Denise Kelly is a Wiradjuri woman who has been working with Liz Mullinar’s Heal For Life Foundation since 2005. Denise is now translating her experience in culturally appropriate education to helping support Aboriginal people who are survivors of child trauma and abuse.
“I work with children in schools and I know some of these children have been abused, so a friend asked me to look at the Heal for Life program for an Aboriginal perspective.”
“Even though we’re all Aboriginal, we’re all unique and all from different nations so for me to go all the way to Katherine, that’s a lot of nations that I travelled over to work with these people.”
What might be considered an accepted and standard approach to working with survivors of child abuse and trauma might not, however, be suitable for remote indigenous communities.
A very large part of Denise Kelly’s role is around understanding and developing strategies that take cultural sensititivies into consideration.
“The main issue for me is that I can’t work with Aboriginal men.”
“I can work with Aboriginal males up to a certain age but going to the Northern Territory when they’re initiated is when I need to back away.”
“I can, and will, work with all the ladies, any of the women and children, but not the men.”
“With setting up programs I do them specifically for Aboriginal women and girls.”
“Where the men are involved, it’s up to me to find males that can work with males and then train them to be carers and facilitators to run the programs.”
“So when I next go up to Katherine I can take a men’s group and they go off in their own area and the women in their own area.”
“We’re trying to do it in a way in which we can heal a whole family but we need the men trained.”
“One of the differences in working with people in remote areas and here in Newcastle is that in Katherine, for example, we would ‘heal’ them family by family, but in Newcastle you’re working with people from different families and different nations that will come together as one.”
One of the great difficulties in helping people who have been abused is in finding out in the first place.
Many people have been reluctant to tell others about what they’ve been through and Aboriginal people, in particular, have been subjected to numerous forms of abuse and trauma over many generations.
“The protocols are through the elders. I work in with elders so I need to get to know them first and for them to tell me individually which areas I can work in with the young ones.”
” Some of the kids don’t talk to their elders, they will talk to somebody else but they need to be able to trust me.”
“It makes it easier for me being Aboriginal and something we’re very good at is what you would call ‘gut feeling’ but Aboriginal people instinctively know if they can work with you or not.”
“Every Aboriginal person I know has been through some sort of trauma or abuse and has had to hide it.”
“It’s time it was out there and shown to people. Other people might not even realise they’re hurting Aboriginal people so it’s time we had a voice.”
With the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse getting underway, will it be difficult to get Aboriginal people to tell their stories to the commissions?
“We’ll be able to help them but for them to talk to people in authority straight up – I don’t think they’ll be able to because if there’s just one person there that they know isn’t going to believe them they’ll think ‘well, what’s the point in telling any of them’.”
“There’s going to be many stories (untold). They need to have the right people sitting out at the commission so that these people can put their walls down and be able to talk.”
“They need to have sensitive people sitting there at the commission, not the hierarchy that usually do sit out the front.”
“I feel the abuse is still there, there are still kids being abused.”
Given the cultural sensitivities that Denise Kelly has to work with, what’s it like for a Wellington, NSW, woman to head to Katherine?
“It is very hard to go out of country. Very hard. Because I know there’s a difference within the Aboriginal nations and how they do things, the things they eat.”
” People just assume that in Katherine, for example, they eat kangaroo. I don’t eat kangaroo.”
” They might just seem little things but they’re big things to me.”
“I look up to the people in Darwin because they were allowed to keep their language, they were allowed to keep their culture, but I’m still learning my culture and learning my language, I’m teaching my language to the kids out my way.”
“I feel proud of the people in Katherine but at the same time I feel for them because their hurts are bigger.”