‘Money holes’ in the dirt swal­low up kids’ fu­ture

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - VIC­TO­RIA LAU­RIE

The “money holes” form bizarre pock­marks around a large tree in Roe­bourne school’s play­ground.

On the red-dirt fringes of the Pil­bara school’s lush green oval, a dozen or more holes look as if an an­i­mal has dug them. But it’s chil­dren’s hands that scoop out the dirt to make them.

They take turns rolling coins into the hole, and who­ever gets their coins in best takes the lot. A child gam­bler can walk away with $90 or more, enough to buy the “ganja”, or mar­i­juana, that so many lo­cal chil­dren smoke ha­bit­u­ally, or narbi, the lo­cal term for metham­phetamines.

Roe­bourne kids know there is another way to pay for drugs: sex­ual favours. Po­lice have made two pre­vi­ous well-re­sourced at­tempts to break this dark economy in the past 15 years; then mid-last year, one child’s vic­tim state­ment set off a chain of dis­clo­sures across sev­eral Pil­bara towns. Roe­bourne is now at the

cen­tre of a child-sex abuse scan­dal the likes of which Aus­tralia has never seen. Po­lice ini­tially con­firmed 184 vic­tims, equiv­a­lent to more than 90 per cent of the town’s school-age chil­dren. They say more are com­ing for­ward.

For­mer po­lice com­mis­sioner Karl O’Cal­laghan, who over­saw the first leg of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said: “I can­not un­der­stand why we are not as a na­tion more shocked. When you look at the per­cent­ages, in the his­tory of po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion in WA, I’ve never known that per­cent­age of kids in a town of 1500. It’s phe­nom­e­nal.”

If it hap­pened in a Perth sub­urb, he said, “there’d be more noise (but) be­cause it’s an Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity and they are Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren we’re not as out­raged by it”.

O’Cal­laghan’s suc­ces­sor, the for­mer head of the Aus­tralian Crim­i­nal In­tel­li­gence Com­mis­sion Chris Daw­son, is less vol­u­ble by na­ture but he did not mince words when he flew to Roe­bourne on Thurs­day, his fourth day in the job.

Daw­son told a packed meet­ing of res­i­dents that al­co­hol, drugs and child sex abuse were of­ten in­ter­twined. He said he knew some chil­dren were get­ting mar­i­juana from adults, “and some of the older peo­ple are us­ing that in or­der to have their way, and that (re­sults in) harm, I’m not go­ing to kid you around with this”.

“Some­one in this room knows for sure who is dis­tribut­ing drugs,” he said.

On a school day this week, a group of Roe­bourne teenagers agreed to be in­ter­viewed: four girls aged be­tween 14 and 18 and three boys aged 13 to 17. Their group in­cludes tal­ented ath­letes, a few who at­tend school reg­u­larly and oth­ers who don’t. “I don’t go on Mondays be­cause there’s no kids around, they’re all home,’’ says one.

One teenager can­didly ad­mits she smokes cannabis most days, and feels too tired to go to school. One bag costs $50 and lasts a day.

“The school used to let us come any­way if we were stoned, and they’d give us a feed, but now they send you home if you’re stoned,” the teen says.

The record at Roe­bourne’s school is de­press­ing: on a good day, one in two high-school stu­dents turns up and last year’s at­ten­dance rate of 48.9 per cent is an im­prove­ment on pre­vi­ous years. The kids know the fig­ures con­firmed by po­lice: 36 men from Roe­bourne and nearby towns such as Kar­ratha and Wick­ham, charged with 300 child-sex of­fences. The num­ber of ac­cused has risen in re­cent months, The Week­end Aus­tralian has con­firmed. Rais­ing the topic elic­its em­bar­rassed gig­gles. When one girl looks blank, another ex­plains help­fully: “You know, rapists, horny bas­tards.”

Away from the other kids, a 17year-old girl de­scribes how three of her younger girl­friends would come to her place and, af­ter only half an hour, dis­ap­pear next door to visit a soli­tary Abo­rig­i­nal man.

She no­ticed they would emerge with money. She says: “I said: ‘Where you got that money from?’ They told me: ‘Our aunty gave it to us’.”

She was in­ter­viewed by po­lice, but is now hes­i­tant about giv­ing ev­i­dence. “It’s all tak­ing too long,” she says shrug­ging.

She won­ders out loud if the girls were has­sling the man for money. The girl is not alone among wit­nesses who feel un­der pres­sure or have clammed up. Po­lice are wor­ried. Some of the charges are his­toric and in­volve allegations of older chil­dren abus­ing younger ones. Perth Chil­dren’s Court is pre­par­ing to see men now in their 30s in the dock.

The crises that pole-axe some fam­i­lies are clear in the chil­dren’s con­ver­sa­tion. The morn­ing the 17-year-old girl spoke to The Week­end Aus­tralian, her 14-yearold brother was caught break­ing into a house. He was head­ing for court in the larger town of Kar­ratha with his nan who, like many Roe­bourne ma­tri­archs, finds her­self valiantly try­ing to raise mul­ti­ple grand­chil­dren.

It turns out another girl in the group has a 13-year-old brother caught in the same break-in. Asked if her brother was steal­ing for drug money, she nods.

‘Some­one in this room knows for sure who is dis­tribut­ing drugs’

CHRIS DAW­SON WA PO­LICE COM­MIS­SIONER

Money holes are the kids’ ver­sion of adult card games. As The Week­end Aus­tralian walked around the streets in the evening with a con­cerned par­ent this week, she pointed out a dozen adults crowded onto a porch, play­ing cards be­hind a makeshift cur­tain draped on a wire fence to keep pry­ing eyes away.

Chil­dren and teenagers sat on the road­side kerb wait­ing for the game to fin­ish late into the night.

Roe­bourne’s main street is tidy and at­trac­tive, but it re­mains a fron­tier town where money for sex has a long his­tory. When full cit­i­zen­ship rights were given to Abo­rig­ines in 1967, the right to buy and drink al­co­hol co­in­cided with the mass ar­rival of white male min­ers with cash to spend.

Carol Lock­yer, a wel­fare of­fi­cer and Gu­ruma woman, de­scribed what hap­pened next to doc­u­men­tary maker Frank Ri­javec in 2005 for his award-win­ning Ex­ile and the King­dom film on Roe­bourne’s Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory.

“The drink­ing rights came out, and be­cause the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple couldn’t com­pete with the big money that the con­struc­tion work­ers were earn­ing, the ex­ploita­tion of their wives and their chil­dren, well teenage girls and things like that just set in,” she said. “There was big money, con­struc­tion work­ers had noth­ing to spend it on. They lived in a place called Roe­bourne where there was noth­ing around them ex­cept this lit­tle place … So the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity just fell apart, ev­ery­thing fell apart.”

COLIN MURTY

The five teenagers who spoke to The Week­end Aus­tralian about the trou­bles in Roe­bourne this week

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