What’s Going on With Aboriginal Youth in Australia?

This week in Australia, Four Corners screened a program called “Australia’s shame”. It confirmed what Aboriginal elders and leaders had been telling our nation for many years. They had stated over and over again that Australia’s juvenile detention program was costing them the next generation. But, sadly, the government doesn’t tend to listen to black Australian leaders.

No. It took an ABC hour-long episode to break open the case, and make it visible to conscious citizens.

And the footage we saw is astounding. Let’s just say, it’s way worse than the miniseries Orange is the New Black. But the critical word here is “juvenile” detention. Meaning everyone is under eighteen.

At the Dondale Youth Detention Centre, children were locked up in solitary confinement for twenty three hours a day, weeks at a time. They were housed in tiny dark, human excrement smeared holes without running water in hot environments. When accidentally freed from his cell one fateful night in 2014, the footage shows an inmate unscrewing a light fitting, and enact his pent-up rage against the walls that held him. The response? Eight minutes of tear gas exposure on all the boys in solitary confinement.

But the various events that led to this night were also outlined. Kids acting out. Violent retributions from the guards. How we are treating our most damaged children is basically by sending them to war.

In contrast, Sydney has various juvenile detention centres where children finish school, eat three meals a day and learn life skills in a relatively stable environment. It’s not Disneyland, but it’s definitely not Dondale.

Our federal government responded immediately, with the Prime Minister calling for a Royal Commission. And, John Elferink, the Northern Territory’s Correction Minister was sacked (by that, it means he retained his portfolios for Health, Children, Families and Mental Health).

But many people may be wondering what the fuss is about. So while the nation is open to listening, I want to outline some reasons that people working within the sector are spamming Australians with information, and hoping they will call their local member of parliament and add momentum while we can.

  1. Few Australians understand this, but Australia has two populations: a first world, and a developing nation one.

Within the literature, this phenomenon is called “The Aboriginal Disadvantage of Social Exclusion”, or “the gap”. Which tends to infer that the situation is created through exclusion. And, if you were thinking that, you’d pretty much be right.

This situation emerges not only out of British invasion of the land, but also from what’s called “White Australia Policy”. This  was entrenched in the first law that Australia passed in 1901 and was the big idea behind the federation of the states.

Through various laws and failure of approaches to this issue, we’ve managed to now get to a point where there actual clear difference in life expectancy. That means that on average, Aboriginal people live 10.6 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. But it’s often closer to 20, and in some places, maybe 30 years difference. The quality of life for Aboriginal people in Australia is also entirely different in many, many ways.

Now you might think here “oh that’s lefty propaganda”. Which would be rude, of course, but I guarantee that’s happening here. Well, my friend, Aboriginal leaders from both the left and right unanimously unite on the issue of “the gap” and how it has occurred. They may not unite on an appropriate response. But where we are at is entirely fact.

2.There are, however, many reasons for youth juvenile detention. Nobody is saying the boys are blameless. They have stolen property, damaged cars, and even in some instances, assaulted people.

And thus, there is no doubt the state needed to intervene. But how it does so with juveniles is crucially important. What these boys learn in prison will go on to form the rest of their lives. Here’s a little more information:



This might sound super depressing. But, I see it this way – if we can stop the cycle now, and if Aboriginal elders and leaders can work with the state to create new ways of helping angry, delinquent boys channel their strength into positive outcomes, then we are literally reversing “the gap”.

It’s too important a moment to miss out on.

I’m sure you’re asking here: what can I do?

At Common Grace, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice team has been working furiously to figure out what an appropriate response could be. Most of our members are Christian, and their interest is in promoting Jesus-like love in Australian society.

And that helps because 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people self identify as Christian. 

So this seems like an opportunity. And, we wanted to figure out how to resource our peeps to do something really tangible.

  1. We’ve joined with an organization named “Change the Record” who are calling upon the government to make this a state-wide, independent commission. It calls for targets to be set in regards to youth detention.

In my view, collaboration in Australia is important. We have a history of various Christian denominations working separately, and even sometimes against each other. This means that many initiatives weren’t accountable, and we didn’t promote best practice across the board. But “honour where honour is due”.

Change the Record has a long, brilliant history of engagement in this issue, and we’re calling upon all Christians to promote and support this initiative.

Let’s be clear, our action is not secretly motivated by evangelism or building churches. The church in Australia has certainly been guilty of this in the past. (And did I mention that 73% of Aboriginal people are Christian? That’s more than the general population at 61%).

This is about praying and acting to see “thy kingdom come”, in the Amos 5 sense of “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

2. And, Brooke Prentis, Common Grace spokesperson and Waka Waka woman has put out a statement calling churches to ready themselves to act on this issue.

I would love you to read her statement and pray about how you and your church can respond. Her words definitely ring true for me, after having interviewed 88 people in five cities who attend churches with Aboriginal senior pastors, and spending my time talking with many Christians about this issue.

“In community we know these stories – heartbreaking, sad and real stories… My heart and call is still for the churches to wake up to where Jesus is calling us. And to act. The churches continue to reduce funding to Aboriginal ministries, close down our churches, have us operating in derelict buildings, do not fully employ Aboriginal pastors, Aboriginal youth pastors, Aboriginal prison chaplains, Aboriginal court chaplains, and not support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership development. Sometimes churches don’t do anything at all.”

She also says this:

You can stand with us by contacting your own church pastor, head of church, minister or denominational leader and asking them to make a public stand for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in response to the Four Corners report. 

These are her specific asks:

  • Will they commit to standing up to racism inside and outside the church?
  • Are they open to listening and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters on how we can work together towards justice?
  • Could your church potentially fundraise to resource Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, churches, prison chaplains, court chaplains, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leadership Development?
  • Could your church look into grassroots efforts led by First Nations peoples that they could partner with and/or support?
  • How can your church continue to open its members’ minds in support of the ongoing struggle for minority and First Nations people achieving justice?
  • How can your church make opportunities for Christians to engage biblically with topics that are often put to one side, such as material issues of land rights, prisons, law and the distribution of wealth in Australia.


If we can’t talk about this stuff inside church, well, I don’t know where we can talk about it. If your church wants to move from singing about justice to actually doing it, Australians, this is your opportunity.

Sign up for more Common Grace updates here (at the bottom of this page).

x Tanya

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