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Ice breaker program restores pride


Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.29

Crystal methamphetamine (ice) use has surged in Mildura over the past year. Local lawyer Lior Maisner joined others in the profession on an outback visit to Indigenous rehabilitation centre Warrakoo Station.

It’s the last day on the court calendar for 2013 in Mildura. The local profession was invited to attend Warrakoo Station, an Indigenous drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre 120km west of Mildura into NSW. In attendance are various community stakeholders including visiting magistrate Amanda Chambers, court staff, Aboriginal elders of the Koori Court, North-West Law Association president Bert Hilton-Wood and others. Ordinarily, Aboriginal offenders find themselves bailed to Warrakoo [which has since been renamed Wiimpatja Healing Centre] from the Mildura Magistrates’ Court but on this occasion, it was time for the legal community to learn what it was all about. The station has existed as a rehab facility for more than 20 years and has earned its reputation among the bench as an effective centre to combat endemic substance abuse.

The locals are the Barkindji people. The Barkindji name identifies the local Indigenous population as those literally “of the river”. Unfortunately, substance abuse exists among far too many in the Indigenous community. In Mildura, a unified front between police, defence counsel, community workers, Department of Human Services and the Court is presented. Mildura has become the site of Project Ice, a community awareness program under the auspices of the Northern Mallee Community Partnership designed to holistically tackle the use of methamphetamine. The goal? To show those existing in a sub-culture of violence, substance abuse, poverty, institutionalisation and depression that improvement in their lives is achievable. On Barkindji land, Warrakoo Station abuts the Murray River. Part farm, part healing centre, the 2000-acre property provides plenty of space to develop as new human beings.

Passing a rusty gate as one enters, an outback oasis awaits. Tall palms tower over boarding houses and staff quarters at the end of a dirt road. Manager Keith Hampton formally introduces his crew. We learn that Warrakoo operates ordinarily as a 12-week program which includes counselling, psychological assessment, working the land, learning healthy eating habits and managing stress. Staff, in conjunction with the Mallee District Aboriginal Services and Mildura Aboriginal Corporation provide transport and other support services as needed. Due to an agreement with Centrelink, participants are allowed to continue receiving government benefits in most cases so that financial pressure is relieved on release. A walk around the boarding rooms show clean, utilitarian accommodation, an adjoining gym and recreation area. The process starts when a lawyer, community worker or other qualified person formally assesses a person for suitability. Participants do not need to be bailed to Warrakoo but can attend of their own volition.

The overarching focus of the program is “teaching fellas about their roots”. For up to 12 weeks, Aboriginal men live, work and learn free from substances and associated perils. Indigenous pride is one of the motivating ideals in the Koori Court which is then reiterated over the program. Each aspect of the program not only teaches the benefit of work but the responsibility of being the next generation to uphold the reputation of the people.

Further discussion turns to police and their involvement. A new team has been assigned and was there to demonstrate their eagerness to deal with Indigenous youth directly. These police officers will liaise with the community and offenders to encourage cooperation and coordination in addressing issues personal to the cause of crime. Diversionary measures are on the table for discussion.

We are invited outside for a demonstration of a seemingly less important element of the program. An elder moves to a table cluttered with the artefacts that have been created by him and some of the participants in the program. Participants must craft an artefact such as a didgeridoo, learning about the wood native to their people. Only traditional techniques are applied as taught through an involved and dedicated process. After the wood is finished, painting starts. Stories learned through the program are then graphically transposed onto the wood such as that of the rainbow serpent and the river. It’s a subtle part of the program but it helps address Indigenous property crime that is rife in Mildura. The aim here is to create a piece of property that the individual personally respects – in part for its beauty, in part souvenir, but also of monetary value. Participants learn the value of their culture in real terms and catch a glimpse of commerce in action.

When participants are not working, they are free to roam the land. I realise that very little exists out here to stress the fellas. They can develop themselves, talk about their issues and learn together of their rich heritage and ultimately, themselves. Other programs allow for attaining qualifications and further special counselling.

The Warrakoo Station Rehabilitation Program is anecdotally revered among magistrates and judges who have visited the Mildura circuit for, if no other reason, allowing offenders to leave the program knowing what life could be if they were to stay clean. Lapses are nowhere near as often once an offender has completed the program.

The Warrakoo Rehabilitation Station accepts referrals from a very broad catchment. Call the Mildura District Aboriginal Services on (03) 5018 4100 for more information.

LIOR MAISNER is an employee barrister and solicitor for Martin Irwin and Richards Lawyers in Mildura and accredited duty lawyer in Victoria and New South Wales. He can be contacted directly at


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