Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions: monograph series no. 65

8.5 Homeland centres (outstations)

Page last updated: 2008

Homeland centres, or outstations as they are also known, have been seen as offering a means to combating petrol sniffing in Indigenous communities in two ways: first, as a primary preventative measure, in that families who move to homeland centres are less likely to be plagued by substance misuse; and second, as a remedial centre to which petrol sniffers can be sent for a time in the hope that they will mend their ways.

The 1985 Senate inquiry into VSM pinned great hopes on the homelands movement, describing it as 'the only apparent solution to petrol sniffing in the long term' (Commonwealth of Australia Senate Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes, 1985, p. 200). It did point out, though, that the homelands movement entailed problems of its own, notably with regard to provision of primary health care and educational facilities. Today, while some Indigenous families continue to prefer living in homeland centres to larger settlements, the suggestion that these centres constitute a potential solution to VSM in Indigenous communities is no longer being seriously promoted, except in those centres that house designated treatment or rehabilitation facilities, such as Mt Theo (see section 8.5.4 below).

Use of homeland centres for petrol sniffer rehabilitation received strong support from the Petrol Link-up team (Shaw et al., 1994), which argued that outstations gave young people a chance to 'get away from petrol and to become involved in more constructive activities', and at the same time allowed communities a break from petrol sniffers. Removal of sniffers to outstations was also seen by the Petrol Link-up team as performing a symbolic role as a 'statement by the community that petrol sniffing is not acceptable'. Sending young people to outstations reasserted the power of adults over young people. As one Pitjantjatjara man put it: 'They are not big men—I am a big man and I tell them what to do' (cited in Shaw et al., 1994, p. 15).

Outstations are important to Indigenous communities for cultural reasons. Travelling or moving to significant locations is often seen by Aboriginal people as a solution to substance misuse problems as 'the land itself is understood to nurture and heal those who live upon it and partake of its resources' (Brady 1995, p. 1494). Outstations have also often been the preferred strategy of communities (Divakaran-Brown & Minutjukur, 1993; Mosey, 1997).

Intjartnama outstation is one example of a cultural model for intervention into substance misuse. Elva Cook, together with her late husband, started caring for alcohol-affected people at Intjartnama outside the community of Hermannsburg around 1988 and took in petrol sniffers some time later. The program operated as an 'Aboriginal family group', utilising a bi-cultural approach combining Aboriginal cultural values and the family kinship system, with European therapeutic communities:

Recovery is achieved though helping the person to think about five aspects of healing: care for family, care for self, care for land, place and travelling, care for Tjukurpa (dreaming) and care of spirit ... (Cook, Cook, & San Roque, 1994, p. 42)
Top of pageAnother outstation was described by Bryce et al. (1991) as operating on a 'work model'. The model involved rounding sniffers up and gaining parental permission for their care at an outstation or other location with a bore, where they were nurtured and put to work so 'their lungs and noses will forget petrol' (1991, p. 60). These programs were usually run by a husband and wife team, who sometimes received funding for wages, fuel, vehicle costs and food. Girls and boys were usually segregated. The programs were popular because they gave communities respite from sniffers, safe in the knowledge that sniffers were in the care of kin. Bryce et al. interviewed people running these programs, who reported great satisfaction in teaching young people hunting skills. Bryce et al. did not comment on the success rate of these programs, although they did report that only a few months after one husband and wife team at Pipalyatjara failed to secure funding to keep 15 boys at their outstation, all the boys involved were in jail at Port Augusta.

Other positive accounts of the effects of spending time at an outstation may be found in the literature. Evaluation of a 'dry out camp' at Yalata and Oak Valley where sniffers spent 3–12 months showed that after attending the camps many young people became involved in positive community activities, helping the night patrol and attending school instead of sniffing (Sputore et al., 1997). Another project at Yalata involved ex-sniffers working with current petrol sniffers—a process that reportedly enhanced the ex-sniffers' self-esteem. A program in Far North Queensland where young people were taught skills for working with horses is described in the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee's report on petrol sniffing (2006, p. 88).

Despite their popularity and apparent successes, providing services in remote locations for young people with acute needs can be problematic. The literature suggests that three issues must be addressed in the provision of homeland VSM programs: firstly, funding, infrastructure and associated resources must be provided; secondly, a sustainable model is required to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of funding bodies and communities; and, thirdly, community support and involvement are needed, both in the outstation program itself and in developing follow-up and after-care programs for those returning from outstations.

8.5.1 Infrastructure and resources
8.5.2 Sustainability
8.5.3 Availability of support and after-care in communities
8.5.4 Mount Theo Outstation: a success story

8.5.1 Infrastructure and resources

Shaw et al. (1994) suggest that where outstation programs fail, they do so often because of lack of secure funding or through disputes over access to resources such as vehicles. A meeting of outstation managers at Winbarrku, organised by Petrol Link-up in 1994 (Petrol Link-up Project, 1994), concluded that outstations taking petrol sniffers needed support in relation to liaising with court and welfare bodies over referral and placement of young people, seeking funds, establishing income for young people in their care, and for facilitating information exchange. The meeting recommended that a permanent service be established to support outstations, a function now undertaken in Central Australia by Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS).

The experience of Ilpurla illustrates some of the difficulties outstations have experienced in caring for young people exhibiting risky behaviours with minimal resources. Ilpurla is a cattle station where as part of a petrol sniffing program young people are taught skills such as breaking in horses and maintaining vehicles and stock equipment (Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service, 2006a).

In 1998, Northern Territory Coroner Warren Donald held an inquest in Alice Springs into the death four years earlier of a 14 year old boy at Ilpurla. The boy, a chronic petrol sniffer, had died from loss of blood after punching a window while intoxicated from sniffing. Earlier on the same day, while still intoxicated, he had been placed at the outstation by a relative. Donald concluded that the boy had been accepted into the care of the outstation without any medical assessment of his condition, and placed under the supervision of people who lacked the necessary skills or training to identify or respond to his needs. Further, when the medical emergency occasioned by the boy lacerating his arm took place, the outstation did not have adequate communication facilities for obtaining prompt medical advice. (The outstation had no telephone, despite having been trying to obtain one for six years.)

The coroner found that the absence of trained medical personnel to conduct assessments prior to sending young people to outstations, along with inadequate communication technology at the outstation, contributed to his death (Donald 1998, p. 28). He concluded that, although outstations such as Ilpurla provided temporary respite, both for sniffers themselves and for their communities, they were not adequately resourced to meet the often complex psychological and medical needs of chronic sniffers.
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Despite the difficulties inherent in providing services at remote locations it is apparent that homeland centres used in responding to VSM must be not be located close to main roads or communities. They must be isolated to prevent people escaping and petrol or other drugs coming in (Mosey, 1997).

In Cape York, James has argued that there are significant problems associated with sending petrol sniffers to outstations, which, he contends, do not have facilities to give young people educational and life skills training they require (James, 2004, p. 9). Furthermore, he argues, as people cannot be self-sufficient on outstations, the model perpetuates passive welfare dependency. James proposes that young people who are asked to leave their communities as a result of petrol sniffing and associated behaviours be sent to appropriately paid and supervised host families in places where educational, training and work opportunities are available.

8.5.2 Sustainability

Homeland centre or outstation program models cannot simply be transported from one community to another. Programs must be developed in accordance with the resources, energy and commitment levels of local communities (Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, 2006). The support of elders is a critical element in all programs. Programs at outstations or homeland centres depend for ongoing viability on Indigenous people with appropriate relationships to the area being prepared to spend long periods of time away from their communities caring for young people.

Family members must also support the process. Walalkara, a homeland fifty kilometres from the community of Kaltkiti, was established in 1999 as a rehabilitation/respite centre for sniffers. The model used here was that families would accompany young people and spend two weeks with them at the outstation (Shaw, 2002). Family members were, however, reluctant to use the outstation, largely because they did not want to leave the community for an extended period. Similarly, an outstation for girls at Marla Bore failed due to lack of support from parents, who 'felt sorry' for their daughters and brought them home (and sometimes other girls also) (Stojanovski, 1994).

Homeland centre or outstation programs tend to operate episodically, when needed. They may close for periods of time and this makes funding them difficult for bureaucracies. Some outstations or homeland centres previously providing care for petrol sniffers have closed in recent years. Reasons for these closures are not always clear and in many instances government-funded evaluations of programs are not made publicly available.

8.5.3 Availability of support and after-care in communities

It is critical that after-care and a program of activities be available for people returning from outstations. The community at Mornington Island organised to send young people to camps on school holidays as a strategy to prevent petrol sniffing. The success of this program in reducing VSM among participants was undone when young people returned to the community where petrol was readily available (Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, 2006, p. 20).

8.5.4 Mount Theo Outstation: a success story

The program at Mt Theo is widely recognised as a unique success story in preventing petrol sniffing at its associated community of Yuendumu. Mt Theo has been taking petrol sniffers since 1994, under the care of Peggy Brown and her late husband. Yuendumu had 70 petrol sniffers at the time of program commencement but is now generally free of VSM. The program at Mount Theo has been documented by staff with long-term involvement (Preuss & Napanangka Brown, 2006; Stojanovski, 1999; Stojanovski, 1994).

Mount Theo is a sacred healing place with strong Jukurrpa (dreaming) (Campbell & Stojanovski, 2001). It is a considerable distance from the community and any main road, making it almost impossible for young people to leave without adult assistance. Sniffers and other young people at risk are taken there and looked after by tribal elders until they have recovered from the effects of sniffing. Activities at Yuendumu include gardening, Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), traditional activities and courses. After a month young people are allowed to return to their community of origin, but if they recommence sniffing they are immediately taken back to Mt Theo. While the program caters for all Walpiri young people, it has been particularly successful with children whose families were traditional owners for the area, because of their links to this country and their care during that time by family members (Stojanovski, 1994). As petrol sniffing has become far less prevalent the program has adapted. Mt Theo is now used as an alternative sentencing option for young people who would otherwise be charged with crimes and for people found misusing substances other than petrol. In 2007, 43% of clients were Walpiri young people not from Yuendumu and 74% were referred by courts or police as alternatives to incarceration or being charged (Mt Theo-Yuendumu Substance Misuse Aboriginal Corporation, 2007).
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Although Mount Theo has received funding for some years, the program has always been very much owned and supported by Aboriginal people from the Yuendumu community (Saggers & Stearne, 2007). Senior Aboriginal people run the programs and the relations they forge with young people are critical to the program's success. In the words of a program founder, Peggy Nampajimpa Brown:

I bin love the young people and make healthy. I bin care about. I bin ask all the church leaders to pray for young people and teenagers. I give them bushtucker, bush sultana, bush yam, goanna, kangaroo and wild turkey to make young people strong and healthy again (quoted in Campbell & Stojanovski, 2001, p. 9)
The success of Mt Theo should not be attributed to the outstation alone, but also to a range of complementary measures that have been implemented. These include working concurrently with all four Walpiri communities and Alice Springs agencies, the Jaru Pirrjirdi program (described earlier in this review), a seven day a week program of diversionary activities for young people in Yuendumu itself, and an 'education and outreach program' disseminating information about Mt Theo (Preuss & Napanangka Brown, 2006).

Staff have also stressed the importance of cooperative relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in running the program. Stojanovski provides this advice about sustainability for those wishing to establish a similar program:

While people like getting paid wages, wages do not carry the same weight and meaning as personal relationships. Wages will not keep my co-workers working through the difficult times. Emotional support and relationships of mutual obligation do ... This is what I really believe sustains our program. It is the love and the relationships that we hold for each other as co-workers and for our clients—the petrol sniffers. This is a difficult thing for governments to grasp. A structure like our program is easy to model and reproduce but the motivation care and love that holds it together is difficult to duplicate. My advice to people trying to set up similar projects is to sit down in a community for a long time, to build relationships, to never stop trying (Stojanovski, 1999, p. 26).