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Legal service helping Aboriginal youths is forced to close

Legal service helping Aboriginal youths is forced to close

By Karin Derkley

Child Welfare Young Persons 

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Balit Ngulu, which closed down in October because of a lack of ongoing funding, would seem exactly the kind of service needed to keep Aboriginal kids out of prison and out-of-home care.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) originally came up with the idea of a legal service for young Aboriginal people when the service was acting for parents of children who also needed legal assistance.

Before the service was established in August 2017, conflicts of interest meant those young people had to be referred by Victoria Legal Aid to private practitioners, says VALS acting CEO Nerita Waight.

That meant they often got "patchy and inconsistent legal representation", she says. They also missed out on the culturally appropriate support a service like VALS can provide for clients dealing with non-legal issues, including trauma.

At Balit Ngulu (pronounced baa-lit noo-loo), which in Wurundjeri means 'strong voice', young people not only got legal assistance, they also got help from cultural support workers who helped them reconnect with their families and their community and get their lives back on track.

"It wasn't just about providing lawyers, but also about providing holistic support from a non-judgmental person from outside of the legal system, a friendly face they could talk to and who would support them," Ms Waight says.

Balit Ngulu's first year of operation was funded by the proceeds of the sale of a property. That paid for four lawyers, paralegals and culture support workers for a bit more than a year.

In the 13 months it was open, 110 young people came through the service's doors.

Balit Ngulu managing lawyer Leah Tolley says young clients were supported to comply with their bail or diversion order conditions. Every client was provided with a personalised family tree, a map of their country and their history, and linked with appropriate cultural services.

Young clients who hadn't been in a classroom since they were 13 were encouraged to go back to school. Children who had been placed with unknown foster families were returned to live with responsible relatives.

"If we were able to have an impact after only one year, just imagine what we could have achieved if given the chance to make intergenerational change over years," Ms Tolley says.

As the initial pool of funds dried up, VALS and Balit Ngulu went into action, talking to the state and federal government, to the Department of Justice and Regulation, and to anyone who would listen.

They hoped the service's achievements would win them the $1 million a year they needed to keep the service going in Broadmeadows, plus extend it to regional Victoria where culturally specific legal services are even more lacking than in Melbourne.

The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) got behind Balit Ngulu's campaign, writing a letter in July to Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula asking the government to commit to secure and ongoing funding to keep the service going.

Balit Ngulu's service represented "a crucial step towards creating safer communities and reducing the strain on Victoria's over-burdened child protection, youth justice and court systems", LIV president Belinda Wilson said.

Its work in keeping young people out of youth detention had saved the state nearly $1400 a day, while placing Aboriginal kids with a kinship network rather than formal out-of-home care saved nearly $55,000 a year.

But the pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

"We were really hopeful they would come on board with the extra money," Ms Waight says, "but unfortunately their view was that we should use our existing funding to fund the service".

The Victorian government said it provided $11 million in funding over four years to VALS and Djirra (formerly the Family Violence Protection Legal Service), with a further $2.4 million through the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement. "Extending the existing funding to Balit Ngulu would be a matter for VALS," a spokersperson said.

The Federal Attorney-General's Department said VALS should use some of the $21 million it got over five years to deliver culturally appropriate legal assistance services through the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program.

But Ms Waight says existing funding is already stretched to breaking point and VALS had to choose between supporting the adult clients of VALS, or the children and young people. Given that children invariably suffer if their parents end up in detention, VALS made the difficult decision to close down Balit Ngulu.

"Using VALS funding would have meant we had to severely reduce the services we could offer to Aboriginal people over the age of 18. We couldn't afford to do that in a climate where the state is taking an increasingly tough approach to law and order."

For now, that means four lawyers, the support workers and paralegals are out of a job, and young Aboriginal people are once again being farmed out to private practitioners funded by legal aid.

"That means they are receiving inconsistent legal assistance and none of the holistic support they were getting at Balit Ngulu," Ms Waight says.

The service is hopeful that funding may yet come through, and have hung on to the leased Broadmeadows building for now in case. "If funding were to come through we'd be ready to fire the service back into operation straight away," she says.

Read the LIV's letters calling for funding to Balit Ngulu.


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