7th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Health Conference Kalgoorlie, WA

Day Three: Thursday 14 May

Key Note Adress

Page last updated: December 2010

Why aboriginal people must take charge of their own health.

Dr Sue Gordon AM, Children’s Court Magistrate (Retired)

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on and thank the organisers for inviting me. This is an environmental health conference and I am very pleased to be here. It is going to be a personal view of environmental health and I must say that my first work related contact with environmental health was with Dr Andrew Penman in the early 1980s in Port Hedland. He was with Community Health and he is now with the Cancer Council in New South Wales.

In that time I was with the old Aboriginal Development Commission and we took a lot of things for granted about our environment, our health and those sort of things and as regards to dogs in Port Hedland, the Rangers, just wanting to cull the dogs, all they wanted to do was shoot them - and then up fronts Andrew Penman.

He started to explain to people about diseases in dogs, right across Hedland and the Pilbara, talking and getting the trust of people and the communities. He spoke about what happens, about dog faeces on the ground, leaking taps, pools of water with children playing in it. I learned about hook worm, I did not know anything about hook worm. He explained to the people, the visual thing about plastic rubbish bags. He explained the effect and we went to the sea in and around Hedland and he actually showed us the effects on wildlife and that was the first time I had actually myself taken much notice of the stubbie rings, the plastic ones, the fishing lines, shopping bags, mesh, all of those sorts of things and he started to show us all of these things in the environment and the effect, not just to our health but to the animals around us.

No one had really explained diseases as such, he sat down, and I am going to give an example of what used to be called the Old Twelve Mile reserve in Port Hedland and then it went to its Aboriginal name of Tjalka Warra. He sat down and spoke to old Aboriginal Moses about how you cannot see the diseases; there is the skinless and hairless dogs and the dogs that have got sores. He spoke about all those things and then he spoke to them about those people who had station backgrounds; what did they do to animals, about animal dipping. And then he went out and bought a couple of old second hand barns and he put one at Tjalka Warre and started dog dipping and it was brilliant because people could equate to that. He knew about the feeling that Aboriginal people had for their animals especially desert people and older people. He explained to them again about hook worm and how it was in the Kimberley region. He explained about clean ups and clean ups were high on the agenda.

So he began the first environmental health worker program in Port Hedland in the early 80s. I have watched over the years since then and that work grows to people like yourselves who work in that area of expertise. The awareness amongst Aboriginal people and the fact that there is dog immunisation, dog sterilisation we did not have a lot of that in the early 80s. There were a lot of litters of puppies around, but we did not have all of that and a lot of that began as free. People, who can pay, can pay, and a lot of our people are earning good money so they can pay. They are understanding that it is a responsibility that we have in our own environment and it affects our health and it affects our children’s health.

As you know, environmental health is not just about dogs or cats. It is about our total environment health and how it affects our daily lives. The type of house you live in, big, small, humpy: is it suitable, is it just shelter? If you have got kids is it good for their health, it is safe for the family, do the toilets work properly, are all the taps working properly? If not, is there someone who knows how to change washers etc? If it is a community, is there an environmental health worker who notices these things? Is there dangerous situations?

I sat on the board of Homes West Commission, in Western Australia. Part of my job as a Commissioner on Homes West was to see all the housing. And some of the housing was just appalling. And that is just the white people. Then there was our mob with some of the bad tenants and there was a lot of dangerous situations that people were putting their children in. Rubbish, disease collecting. One of my pet hates is those wretched disposable nappies, all of those sorts of things.

As you know, I was Chair of the Task Force for Northern Territory Emergency Response. Regardless of your thoughts about that, environmental health also played a major part in that. Community clean ups, helping people to get a little bit of extra money to do some clean ups. School nutrition programs, which is about health, which is also about environmental health that children live in.

The housing has been a big worry of mine since I worked in the Territory, because it has been so slow, but the strategic alliance programs which the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth Government are doing with three major consortiums, is not actually off the ground as yet. So in the meantime, we have had a wet season and a dry season and people are still waiting for housing, but I believe that is going to start pretty soon.

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Environmental health is also something that I have had to deal with as a Magistrate during over 20 years on the bench and you are probably wondering what the hell have environmental issues got to do with a Magistrate, how do we deal with that.

In our criminal court, children who come from homes where there is a lot of drinking, drug taking or violence, all those things, what those kids actually live under are dangerous environmental health conditions. A house can be a two storey, two bathrooms, and four bedroom mansion and kept beautifully clean, but the children who have to put up with their family drinking to excess, drug taking and/ or violence are suffering in an environmental situation that is not conducive to good health. Coupled with that, you then get mental health issues arising for those children and the consequences, as you all know, are long term and can be intergenerational.

Parents often don’t think about the consequences of their actions and this leads me onto my pet subject of child abuse.

The hidden consequences of child abuse and the effects of the environmental health and health generally through child abuse is also long term and generational. Child abuse consists of neglect of children, which can be by not giving them regular nourishing meals, not giving them adequate clothes for the conditions they live in. Example, desert winters below zero and kids not having sufficient warm clothing. Neglect is also leaving children in conditions to fend for themself or leaving them with people who abandon them. These are all things that I dealt with in the Children’s Court over 20 years.

Long card games, long drinking sessions also lead to neglect of children and they are often put into an environment which is dangerous for their health. I have had to listen to that in court, where children because of long card games, which was in the Perth area, parents had left the kids with family who then decided to go and do something else and sniffers have been left in charge of kids and rapes have taken place. That is not the norm, but that can happen and it is not conducive to children’s health.

Physical abuse of children can also be as a result of environmental conditions, frustration, drinking, drug taking, intergenerational trauma and this is environmental health. Sexual abuse of children is just as insidious and can also arise out of environmental health conditions.

Overcrowding, the appalling and horrific overcrowding of Aboriginal people is well known, it’s costing billions of dollars, but it is still not enough. During the time we were in the Territory, the Territory Government said they need 5,000 houses to even touch the surface and they are not getting that, they are getting some. So, the damage in houses, houses that are badly damaged, houses that have asbestos, houses which are not good for the wellbeing of children; that also can lead to abuse.

Family violence, not just men attacking women, but yes, women attack men as well and again through drinking, drug taking, intergenerational trauma. The consequences are long term. Family violence can be fatal, and again, it affects children and it is the environmental health of children.

Violence amongst adults, if witnessed by children, puts them in an environment when after awhile they think violence is normal and they can suffer emotional abuse. I have had people say to me ”hang on, if they don’t see it what effect”. But children, even if they hear violence taking place, especially with family, they can suffer from emotional abuse.

Over the period I was a magistrate, I have listened to horrific evidence at trials, where we are required under law where the required standard is met to remove children from their families and given that I was removed, it is very hard to do. But in this modern world where families have ability and finances to look after children there should be no need for abuse of children. Families, black, white and brindle subject their children to horrific abuse of all kinds. I have had to see photographs of environmental conditions that children have had to live in, black, white and brindle.

I have seen environments and heard the evidence, seen videos of houses that are full of human faeces, filthy wet clothing, unwashed piles of dishes, absolutely appalling conditions, drug paraphernalia, and children are expected to grow up in that. Often those children have to fend for themselves. Happily, it is only a handful of children in Western Australia, because that is what I was dealing with, black, white and brindle whose parents subject them to this. I should not say happily, but it is happy that it is not a bigger group.

Environmental health covers a wide range of areas and of course, us older people, and I am now one of those, as my sons say “old people” such as myself have to also watch and consider our environmental health. I chair an organisation called Sister Kate’s Children, and we formally became incorporated in 2001. That’s the institution I grew up in in Perth, Queens Park. We have got part of the land back, we are building aged persons units, but we also look after each other in as much, most of my members are now over 70. We have a system where I ring three or four people, somebody else has got to ring three or four people, so there is this network of looking after each other. But also making sure their home environment is safe because older people get into all sorts of strife.

We started this in 2001 because we lost a couple of our boys, as I call them, who died at home on their own, because nobody really cared. Their familities had abandoned them and they just died in their home and that is very sad. So we have this where we go and we look after each other and we meet on a regular basis and if anyone wants a job done around the house and your environment is very important. It might just be that someone is getting very cluttered in the house and that is not going to be conducive to somebody who hobbles around a bit, you might start falling over boxes or piles of papers or something.

Now, my husband passed away ten years ago and having been together for a long time it was very hard. So I will just go back a little bit. In the late 1970s when my family found me, which was excellent in so many ways, it also gave me my family health background. Now, the Stolen Generation people have not found their families have no idea of their family’s health. I found out my mother’s diabetic problem and I was diagnosed as a diabetic, I never new a thing about diabetes. I did not know what to do, I did not even know what a Type 2 was, I had to go and find those things out.

Getting back to when my husband passed away, knowing I was a diabetic, I drank too much. I still went to work and I was still a magistrate and people could see this magistrate but nobody knows the baggage that comes behind us. No one knows about my background so to speak and I was a diabetic and people who drink too much, and you are a diabetic and don’t eat properly, you are actually trying to kill yourself. So I still had to work out how I was going to do this so basically I crawled into a bottle to drown my sorrows after I lost my husband, but then I had to jump back out of that bottle so it is almost like the genie in the bottle, because my environmental health was affecting me.

I took leave, I started to get my house back in order, I have always gardened and I have always had my own vegetable patch, so I started to get back into that. I still was down in the dumps, but my two gorgeous sons said “pull yourself together, Mum” or words to that effect. Boys are not very smooth about it, but that actually equated to a few weeks of my life and since then, I have watched my environmental health , I have two little Jack Russells, I’ve got grandchildren, I need to keep the place clean, especially when they crawl on the floor, because it immediately shows if you have not kept the floor clean, because they get dirty clothes.

I have a big family who visit and also because of my position, people expect a lot more of me and it is very hard for people to understand about what goes behind you because they have no idea, they just see this magistrate and you are supposed to be ‘wiser than wise’ and you have all of your own baggage that you carry around. But, it is your environmental health that you are living and working in.

So for good health, and I often have my grannies with me I also, about two years ago, I started carrying around my own anti- bacterial hand gel, because kids are always getting dirty hands and I started a bit of a trend in the Children’s Court and when I went to the Territory, the Australian Army is pretty soft because they all have these packs of anti-bacterial gel, washing their hands all the time. I thought, they are not as hard as I thought, so as an older person I had to make sure my home environment was suitable to me getting older. I have a one level house, have wide stairs at the front and a rail and wide stairs at the side and I can drive my car into the garage quite easily. I have two steps up to my back veggie garden and as I said I do all of my own gardening, then I can hear you thinking what has this got to do with environmental health.

Well, have a look at the face, some of you might have seen it. I have some super glue on my face and some stitches, I have a reddish nose with bits off it and here and I have half a black eye here, and no, I have never had a fight in my life, I don’t fight, but this Monday afternoon, I had just come home from a Board meeting and I had not been to the pub, I was putting my two Jack Russells around the side and they are usually very well trained and they usually just run around, I lock the gate and I can drive the car in. But the little one decided to come back under my feet, bang! Those of you who have fallen in your life will know straight down. I was laying there and the dog is licking me and I am thinking I have broken my nose. I could not believe this so was thinking what happens next.

I went all numb and wobbly, so I went to my neighbour and the bloody woman was out! I got my daughter-in-law on my mobile, lucky for mobile, she was fifteen minutes away so she came and my little sixteen month old grandson took one look and burst our laughing. Covered in blood, and that is the sympathy. I was at the local hospital, five minutes away, that’s why we bought the house there because the doctor was only five minutes away and the fire and police are all five minutes.

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So I am lying on the bed and the doctor said “I’ll do this, this and this, I won’t put stitches in.” In the meantime, there had been conversations with the other two grannies, said if they put stitches they have to put three as another granny had three stitches and she wanted me to be the same. The doctor said no stitches then he said to me there should not be any scaring so I said “does that mean I can continue with my modelling career?” When he finished laughing, he said yes.

The two little grannies in Perth, the 6 and 9 year olds, they reckon I look really cool and they want me to go to junior footy on Sunday, so the other kids can see me. It is embarrassing, I was at a Board meeting and a friend of mine said “have you been in a car accident” and I said “no, I fell” and they said “that’s what happens to old people” and suddenly you are labelled “old people”.

My eldest son at the hospital photographed me on his mobile and emailed it, whilst I am lying there, blood everywhere, emailed it to the other son. So I don’t know who has seen this email, former Magistrate Sue Gordon beaten in hospital, or something.

It has made me rethink my environmental health. My older son is a civil engineer so while we were in the hospital, waiting for the doctor, he has designed a ramp for the side and he said we should be talking about a frame. I said hang on, I just fell once. He said we have to start thinking about all these things. It is like I have suddenly become really ancient and I said look just hang on. He said no, no, we have designed the ramp and we will get it sorted out for you old girl – so there you go.

So environmental health affects all ages, but as an older person and now semi retired, although I work just as hard as I did before, I am more conscious of my environment. I sit on the Indigenous Implementation Board in WA, this is just another area that adds to the growing concern, especially older people and another one, which is very important to you is Judiciary in Western Australia have been pushing for absolute years, the requirement for more Aboriginal interpreters and this is also beneficial to the sort of work you do. There needs to be more Aboriginal interpreters.

I think that you all do a marvellous job because Aboriginal people taking control of our own health is just very important.

I don’t have a local Aboriginal medical service near where I live. There is one in Perth. I have a Chinese doctor which I have had for 30 years, we have just got old together. I think sometimes he thinks he is a black fella too. He is very good and I encourage all my members of the Sister Kate’s Organisation to make sure they look after their own health and their environment, where there health
is affected.

I think those are the sorts of things, I have tried to make this light hearted for you because I think you can get a bit bored with stats, I used to do that as a magistrate I think, but if anyone wants to ask me any questions I think environmental health is something we have overlooked for years, it is just of such a great concern and it is just so important. I cannot emphasise enough, after my time in the Territory and I saw the people who were doing the work, I just could not believe that we have not done this a long long time ago.

Thanks for listening to me.