Yuwaya Ngarra-li: a community-led partnership to improve wellbeing and pathways out of the criminal justice system for Aboriginal people

Aboriginal people with mental health and addiction issues and cognitive impairment often end up in the criminal justice system in the absence of early intervention or community-based services or support. There are particular challenges facing Aboriginal people in remote areas, where police are often the only ‘frontline’ workers funded 24 hours a day and few specialist diversion or post-release services are available. This panel will discuss a partnership between the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) and UNSW that has grown from a qualitative research project undertaken in Walgett, NSW, that documented how prisons have become the institutions of default for many Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disability from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership aims to support a community-led response to the criminalisation of Aboriginal people that is holistic, culturally connected, rights-based and strengths-focused. Our panel is made up of a Gamilaraay Elder, lawyer and Secretary of the Dharriwaa Elders Group; an Aboriginal lawyer and Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership manager at UNSW; non-Aboriginal Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership manager at the Dharriwaa Elders Group; an Aboriginal AOD case worker in Walgett; and non-Aboriginal Yuwaya Ngarra-li research and evaluation director at UNSW. We will talk about our recent work engaging with police, court, legal, justice, education and health services in Walgett to improve the wellbeing and life pathways for Aboriginal people in Walgett, working together towards the Elders vision to restore a robust belonging to thriving families, community and country.

Virginia Robinson

Dharriwaa Elders Group
Gamilaraay Elder, lawyer, Secretary of the Dharriwaa Elders Group

A proud Gamilaraay woman, Virginia Robinson was born and went to school in Walgett, moving to Sydney to become a nursing sister at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where she worked for 12 years. Then she studied law and arts at Melbourne’s Monash University, graduating in B.A, LLB. Virginia has the distinction of being the first Aboriginal law graduate of Monash University. She returned to health after studying Aboriginal Health Management at UNE. Virginia worked in criminal and constitutional law for 5 years and then returned to Walgett to work for the NSW Outback Division of GPs in regional health management. Virginia worked with the Dharriwaa Elders Group closely during this period then joined DEG to work in culture & language before retiring. Virginia is now Dharriwaa Elders Group’s Secretary and assists the organisation in Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes and Heritage matters amongst other valuable work for her community. Aunt Virginia has worked tirelessly on projects to aim to support Aboriginal Elders to resume leadership roles in the community, keeping active and healthy, to promote local Aboriginal cultural knowledge and identity and improve access to justice for Walgett Aboriginal community.

Peta MacGillivray

Project Manager, Yuwaya Ngarra-li

Peta MacGillivray is a proud Kalkadoon and South Sea Islander woman and the Yuwaya Ngarra-li Project Manager based at UNSW. Peta is a lawyer, and has previously worked as a researcher on a range of criminology, legal services and community-development projects in Sydney and across Australia. Peta was a Field Researcher and Project Manager for the ARC Linkage Project ‘Indigenous Australians with Mental Health Disorders and Cognitive Disability in the Criminal Justice System’, which first introduced her to the Dharriwaa Elders Group. Peta’s area of legal practice specialisation is the legal needs of children and young people, particularly those experiencing social and economic disadvantage. For example, children and young people in the criminal justice system and the care and protection system. Peta is passionate about youth justice and children and young people’s participation in community development work. Peta is currently studying her Masters in Law (Criminology and Criminal Justice) at UNSW Faculty of Law.

Wendy Spencer

Dharriwaa Elders Group, Walgett
Project Manager Dharriwaa Elders Group, Yuwaya Ngarra-li

Wendy Spencer is the Walgett Project Manager of Yuwaya Ngarra-li for the Dharriwaa Elders Group. She is the founding Project Manager of the Dharriwaa Elders Group and brings small business and a background in community media and civic advocacy and development to her roles. Her company Heuristic Video provided video, graphics and later digital services and facilities to community, corporate and creative sectors from the early 1980s. She worked to advocate for and design a prototype Sydney community television channel and produced a series of groundbreaking health education products for the Redfern AMS in the 1980s and 90s. Wendy first worked in Walgett for the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service from 1995. The Founding Chair of WAMS, George Rose OAM, together with other Elders, founded the DEG in the late 1990s and invited Wendy to support their work, which she continues to further through the Dharriwaa Elders Group and Yuwaya Ngarra-li.

Kim Sullivan

Dharriwaa Elders Group, Walgett
Case Worker, Weigelli/Orana Haven Hub Project

A Gamilaraay woman who was born and grew up in Walgett, Kim has worked in various positions around Walgett including at the Hospital, the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Walgett Shire Council and most recently at the Dharriwaa Elders Group as Elders Support Officer. Kim would like to see alcohol banned in Walgett because she is tired of seeing her people younger than her ‘dropping like flies’. As a former alcoholic, Kim speaks with authority about this serious health problem in Walgett. She has pioneered a new program for AOD clients in Walgett employed part-time by the newly established Orana Haven/Weigelli Aboriginal Hub project under the Western Primary Health network, operating locally out of the Dharriwaa Elders Group. She has designed the program based on her lived experience and a central focus on building relationships of trust with clients who for the first time know that there is someone there for them on a daily basis. The team at Dharriwaa Elders Group is advocating to build a larger team around this pilot program led by Kim.

Ruth McCausland

Director of Research and Evaluation, Yuwaya Ngarra-li

Dr Ruth McCausland is Director of Research and Evaluation for the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership between UNSW and the Dharriwaa Elders Group and Senior Research Fellow in the UNSW School of Social Sciences. Her research focuses on young people, women, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, with a particular interest in evaluation and cost-benefit analysis of alternatives to incarceration. Ruth's PhD was on evaluation and the diversion of Aboriginal women from prison in NSW, and she also has a Masters in International Social Development. Ruth has worked as an evaluation consultant for government and non-government agencies. She was previously a senior researcher at Jumbunna, UTS, and research and policy officer at the Australian Human Rights Commission and NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. Ruth is Chair of the Board of the Community Restorative Centre.