‘Money holes’ in the dirt swallow up kids’ future
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.”
The five teenagers who spoke to The Weekend Australian about the troubles in Roebourne this week