of other crimes and was regularly seen wandering around the community late at night.  After dozens of episodes stealing cars, damaging property and fighting with other youths, he acquired a girlfriend, but began bashing her.  The tale just goes on.

The lesson is that the die for Walker was cast early in life.  Poor parenting meant that he was destined for a troubled criminal life before he was even a teenager.  Little was ever done to divert him from this path.

The majority of Indigenous families are not like that, but there still are a large number of communities and individual families where there are inter-generational problems in bringing up children (the stereotypical viscous circle).  I recently returned from a holiday in Far North Queensland, where many complained about crime by out-of-control Indigenous teenagers, with car theft, malicious damage, assault, and burglary being stand-out problems.

Research also highlights "astronomical crime rates" for non-urban communities with a 50 per cent or more Indigenous population.  Alarmingly, in some remote areas, domestic violence and assault far outstrip all other crimes.


We are now at the stage where there is both an official narrative and a (somewhat less prominent) dissenting view.

Therecently released Family and Community Safety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (FaCtS) Study was undertaken by the Australian National University for the Department of Social Services.

A key conclusion was that "(Indigenous)community members overwhelmingly viewed family and community violence as a by-product of colonisation        That included intergenerational trauma, driven by removal from country and family separations, with inadequate capacity to address it.      It is also critical to take account of the role of the broader context and system in generating violence, and to expect that system to take responsibility for reducing [it]."

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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