Before age 12, Karlie Stewart had already faced some of life’s toughest challenges. And by her 14th birthday, she wasn’t sure she would make it to the next one.
She grew up between Nowra and Sydney in a big, proud Aboriginal family, with ties to the Yuin nation and the La Perouse community.
She reflects fondly on growing up around cousins and culture, but there were real challenges too: violence, substance abuse and a last name that was familiar to police.
“[In] black families, it sometimes feels like it’s us against the world,” she said.
“We never, ever saw the police and thought, ‘they’re our friends’, or, ‘we could trust them’.”
By the time Karlie was in high school, she felt like she shouldn’t expect much from her life.
“I thought I would be dead. I think growing up, I thought, ‘I’m definitely going to jail.’
“Some of my earliest memories are of visiting people in jail.
“You think, ‘I’m gonna be criminal’ — not because you want to be, but also because you know that you’re black.”
Karlie’s brother, Trei Stewart, agrees that “growing up as an Aboriginal kid in this country was not easy”.
By the time high school rolled around, he didn’t know if there was much to live for.
“I lost a lot of my friends, a lot of my peers, a lot of my cousins … to suicide, prison.”
A fresh attempt at Closing the Gap
This week, the Prime Minister revealed a historic national agreement that promises a new approach to improving the issues Karlie and Trei faced.
All states and territories have agreed to the 16 targets in the overhauled Closing the Gap plan, which for the first time attempts to improve the rates of Indigenous imprisonment, out-of-home care, suicide and overcrowded housing.
The previous Closing the Gap scheme, established in 2008, focused on just health, education and employment, but in 12 years only two of seven targets were met.
Some Indigenous leaders have said governments will also need to address issues like mental health and substance abuse, if these higher-level targets can be achieved.
But Karlie believes change for Aboriginal youth will only happen when support is available on their own streets.
By 14, she was frequently getting suspended from school and had nowhere to live.
But then came her saving grace. She found support in her own community — a hostel, social workers, supportive teachers and good youth programs.
“A lot of the services that I was involved in growing up had so much influence over me and made me feel like I had the capacity to engage in our society and to go to school every day,” she said.
“Having a bank account, getting my licence — all the little things that we don’t realise are big things in life.
“A lot of services that showed me that I was worth all of that stuff … and so I think I always wanted to be a social worker because I wanted to give back.”
Now, having made it through high school and university, Karlie has achieved that dream. At 24, she is a social worker, helping other young people get the support they need.
Her brother, now 23, humbly describes her as “a pretty awesome role model for our people”.
‘That could have been the beginning of my criminal record’
Trei Stewart’s first interaction with police was when he was about 10 years old, after he removed hubcaps from some local cars.
“We were kids mucking around,” he said. “But, you know, that is technically a crime. That could’ve been the beginning of my criminal record.”
The Human Rights Law Centre estimates 65 per cent of prisoners aged under 14 are Indigenous.
“I’m lucky, you know, to not be locked up then and now,” he said.
“You look at all the statistics and I should be.”
Trei is passionate about mentoring Indigenous kids to make sure they don’t become one of those statistics. He’s now a youth worker and an ambassador for JustReInvest NSW, which runs diversionary programs.
He saw many young Aboriginal men fall into the justice system when he was growing up, and he believes much more can be done to keep Indigenous youth out of prisons.
The new Closing the Gap targets include reducing the number of young people in detention by 30 per cent by 2031.
Some Indigenous organisations are frustrated by a “lack of ambition” to close the gap in imprisonment rates faster.
Trei believes changing the relationship between police and Indigenous communities is crucial. He also wants to see the age of criminal responsibility lifted from 10 to 14.
“It costs half a million to lock up a child for a year. Imagine what that money could do in early intervention programs.”
Meeting targets requires big change
A council of federal and state attorneys-general will consider lifting the age of criminal responsibility next year, after this week deciding more work was needed to understand alternative justice arrangements.
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he did not support incarcerating young children, but the issue was complex.
“We need to look at diversion programs,” Mr Wyatt said.
“And I know that the work that the attorneys-general will be doing will be based on some conundrums that they will face in terms of the types of crimes, what they’ve got as alternatives and whether they will agree to a national uniform approach.”
The new Closing the Gap agreement promises to hand more control to Aboriginal-led organisations to help turn around the lives of Indigenous Australians, but so far there have been no federal funding commitments.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier in the week: “This isn’t about buckets of money.
“This is about changing the way we do things and ensuring that we apply the resources most effectively to achieve that.”
Mr Wyatt said the Government would make further announcements in the coming week about funding to back the scheme.