Tales of pain, hope in WA justice podcast

WA man Desi Farrell wants to help change the lives of Aboriginal boys caught up in crime and drugs.
WA man Desi Farrell wants to help change the lives of Aboriginal boys caught up in crime and drugs.

Desi Farrell was running into trouble.

A teenager living in foster care, Desi roamed the streets of Perth's beachside northern suburbs with his cousin, searching for cars to break into.

Spying a wallet stuffed with $50 notes inside one of the cars, Desi's cousin picked up a rock and smashed a window.

"All I remember is just running for our lives," Desi, now aged 22, recalls in the Stories from the Inside podcast by Social Reinvestment WA.

"The adrenaline was just crazy, man. Smashing that window and just running like you're getting chased by someone.

"It feels good, to be honest. We were only 12, 13, 14, and not having any money at the time - that was six, seven hundred bucks we could easily spend on food, clothes, shoes, whatever we needed.

"I wasn't scared because I guess just growing up, I'd had much worse experiences."

Desi's story is rooted in intergenerational trauma. His father grew up on an Aboriginal mission and was haunted by his experiences.

Both of Desi's parents "basically drank 24/7".

Eventually the children went into foster care, with Desi and his older brother separated from their younger sisters.

Desi's brother and cousins were going in and out of jail, selling drugs and bringing home brand new phones, laptops and clothes.

"Being exposed to that, it's sort of like 'man, these guys are cool, this is what I want to be like'," Desi tells AAP.

"I never had a father figure there so they were the people I looked up to."

Desi was on a fast track towards juvenile detention.

And the statistics don't lie. As an Indigenous person, serving time at Banksia would have left him far more likely to wind up in an adult prison.

But then came an unlikely circuit-breaker.

"In Year 10, I met a guy named Dennis Simmons who came to my school, spoke at our assembly and played the didgeridoo," Desi says.

"And it hooked me, because I'd never seen anyone play the didgeridoo in my life."

When Desi worked up the courage to introduce himself, it turned out they were cousins.

Mr Simmons, a Noongar elder who had been down a similar path as a younger man, took Desi and his friends under his wing.

"He spoke to us about walking into two worlds - the Western society and living in traditional country," Desi says.

"I had no one teach me about cultural things growing up. It was always just alcohol and drugs.

"I guess it all changed up with (meeting) him."

Desi immersed himself in learning about his culture. He began performing ceremonial dances. And he stayed out of trouble.

These days, he's studying to become a teacher and working as an Aboriginal education officer at his old high school.

"The Indigenous kids there, the boys, they share a similar background to myself - drug and alcohol abuse, foster care - so I can relate myself to them," he says.

"I try to put them on the right path, sort of what like Dennis did to me and the other boys."

WA has the nation's highest rate of Aboriginal imprisonment, putting about four per cent of its Indigenous population behind bars.

Social Reinvestment WA coordinator Sophie Stewart says Desi's story shows the importance of funding and supporting Aboriginal community-controlled organisations that can deliver culturally appropriate diversion services.

She points to the success of the Olabud Doogethu justice reinvestment project in reducing youth crime in the remote town of Halls Creek.

Working with 11 Aboriginal communities, Olabud Doogethu employed local community leaders to patrol the streets at night and keep children safe and engaged.

The project has achieved a dramatic reduction in burglaries, car thefts and other stealing offences.

Officers also launched a door-knocking campaign to educate people about COVID-19 when the pandemic hit the Kimberley region earlier this year.

Attorney-General John Quigley this month announced the project will be funded by the McGowan government as part of its Kimberley juvenile justice strategy.

Anchored by Ms Stewart and producer Elsa Silberstein, the Stories from the Inside podcast speaks to guests who have been imprisoned or otherwise exposed to WA's justice system.

The tales of trauma, abuse and addiction are often harrowing but the point is to humanise people who are often reduced to statistics.

"From the day they're born, some people have a much harder set of choices and a much more difficult life," Ms Stewart said.

"And when you get to know those people and their stories, it makes a lot more sense how somebody might end up in prison or somebody might end up in the justice system."

Another priority for Social Reinvestment WA is campaigning to raise the age of criminal responsibility, which currently allows for children as young as 10 to be locked up.

The nation's attorneys-general have deferred a decision on potentially raising the age to 14 until next year.

Having shared his own story, Desi hopes one day, he can shape someone else's life the same way Mr Simmons transformed his.

"He actually told me there's going to be parts where you can't change everyone's life," Desi said.

"I always tell them about opportunities - take every opportunity you get because you never know where it's going to lead you."

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Australian Associated Press