'You're not alone': how a bush camp gave Indigenous teenagers a sense of pride

Balunu founder David Cole says having Aboriginal mentors was ‘critical’ to the program’s success – before it was defunded
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“I’m not too proud of what I’ve done but, in a way, I’m glad I did it because my little brothers have looked at it,” says Mark*, the oldest of seven siblings.

“It’s good knowing that they’ve seen what happens if you do the wrong thing … They learned from my mistakes and I’ve learned from them as well.”

Mark, a young Indigenous man from Darwin, began getting trouble with the police around the age of 14.

“I was placed in youth diversion but then I was reoffending and I spent a few weeks in detention,” he says. “That sort of opened my eyes about it a bit, seeing how the boys were in there.”

The Northern Territory’s youth detention system shot to international attention last year when the ABC broadcast numerous incidents of harsh treatment and abuse. It sparked a royal commission and the fallout contributed to a staggering election loss for the Country Liberal government, which had slashed youth and diversion programs during its term.

Now the new Labor administration is scrambling to improve the system while simultaneously addressing high rates of youth crime affecting an increasingly distressed community. Authorities are looking to other solutions – some new and some old.

After consistent trouble with the law, Mark was sent to Balunu Indigenous Youth Healing Foundation, an Indigenous-owned and -run therapeutic camp for young people identified as being at risk of suicide or in contact with the criminal justice system.

For the seven or so years it ran before it was defunded in 2012, Indigenous youth workers and community elders took groups of children across the harbour from Darwin to a remote camping spot at Talc Head. Balunu’s founder, David Cole, says having Indigenous mentors was “critical” to its success.

“The [workers] were there to let us know that you can talk to us, you don’t have to hide anything, you don’t have to feel shame about anything,” Mark says. “It was up to us to take that first step and say this is what’s going on at home, or I’ve been feeling like this for a while, and it sort of takes off from there.”

The camp had strict rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no phones.

Balunu was not restricted to Indigenous youth but the activities and lessons over the week-long trip were geared towards cultural Indigenous knowledge and connection.

“I learned how to make spears from Uncle David and I teach my little brothers now,” Mark says. “They ask if Dad taught me and I just laugh – Dad didn’t teach me anything. It’s good to have the knowledge to pass down and you feel good about yourself.”

Jeannie Gadambua, an Indigenous elder from Maningrida, took care of the girls’ camps at Balunu. “I used to teach them cultural way – hunting, sitting down at night and telling them history about how Aboriginal people had their young kids before with no smoking and no drinking,” she tells Guardian Australia.

“In the evening I’d taken them fishing – I had to keep an eye on them girls … When I used to take them they’d get homesick and desperate for what they’d been going through – like ganja or drinking … I used to tell them, ‘You’ve got plenty of time to do that, just listen.’”

Tash*, a teenage girl from Darwin, says: “Being an Aboriginal person, especially in this city, we miss out on a lot of things like that.

“So when we do go on the camps, they’re teaching us all that stuff. It’s cool, if they didn’t teach us that stuff that’s a whole chapter from my culture that I would have missed out on.”

Tash was never placed in detention – an escape she believes might only be due to her physical disability – but was in and out of diversion programs. From a young age she was repeatedly in trouble with police, including for car theft.

“I guess I was just really lost, troubled,” she says. “I was just sick of everything and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I might as well go to jail,’ you know. But the camp shows you you’re not alone and, if you need help, whatever your problem is it’s not stupid.”

“It’s opening more doors for Indigenous people, especially younger ones, because we don’t have that much stuff in Darwin. A lot of people think we do but a lot of programs that have been made keep getting cut.”

Australia’s juvenile justice system contains two main principles: detention should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period.

While the numbers of children in NT detention are small – often fewer than 100 at any one time – the rates are troubling. The territory has the highest rate of youth imprisonment in the country and more than 96% of juvenile inmates are Indigenous. About three-quarters are on remand. Almost two-thirds are repeat offenders.

Cole estimates more than 750 children came through Balunu. According to a 2013 University of New South Wales review, 93% of Balunu participants over a three-year period came from broken families. Ninety per cent had alcohol problems and 68% had drug issues. Almost a quarter had experienced homelessness and three-quarters had reported thinking about or attempting suicide.

“The program has always evolved, from day one, around the needs of the kids,” Cole says. “We actually just went out there and said let’s see if it makes a difference, and it grew over eight years.”

Balunu has received widespread anecdotal support. Reviews of varying scope have positively assessed its outcomes – largely based on the reports from Balunu and Cole. An analysis by Flinders University was provided to government but not to the public.

A 2015 review noted that while Balunu showed promise, it had lacked integration with the justice system.

“That’s a fair call and very accurate,” Cole says. “We definitely want to integrate our program more into the justice system, into the Department of Children and Families, and work closer with these agencies on how we collaborate and strengthen the kids.

“The reality of that is we’ve been so under-resourced for so long that trying to work with over 100 kids with three people is virtually impossible for anybody.”

Starting with a $10,000 grant from Rio Tinto, Balunu eventually received $400,000 a year in government funding.

Annual running costs were about $1.3m, but it helped 60 to 100 kids a year compared with the just six or seven that amount would cover to keep them incarcerated, Cole says.

The justice and social services sectors are optimistic about an $18.2m a year reform package announced by the NT government in February. It was reportedly the single largest investment into youth justice in the NT’s history and focused on youth diversion and prevention, rather that punitive responses.

Within the reforms was an invitation to non-governmental organisations – bolstered by the return of their CLP-slashed funding plus an extra $1.2m – to express interest in establishing boot camps and wilderness camps as non-custodial options, as long as they were evidence-based.

“It doesn’t work if it just happens to be out bush somewhere under a tree singing Kumbaya,” said the chief minister, Michael Gunner.

Jared Sharpe, the general manager of the Jesuit Social Services, says while military-style boot camps haven’t been shown to work, rehabilitative and therapeutic programs such as Balunu have shown results.

Youth programs and bail support are immediate priorities, Sharpe says, but bush camps offer vital intervention, particularly for Indigenous children.

“Just as we’ve never had a real dedicated investment in youth justice, we’ve never had an investment in Aboriginal justice programs,” he says. “The territory is still the only jurisdiction without an Aboriginal justice program.

“That’s the space programs like Balunu can fill.”

Cole says he will be applying for funding under the new reform package and would like to work with government services and other NGOs “to look at how we evolve what we’ve already created that works well and how do we it it into this space to ensure our success is developed on”.

“We’ve already been discussing ideas around how we evolve the program – kids who are in touch with the justice system and kids who are at risk of that. We’d almost be looking at two focus areas of prevention and rehabilitation.”

Cole’s biggest regret is that Balunu was unable to maintain consistent follow-ups with all the children who came on the camp. Some high-risk youths found themselves back on the wrong path, he says.

Sharpe agrees that a lack of follow-through has been a problem and case management must be built into any future programs.

“What you’re gaining from that camp is taking a young person away from a tumultuous home environment and putting them into a therapeutic space,” he says. “You’ve got to maximise that and help that young person go back to their home environment and keep those connections in place.”

Mark and Tash are two young people who have gained from their time at the camp and used what they’ve learned to stay on track. They stay in touch with mentors – albeit informally in the years since they attended camp – and want to do the same for others.

And Mark has since returned to the camp as a worker.

“That was a good experience, not only for me but for the kids as well,” he says. “I could show them: what Uncle David’s telling you guys is not bullshit. It’s real, there are people you can talk to.”

Adds Tash: “Going to the Balunu camp has shown us we can all be strong, that we can’t let the world and everything everyone says about us and our people tear us down, because we are what we make ourselves.”

* Names have been changed

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Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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