MHDCD Project

Qualitative Findings

Institutional racism, stigma and discrimination are common, marginalising and destructive experiences for Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities. Interviewees reported discrimination and stigma experienced on the basis of their Aboriginality, their disabilities, and in regard to the criminalisation of their behaviour, affecting their access to education, employment, housing and just legal outcomes. An assimilationist approach was perceived as still pervasive amongst many of those working within criminal justice and human service agencies, with little recognition of the ongoing impact of colonisation, intergenerational trauma, and grief and loss for Aboriginal peoples. The lack of understanding and recognition around cognitive impairment was perceived as a key problem exacerbating contact with the criminal justice system. The over-representation of Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system was described as normalised in every community and context we investigated. Disability emerged as part of the accepted overall presentation of Aboriginal people with multiple and complex support needs in the criminal justice system. The view that Aboriginal people with disability should be managed by criminal justice agencies, that this is ‘just how it is’, permeates all agencies’ practice. What emerged strongly from the data was the systemic normalisation of disadvantage, disability and offending, with the conflation of these seen most clearly in people with complex support needs.

Many Aboriginal people who end up in the criminal justice system have early lives marked by poverty, instability and violence, without access to good primary health care or early childhood education. What emerged from the qualitative interviewees is the way that an Aboriginal child with an intellectual disability or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) rarely receives early diagnosis or positive intervention, resulting in their disengagement or expulsion from school at a relatively young age. Drug and alcohol misuse by young people is a common experience, along with emerging mental health issues. Frequent out of home care placements, which break down resulting in homelessness, are often experienced. Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities were described as particularly at risk of physical and sexual violence from a young age, Aboriginal girls and women in particular. Increased police contact as a person of interest in relation to minor theft or public order offences is a common pathway, with the likelihood of a number of court appearances before a juvenile justice custodial period. Moving into adulthood, drug and alcohol misuse and mental health-related illnesses tend to worsen, often accompanied by increased experience of violence and self-harm, more serious offending and longer periods in custody. Trauma and violence emerged as common and pervasive experiences for Aboriginal people with mental and cognitive disabilities in the criminal justice system.

Other than occasional crisis-related admissions into hospital, there are reportedly few positive health and wellbeing options for this group. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation is often only available in a regional centre, which may be many hundreds of kilometres away, and even then, excludes people with a cognitive impairment. Mental health services are unable to accept people with drug or alcohol addiction. The few diversionary programs that aim to assist people whose offending is connected to their drug and alcohol addiction will not accept those with a history of violence. Incarceration becomes the default option in the absence of available or appropriate community-based care, housing or support. The multiple and complex support needs experienced by many Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system can then be understood as emerging from the siloed institutional responses to their circumstances; as in effect created from those responses. Negative, punitive criminal justice interventions rather than positive human or community based service interactions are the norm. Aboriginal people articulated the need for a holistic, integrated, culturally responsive model of care with rigorous client and community accountability to support Aboriginal people with multiple and complex support needs to reduce contact with the criminal justice system. 

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