NT’s biggest remote community Maningrida is trying its own solutions to stop youth crime, but is begging for help



In the Northern Territory’s biggest remote Aboriginal community, Maningrida, building contractor Bec Hammet had hoped to have finished constructing 12 new NT Government public houses in February.

But she said a surge in nightly youth vandalism over the last six months has set back the project until May.

The damage bill her Darwin-based company SH Build is now facing means it probably will not break even on the contract.

“Generally, in most communities we work at, there is an expectation that we’ll have some sort of damage to our site, which is sad, but this project in Maningrida has been the worst we’ve experienced in any of the communities we’ve worked in,” she said.

“We’ve had thousands and thousands of dollars of damage done to our materials, machines and vehicles totalled, the site offices broken into, our female camp coordinator is scared at night, the level of crime is just out of control.”

A fence is torn down, with two vehicles behind the fence near a demountable office.
A ute was recently stolen from SH Build in Maningrida, the NT’s biggest remote community.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

In the latest incident, another of the company’s utes was stolen by youths who drove it around the community and escaped injured after rolling it onto its roof on the football oval.

“We’ve worked in communities for 14 years, but we won’t work in Maningrida again after this contract,” she said.

But Maningrida’s problems are indicative of what is happening in remote communities, towns and cities around the NT, where community and business leaders are also calling for more government support and solutions.

Children ‘scared to go home’

Cynthia Brown, the coordinator of Maningrida’s youth safety night patrol, said the main change contributing to the problems in the community is a big increase in overcrowding in the community’s public housing.

Cynthia Brown in an orange polo shirt stands next to a four wheel drive and looks into the distance.
Cynthia Brown said overcrowding was a big reason for the challenges youth in the community are facing.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Maningrida’s population has swelled from 2,600 to 4,000 because people have returned to avoid the threat of COVID-19 in towns and because the wet season cuts off their more remote tiny homeland communities.

“We’re out until 5:30 in the morning each night and there are a lot of young kids that walk around at night because they’re too scared to go home,” Ms Brown said.

“There’s a lot of overcrowding in houses. We need more housing. There’s just not enough. There’s not enough food, not enough beds for them.”

She said when she has asked children as young as nine why they have broken into businesses and services they mostly cite boredom.

“There’s nothing in the community for them, there’s no activities,” she said.

She said she wants a lot more youth sports activities provided for them and youth safe houses to be built for boys and girls.

“Where they’ve got somewhere to sleep [and] eat, instead of roaming the streets all night,” she said.

Shops, health services, local council offices, aged care facilities and the school have all been broken into and damaged in the last few months.

Ingrid Stonhill runs the local Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, which has had nine of its Aboriginal ranger and other vehicles stolen and wrecked, and its Aboriginal art centre, including the works of local Indigenous artists, smashed up.

Ingrid Stonhill sits at her desk in an office signing a piece of paper.
Ingrid Stonhil, chief executive of Bawinanga, says vandalism is getting in the way of essential services for the community.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

She said constantly fixing the damage was chewing up so much money and staff time that the organisation can no longer effectively deliver essential services to the nearly 30 remote homeland communities around Maningrida.

“It means that we don’t have the manpower to get out to the homelands that need to have food taken out to them, we don’t have the money that we would necessarily have to go and do improvements on the homelands,” she said.

Attempted homegrown solution

Before Christmas, Bawinanga staff and community leaders tried an intervention by bringing troubled children out to a remote island off Maningrida’s coast for three weeks.

There they were taught culture and fished with their elders.

“We were just trying to change these kids and get them to think about the effect it was having on their families and to see if we could change their minds, but three weeks wasn’t long enough,” she said.

Two women in Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation t-shirt and polo shirt inspect broken windows on the side of a ute.
Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation staff recently started their day with the discovery of more broken windows.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Ms Stonhill said she had hoped after the Northern Territory’s royal commission into youth justice recommended more youth programs be funded to help break young people out of a cycle of offending, Maningrida would get more help.

She said she has contacted multiple government departments over the last few weeks.

“We’ve asked for help, I’ve begged for help, there is a part for us to play and we’re certainly willing to play that but we’re not the solution on our own,” she said.

“It takes a whole community and probably a whole government to address this. But there’s just nothing.”

The NT Territory Families Department told the ABC it is giving the Maningrida Mala’la health service $180,000 a year to provide community youth diversion programmes and it is funding a local council recreation officer to provide youth sporting programs.

It said it is spending $3.15 million a year on youth re-engagement and diversion programmes in the NT’s remote communities.


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