The alien memo
In April 2017 I celebrated my ten year anniversary working for Banksia Gardens Community Services in Broadmeadows.
I wrote this somewhat quirky piece for the organisation's 2016-2017 annual report. The starting point was the irony of my deeply felt sense of belonging to this place, particularly because I have come from so far away and because my scientific, secular worldview prevents any mystical interpretations of this.
That got me thinking about the good and bad experiences over the last ten years, and about what it is that keeps us coming back to work every day. That was the genesis of what follows, a fictionalised account based on real facts (and existing evidence available upon request) that may be a subconscious mechanism to to speak more candidly.
The next few pages contain the executive summary of a report intercepted from a transmission by an alien scientist. Following the usual sci-fi genre conventions, this formerly genderless creature was sent through a secret intergalactic portal (The Ideas Lab at the Hume Global Learning Centre) on a dark and stormy night. Before it could show itself it had to sacrifice a bald passer-by with a funny accent and squeeze into his rather small frame.
After this fastidious and messy event, overall it had been a great experience. Welcomed to the new land with open arms, he became deeply bonded to the locals, seeing himself as one of them, even if flags or nations were as foreign to him as all the strange sporting rites the earthlings observed.
Ten years into his assignment, the mission command centre sent him a message asking what to do with planet Earth:
We can see the human race is heading inevitably towards its destruction, but those dolphins are pretty cute. Shall we invade to save them all, or put them out of their misery? Please advise!"
The alien felt rather tempted to search the coordinates of the One Nation headquarters, the zap of one cosmic ray and the collective IQ of Parliament House would double!!
Instead he committed to compiling a report summarising everything he had learnt about the humans of Broadmeadows. If his fellow first wave aliens sent to all corners of the Earth did the same thing, surely the supreme rulers would be able to make a good decision.
Kidnapping the body (and the job) of a community worker over an extended period had significantly altered his perception, but he was determined to stick to the objectivity standards of his old profession. He decided he would draw conclusions emanating strictly from his first hand experiences, using bibliography produced by humans to provide context for his analysis and discussion.
It was a Friday night. The Turkish ladies had supplied him with a bucket full of his favourite human food (Bulgur and Dolma). He pressed play and started typing as the first notes of Marcus Miller’s bass guitar filled his ears. Ah, these humans and their contradictions… but gee, they knew how to enjoy life!
THE ALIEN MEMO
Drastic long-term inequality has toxic effects on many local human fundamental groupings (families)
Over the last ten years, I have come into contact with hundreds of small humans (children) who have been exposed to what can only described as complex trauma. Unfortunately, my experience indicates that most of this complex trauma originates in their home, school and neighbourhood environments: chronic poverty, family violence, maltreatment (abuse and neglect), death or serious illness/injury of a loved one, separation from family members due to incarceration or other child welfare removals, car accidents, fires, and, very significantly, community violence.
Comparing existing research with observed incidence I can only conclude that these trauma sources are particularly concentrated in Broadmeadows and the surrounding areas. Research indicates that children living in isolated, concentrated poverty are at highest risk for exposure to complex trauma. As poverty increases the risks of a child being exposed to traumatic events, it also tends to increase the severity of the traumas themselves. This resonates heavily with my experience.
Lack of access to therapeutic services (not necessarily due to lack of supply) compounds this heightened risk of trauma by fewer resources to cope with post-traumatic effects.
Another observation is the snow ball effect resulting from trauma. Traumatised humans are often physically unable to safely respond to normal conflict as a result of their chronic state of hyper-vigilance and emotional dysregulation. This causes everyday situations to bring about violence and aggression, which can exhaust and re-traumatise parents and family members, who can then become trapped in a tragic, chronic spiral.
The long-term, structural nature of this cycle is confirmed by research suggesting that people who grow up in segregated areas rarely leave these areas, which also aligns extremely well with my experience talking to parents who report growing up in the local area and in very similar conditions.
2. Hundreds of small humans growing up in Broadmeadows don’t get a fair go.
Humans have a unique and important ability to collectively believe in things that have no objective reality within nature. These human constructs include myths, religions and other creation stories. But they also include more contemporary human assemblages- law, money, nation, even ideas of human rights and justice.
One such inter-subjective phenomenon important to the Australian nation is the notion of a fair go. Many Australians identify their country as the land of the fair go, meaning an equitable opportunity, a reasonable chance and even-handed treatment for all. Unfortunately my experience indicates that this fair go does not extend to many humans growing up in Broadmeadows.
There is now a well-established body of human research linking exposure to complex trauma to physical changes that include modifications in the human brain’s architecture. This set of disturbing consequences include several categories of post-traumatic harm, studied through distinct biomarkers of stress from the neuroendocrine, immunological, metabolic and cardiovascular systems. These in turn can predispose children and young people to certain diseases, risk of alcohol or substance abuse, accelerated biological aging and increased risk of lifetime psychiatric illness. Moreover, other studies demonstrate transmission of trauma-related behaviours from one child to his own children later in life. Research also consistently shows that childhood exposure to trauma can profoundly disturb cognitive functioning, especially academic performance.
A great proportion of the children and young people I have been in contact with during this mission have life stories consistent with complex trauma. Quite often their behaviours can be extremely volatile and often contain violence and aggression. As a result of this, many adults who are in contact with them in their daily lives find it extremely difficult to have ongoing positive interactions with them.
However, with all the available scientific data available today, it is clear that these young people have extremely limited ability to modify their behaviours without intensive support. My experience indicates that in many cases, this support is not only not generally available, but its absence leads to exclusion from important human institutions such as schools, which should be acting as critical therapeutic milieus for these small humans.
For many children their school is a main source of consistently positive role models and interactions. However due to a complexity of factors, schools do not seem to be well equipped to cope with high numbers of children whose family circumstances can be described by the situations listed above. Under the current state of affairs I have witnessed the following problems:
- Extended periods of absence from school: Whether they are caused by truancy or by repeated suspensions, these periods are extremely detrimental for children, increasing their detachment from the academic environment. Often these children spend long periods of time unsupervised or exposed to the kind of traumatic circumstances which caused their challenging behaviours in the first place. Suspensions can also be interpreted as a reward for unacceptable behaviours for children whose school experience is not positive.
- Expulsions: Local schools are under enormous pressure, and balancing the individual requirements of these vulnerable students against the need to preserve the learning environment for other students is complicated. However, it is clear that, particularly in the case of primary students, the negative consequences of expulsions almost always outweigh their advantages considering the community as a whole.
Education offers a powerful intervention opportunity for trauma affected students. Levels of education are correlated to numerous well-being outcomes including economic participation, income, health, social participation, and preventative involvement in justice systems. Education is therefore crucial to social mobility and to a fair go. Trauma affected children suffer physical effects that significantly impair their ability to successfully participate in school. However, the local community is lacking systemic supports for these young people, which is placing them at a disadvantage. Trauma related disorders have devastating consequences but they are not irreversible, they can be treated effectively with a variety of therapeutic interventions.
3. Broadmeadows exemplifies wrong investment priorities in human societies.
The Dropping Off the Edge (DOTE2015) report, released in July 2015 by Jesuit Social Services, reveals little has been achieved over the past two decades to alleviate difficulties in the most problem-plagued areas of Australia. According to DOTE2015, those living in the Victorian top 3% of postcodes for disadvantage are three times more likely to be experiencing long-term unemployment or to have been exposed to child maltreatment.
The Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria (OBE2015) states that “while the public is understandably horrified by violent crime, we cannot keep pouring funds into a correctional system that is not making us safer”
According to OBE2015, Victoria’s prison population exploded by 25 per cent between 2011 and 2014. In this period, the budget for correctional services rose by 31 per cent to $1.04 billion. At a cost to the Victorian taxpayer of around $270 a day per prisoner, prisons are an expensive investment that yields extremely poor results, as nearly one in two prisoners are returning to jail within two years of release.
OBE2015 paints a clear link between disadvantage and imprisonment. For instance, half of Victoria’s prisoners come from six per cent of postcodes. Prisoners are far less likely to have finished school than the average Victorian and have dramatically higher rates of substance abuse, mental illness and acquired brain injury. Even more importantly, prison experience is often multigenerational: the children of prisoners are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their peers.
When the findings of these two reports are put together, the headline is quite clear: humans are doing nothing effective to improve the conditions of the most vulnerable in Broadmeadows. This makes the community less safe, and the response to this has been building very expensive prisons that not only make disadvantage worse but also act as ‘criminal training’ warehouses.
4. Broadmeadows personifies the crisis of the child welfare / child protection system.
This headline requires only a short explanation. Despite the commitment and the best intentions of many child protection workers working both for the Victorian Government and for community organisations, in the last ten years in Broadmeadows I can count the number of Child Protection / Child First interventions that resulted in clear, quantifiable and long-lasting benefits for the children involved with the fingers of my human hand.
This raises the question of whether, in the case of Broadmeadows, the Child Protection system is deserving of its name.From a legal perspective, what are the implications of our collective failure to protect these children?
5. Preserving human dignity should be a priority for all local agencies.
Another conclusion deriving exclusively from my observations: humans working for agencies providing support to disadvantaged residents in Broadmeadows and surrounding areas (community sector, police, health services and government departments such as Centrelink or Department of Health and Human Services) often show visible signs of anxiety and distress, possibly as a result of feeling overwhelmed by the volumes of people they need to support.
For reasons explained before, some local clients have a tendency to display higher levels of distress, sometimes manifesting as aggression. A logical but ineffective response mechanism to this set of problems is to dehumanise contact between humans, turning the support provided into a faceless transaction. In the worst cases, clients seeking support are just seen as an amalgam of problems and needs, and their humanity seems to be completely overlooked.
In a number of local services (e.g. Victoria Police, Centrelink, VincentCare), one symptom of this dehumanisation is a very low systemic degree of respect for the privacy and confidentiality of clients. For instance, clients are often expected to discuss extremely personal circumstances in open areas.In the best case scenarios, these conditions are just not conducive to productive human relationships. On some occasions, they can be highly detrimental to the self-esteem of vulnerable clients seeking support.
6. Broadmeadows needs vigorous and bald interventions.
The major social issues that have been described above require major, sustained interventions that need to be deployed with the kind of long-term perspective that is almost impossible to maintain for human political systems. Justice reinvestment programs and the deployment of all school strategies to implement trauma informed practice in local schools are two examples of initiatives that could have significant impact in the local area.
Another badly needed intervention would be decriminalising and regulating drug use in Victoria, using the resources that would be unlocked to break the cycle of disadvantage by improving opportunities for children and young people growing up in disadvantaged areas and by changing the focus of our prison system to prioritise rehabilitation and reintegration.
Substance abuse is a major social issue in Broadmeadows. I have never witnessed a situation in which law enforcement has effectively restricted access to drugs for anyone. The morality of the prohibition of drugs would be an interesting and relevant topic if this prohibition could be enforced. In their inability to enforce drug laws, humans are faced with the following problems:
Unregulated trade puts users, and people living in communities where drug trafficking is prevalent, at physical risk in a number of ways:
There is no way for users to know the composition of the drugs they purchase.
Drug traffickers are not obliged, and do not have an incentive to deny access to drugs to young people under 18, or to people who are severely intoxicated.
Sitting outside the law, drug traffickers often carry and use weapons.
Users often consume drugs in parks or public places and needles are not safely disposed of.
The secrecy involved in drug use makes it difficult for consumers to access proper information about drugs, their effects and support services available.
There are thousands of people making millions of dollars by selling drugs who not only get to take home 100% of their profits, but they also get to claim government payments on top of that.
More millions of dollars are spent on resources aimed at fuelling this war on drugs in the form of police, courts and prisons.
7. Broadmeadows is full of wonderful, strong and genuine humans.
This report paints a picture of a local community with severe structural problems that require urgent and vigorous solutions. While this is certainly true, it would be a grave mistake to overlook the enormous strengths owned by this community and its members.
The young humans of Broadmeadows are astonishing and magnificent creatures, capable of remarkable levels of compassion, forgiveness and joy often in the face of extremely challenging circumstances. Many of the adults have demonstrated super human resilience and stoicism. Having been a part of the lives of so many of them has made me a much wiser and better alien.
Dear supreme leaders, before I conclude, I have a question for you. What do I do with my human envelope? Do we recycle these things?