The town we can’t for­get

Des­per­ate plea from Aus­tralia’s most dis­ad­van­taged town

The Courier-Mail - - FRONT PAGE - DAN KNOWLES

EL­DERS in Queens­land’s most dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­nity say they have lost an en­tire gen­er­a­tion to drugs, crime, vi­o­lence and un­em­ploy­ment, de­spite be­ing just a few hours drive from Bris­bane.

Chil­dren as young as six are keep­ing warm by fires they have lit on the street be­cause they are too scared to go home.

Shock­ing fig­ures from the State Gov­ern­ment show that 79 per cent of lo­cal kids come from homes with no jobs.

“It’s a lost gen­er­a­tion of our kids,’’ el­der Emma Ste­wart said.

THEY hud­dle around fires in the street, their lit­tle bod­ies shiv­er­ing in near-zero win­ter tem­per­a­tures be­cause they don’t feel safe at home. More than three quar­ters of them come from homes with no jobs. Chil­dren as young as six are lured into a life of drugs and drink, forced to turn to crime be­fore they are barely old enough to go to school. This is Cher­bourg, a town just a few hours drive from Bris­bane, but largely for­got­ten as it faces los­ing an en­tire gen­er­a­tion to drugs, crime, vi­o­lence and hope­less­ness. Of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment data has named it the most dis­ad­van­taged area in Aus­tralia, with com­mu­nity lead­ers blam­ing en­trenched gen­er­a­tional un­em­ploy­ment for its spot at the bot­tom of the pile.

Shock­ing fig­ures from the State Gov­ern­ment’s own De­part­ment of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Part­ner­ships show that in a town of just 1249 peo­ple, 399 chil­dren – or 79 per cent of kids – come from homes with no jobs.

Just 4.1 per cent of the town’s 18 to 24-year-olds are in work, study or train­ing, com­pared to 66 per cent of non-in­dige­nous Queens­lan­ders and 36 per cent of in­dige­nous Queens­lan­ders, while un­em­ploy­ment across the board is a de­bil­i­tat­ing 48.6 per cent.

Res­i­dents of Cher­bourg are also 13 times more likely to be the vic­tim of an as­sault or of­fence against the per­son, and 38 times more likely than other Queens­lan­ders to end up in hospi­tal af­ter be­ing at­tacked.

From the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion, el­der Emma Ste­wart said the town was now deal­ing with a lost gen­er­a­tion. “It’s not stolen. It’s lost. It’s a lost gen­er­a­tion of our kids to­day,” said Ms Ste­wart, who is also a com­mu­nity jus­tice group mem­ber.

RUN­NING RIOT

Chil­dren as young as six are turn­ing to crimes like ar­son, set­ting fire to the lo­cal school. Older kids are steal­ing aerosol cans from nearby shops and chroming, while oth­ers are sniff­ing glue and petrol, us­ing il­licit drugs and steal­ing cars.

Ms Ste­wart said shops in nearby towns had agreed not to sell aerosols to Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren, but some of their own dys­func­tional par­ents were buy­ing the deadly inha- lants for them in­stead. Po­lice were forced to send in a strike force to tackle a crime spree be­ing blamed on Cher­bourg teens, which ear­lier this year in­cluded re­peated ram raids by stolen cars as far away as Toowoomba and even armed rob­beries com­mit­ted by young chil­dren.

Among other in­ci­dents, po­lice cars, am­bu­lances and even the res­cue he­li­copter were pelted with rocks by outof-con­trol youths, el­ders said.

One am­bu­lance was car­ry­ing a small baby in des­per­ate need of hospi­tal care.

Nurses are be­ing es­corted in and out of town by se­cu­rity of­fi­cers af­ter re­peated in­ci­dents that are un­der­stood to have in­cluded an armed rob­bery by a child de­mand­ing a health worker’s car keys.

Po­lice say the trou­ble cen­tred on a small hard­core

(This gen­er­a­tion) is not stolen. It’s lost. It’s a lost gen­er­a­tion EL­DER EMMA STE­WART

group of teens, aided by a num­ber from out­side the com­mu­nity. One oper­a­tion in May re­sulted in 15 of­fend­ers, mainly teenagers, be­ing charged with 63 of­fences.

In July, four teens – aged 17, 15 and two aged 13, – stole a car in Spring­field, out­side Ip­swich, and led po­lice through nearby towns be­fore a stinger de­vice fi­nally stopped them on the road into Cher­bourg.

In Jan­uary, a group of 20 ju­ve­niles and four adults were slapped with 110 charges re­lated to steal­ing and us­ing seven cars in what lo­cal mem­ber and Op­po­si­tion Leader Deb Freck­ling­ton de­scribed as some­thing the nearby Mur­gon com­mu­nity feared was a “sig­nif­i­cant crime wave” that was “es­ca­lat­ing”.

A VI­CIOUS CY­CLE

Com­mu­nity mem­bers say un­less the cy­cle is bro­ken, and jobs, op­por­tu­ni­ties and hope is found for their young peo­ple, Cher­bourg will re­main a bas­ket case. Some el­ders tell of reg­u­larly find­ing chil­dren as young as six hud­dled around fires in the street in near-zero win­ter tem­per­a­tures be­cause they don’t feel safe at home.

They see the youths be­ing caught in a re­volv­ing door of frus­tra­tion, crime, jail and sub­stance abuse, re­peat­ing the mis­takes their then-teenage par­ents made be­fore them.

Pri­mary school­teacher and Wakka Wakka el­der Be­van Costello said the town has been wracked by “kids hav­ing kids” and a break­down in tra­di­tional fam­ily and tribal units.

He fears some­one will be killed by a stolen car or shot dur­ing a break-in.

Po­lice and oth­ers point to progress be­ing made – four young boys suc­cess­fully com­pleted a young mo­tor of­fend­ers course over the school hol­i­days – and youth jus­tice say they are deal­ing with a rel­a­tively small num­ber of of­fend­ers – 44 – for a dis­trict that stretches be­yond Cher­bourg to Mur­gon and larger nearby town Kin­garoy.

Mayor Arnold Mur­ray said the coun­cil is do­ing what it can; try­ing to cre­ate jobs and re­build the com­mu­nity with a proud sport­ing her­itage. He said the coun­cil was hop­ing to open a re­cy­cling plant soon that would cre­ate jobs.

But the town is still the stage for vi­o­lent bare-knuckle street fights that are filmed and pub­lished on so­cial me­dia and a tar­get for those who would blame all the dis­trict’s crime on Cher­bourg’s youth.

Ms Freck­ling­ton, the lo­cal MP whose hus­band Ja­son works on a farm owned by the coun­cil, says Cher­bourg is a good com­mu­nity be­trayed by a State Gov­ern­ment only in­ter­ested in photo op­por­tu­ni­ties and not mak­ing des­per­ately-needed im­prove­ments.

NO ONE LIS­TENS

As long ago as May 2016, the lo­cal jus­tice group wrote to the Gov­ern­ment’s own Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion ask­ing for more po­lice on the streets and cri­sis ser­vices that op­er­ated be­yond busi­ness hours.

“The coun­cil, Mayor, el­ders and di­rec­tors of the Jus­tice Group have all told who­ever will lis­ten to please con­sider ex­tra polic­ing or po­lice sup­port of­fi­cers … at night when most of the of­fend­ing oc­curs and young peo­ple walk the streets petrol-sniff­ing, smok­ing pot or van­dal­is­ing prop­er­ties,” they wrote. “No one lis­tens and ev­ery­one cries poor.”

A Palaszczuk Gov­ern­ment spokes­woman said: “Cher­bourg has unique chal­lenges that we are work­ing with the com­mu­nity to re­solve and we are con­fi­dent that our ap­proach is pay­ing off.

“It’s a shame, but un­for­tu­nately no sur­prise, that Deb Freck­ling­ton has de­cided to play pol­i­tics with these se­ri­ous mat­ters in­stead of work- ing with us.” Among projects listed by the State Gov­ern­ment are $1 mil­lion spent up­grad­ing the women’s shel­ter, im­prove­ments to sport­ing fields and back­ing to start the re­cy­cling de­pot.

But among the stark ev­i­dence of prob­lems, el­ders say they are forced to op­er­ate their own af­ter-dark street pa­trol to col­lect at-risk kids and take them home – if that is safe – or find them safety else­where. Long-term, they want fund­ing for a “heal­ing cen­tre” where tra­di­tional val­ues can be ap­plied to help sort their kids out and keep them out of ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion and jail.

“We can’t give up,” Mr Costello said. “These are our kids and our peo­ple.”

HARD TIMES: Elvie Salt­ner, 6, all smiles at home; (in­set above) the boarded up tuck­shop, and kids in the street; (far left, clock­wise from top) Be­van Costello with grand­chil­dren Dar­ius, 7, (front) Aquilla, 13, Quinci, 8, Macken­zie, 5, and Miha, 9; Mayor Arnold Mur­ray; Emma Ste­wart; and, a toy car among bro­ken glass and rub­bish in a front yard. Pic­tures: Lachie Mil­lard

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