WA centre aims to break violence cycle

Aboriginal men in Western Australia’s Pilbara have come up with a new approach to stopping domestic violence among their own — and their ambitious plan has the backing of the state’s highest judge and the chief judge of the Family Court.

An Aboriginal Male’s Healing Centre, hoped to be up and running in 2020 at an expected cost of about $20 million, will aim to provide an alternative to jail or detention for men who come before the courts or are picked up by police.

Those behind the centre hope it will be a prototype for other centres around the country.

Chief Justice Wayne Martin QC and Family Court of WA chief judge Stephen Thackray will be the centre’s patrons.

The planned centre represents the life’s work of Newman local Devon Cuimara, pictured, a Noongar man originally from WA’s south-west, who broke his own cycle of violence as a teenager.

Now in his 50s and happily married for 21 years, Mr Cuimara said the centre would be based partly on what worked for him — namely, his culture.

“I’m the son of a father, the son of a grandfather,” he said.

“I was a perpetrator. Intergenerational violence is what it is about.

“My father was violent and then I was taught to be violent.

“The concept of the Aboriginal Male’s Healing Centre is we’re not born violent. It’s a learned process. We call it a sickness.

“It’s a learned sickness, predominantly with men, and the intergenerational roots go back to colonisation.”

The two judges said they believed a “circuit breaker” to interrupt the cycle of arrest, punishment and re-offending would help many men behind domestic violence.

“(We) believe that a centre designed and operated by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people, delivering programs that are culturally appropriate to Aboriginal perpetrators is more likely to succeed in bringing about behavioural change than programs which are not culturally specific,” Mr Martin and Mr Thackray said in a joint statement.

The Shire of East Pilbara has provided 13 hectares of land near the Fitzroy River for the centre.

Mr Cuimara said the plan was for a 28-bed facility.

A team of architects and builders is working pro bono on the project, which has so far received $273,000 from the Pilbara Development Commission, as well as grants from Lotterywest, BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and others.

Mr Cuimara said men could be referred to the centre by the courts or police.

They would stay for a year working through a cultural healing and social program that would involve Aboriginal elders and traditional practices, he said.

The program would also combine clinical practices.

After the men left the centre, they would be provided with support for several years.

Mr Cuimara said a walk-in office at the Parnpajinya community would run under the auspices of the centre and men could approach it if they were having problems.

He said the residents program would be cheaper than sending men to jail, which often compounded violence.

The facility would not be secure, but the police would be called and a plan activated to protect women and children if the men decamped, he said.

Mr Cuimara said current services available to men struggling with violence issues were not relevant to Aboriginal men.

“In the Pilbara region, English is a third language,” he said. “They don’t even have access to a helpline that is conducive to the language barrier. They don’t have interpreters where these helplines are.

“So an Aboriginal male who lives out in Jigalong can’t pick up a phone and say ‘I feel so angry I want to use violence’.

“The gentleman on the other end of the line would be struggling to understand the individual at a language barrier firstly, let alone at a societal level and relating to it.”

Mr Cuimara said men were often left out of the domestic violence debate.

“The centre is about taking ownership, not just of our use of violence, but also the discussion,” he said.

Asked how big a problem domestic violence was in the Pilbara, Mr Cuimera said: “How long is a piece of string?”

Chief Justice Martin and Chief Judge Thackray said domestic violence was too prevalent in all communities, not just Aboriginal communities.

But they said in Aboriginal families it contributed to cycles of intergenerational violence, the possible normalisation of family violence, childhood trauma, family breakdown and a gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in WA courts and prisons.

“There are real advantages in a program which allows perpetrators of violence to live separately from their families without being sent to prison,” they said.

They said the proposed centre would allow courts to remove perpetrators from the family environment as soon as charges were laid instead of removing them from the community entirely by refusing bail, resulting in imprisonment off country.

It would also give courts more options in sentencing and men would get a chance to change their behaviour.

The facilities and programs at the centre could be integrated into the justice system through conditional bail, or conditions on non-custodial sentences, as well as other possibilities.

Wendy Caccetta

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