March 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Koori hearings

By Jenan Taylor
The Marram-Ngala Ganbu program is transforming the experience of Indigenous families in court

In the centre of Courtroom 1, a yellow stringybark table holds a possum-skin cloak and a coolamon packed with gum leaves in preparation for a Marram-Ngala Ganbu hearing. On Tuesdays, when these cases are usually heard, the shield-shaped table is ringed by family members, advocates, lawyers, Koori staff and the magistrate.

Before hearings start, Marie Sehgal, a Yorta Yorta woman and the court’s Koori family support officer, will usually lead those in attendance around the room, showing the court’s artworks to the brooding teenagers or parents clasping unsettled babies, and explaining their stories and the symbolism. These include the totems of out-of-home-care youths, a stolen child finding her mob, and an Aboriginal flag composed entirely of shirt buttons.

Those present learn, Sehgal says, bunching a fistful of the possum fur, that it’s okay to sink their hands into it for comfort or hold the table for strength. “It gives them a thorough understanding of Marram-Ngala Ganbu, but also, it relaxes them.”

Also known as the Koori Family Hearing Day, Marram-Ngala Ganbu means “we are one” in Woiwurrung. In 2016, Gunditjmara man Ashley Morris launched the program in response to calls for a specialist child-protection court by Aboriginal justice groups.

Most Indigenous people find being in court traumatic – it’s where a disproportionate number of their children become ensnared in the justice system. If children are removed, chronic physical and mental health problems, substance dependency and incarceration are among the implications.

Since Marram-Ngala Ganbu started, some 400 families have participated in its proceedings, which take place at the Broadmeadows Children’s Court, north of Melbourne.

Aside from providing the right setting, Morris, who is the court’s Koori services and programs manager, and his staff work with the area’s First Nations people before, during and after hearings to make sure cases are managed in a culturally appropriate and effective way. They meet with locals over a coffee, talk with women’s shelters and heritage organisations, and present seminars at agencies and libraries. The way Sehgal sees it, it’s about “the more support, the more advocacy, the more Aboriginal voice that there is for the family”.

Sehgal, who has a masters of social work, was taken at birth from her mother and placed in out-of-home care where she was moved around between institutions and foster families until she was 10 years old. “On court days, I’d be hysterical and refuse to leave the car,” she recalls. “Everyone would be saying things like, ‘Ooh, two more days ’til court,’ and because I couldn’t understand what it all meant, I’d be scared.”

Besides welcoming families to the hearings, it’s Sehgal’s job to build a rapport with them. This might mean helping new mothers get some sleep on a couch in one of the private breakout rooms, joining dispirited teens on the PlayStation in the playroom, or loading cups with steaming noodles for elders who have a long wait ahead of them.

Sehgal often wears black jeans, but never a lanyard or name card. Lanyards – government blue, sometimes candy-striped – usually garland the necks of child-protection officials and are the first thing families see in their initial, often-stressful encounter with the system in their own homes. “They’re overwhelming,” she says, worried about families aligning her with that power.

Multiple vulnerabilities, such as cognitive impairment and family violence, often layer the lives of the people Sehgal deals with. Because of this, she lets them know that extended family members and community elders are allowed to partake in Marram-Ngala Ganbu proceedings, as well as what legal support they might need and who they can see to get it.

To help parents get their lives on track and meet court expectations for potentially getting their children back, she sometimes helps with enrolling children in school, or scheduling alcohol and drug management programs.

Establishing whether a child is Indigenous is the first, indispensable step every child-protection officer has to take when they file a new court application. Without this detail a child cannot be referred to Marram-Ngala Ganbu, and those who end up in care cannot have a cultural support plan to buttress their ties to community and traditions. Still, Sehgal muses, some caseworkers don’t make the effort. “It’s just not good enough.”

Karyn Lloyd, a local practice leader for Victoria’s child-protection department, works alongside the staff at Marram-Ngala Ganbu with an eye to raising her branch’s cultural awareness habits. Staff shortages plague child-protection dealings, Lloyd explains, so she also keeps her caseworkers apprised of what’s needed for court cases to progress more considerately. She attends every Marram-Ngala Ganbu hearing day, and pores over child-protection reports before they get to the courtroom. “If the caseworker has noted something like ‘mother doesn’t see child’ on there,” Lloyd says, she has them spell out why. “Magistrate Macpherson will want to know.”

Kay Macpherson has been a magistrate for almost 30 years and has dealt with many Indigenous families. She believes mistakes have been made, and that disservice has been done to many, because of a lack of information and because no one thought to check with Indigenous-run services. The traditional courtroom layout – with families standing below the bench and behind lawyers and departmental officers – had the effect of muting people. But, Macpherson says, “Marram-Ngala Ganbu is a small start at correcting that.”

On each hearing day, the magistrate will ask new families around the table to introduce themselves: name, mob, totem. Then, she’ll remove her reading glasses and invite them to speak. A dad wants to show he is fit – steady job, owns a house – for custody of his three children, who were separated by a mainstream court and placed in different households in the wake of their mother’s incarceration. A tearful adolescent tells her sole parent she can no longer bear living as they do: she wants to go to school, she wants to be able to have regular meals. Some people will ask Aunty Rieo Ellis of Grandmothers Against Removals to advocate for them. Others, too intimidated to speak out loud, will ask Sehgal to convey their thoughts for them.

Macpherson may decide that a child can go back home. Other times, she’ll order that the child be removed. Sehgal will be there immediately, offering an arm to a disintegrating mum or dad before leading them into the breakout room, and later start calls to connect them with services.

Some families who live outside the court’s catchment area have told staff they were prepared to move house so they could have their cases heard at Broadmeadows. An independent social impact evaluation found that the Indigenous community believe Marram-Ngala Ganbu is giving them a voice and making a difference for their children.

Then COVID-19 hit. “Ms Mac had just started having participants in her non-Indigenous hearings sit with her around the bar table,” Sehgal says.

In a bright chamber behind Courtroom 1, Marram-Ngala Ganbu staff cross-check the contents of a stack of folders with the spreadsheets on their computer screens, as they work out virtual hearing lists for the coming month.

The pandemic has been a weighty challenge to family law proceedings, and hundreds of cases are being heard online. Many of those involved with the Marram-Ngala Ganbu hearing day don’t like it. “It’s hard,” Sehgal says. “Human interaction and the face-to-face stuff really benefit our community.” Nonetheless, she sees the merits of remote hearings. Because children awaiting case decisions experience added anguish, the court is increasingly using the online space to finalise cases. Also, the hiatus has given Sehgal time to secure new agreements.

Mothers and young people who have safety concerns can now partake remotely from the Elizabeth Morgan refuge. “In the past, they’d get a non-attendance check against their names, when really they were too fearful of facing their perpetrators in the car park or the foyer,” Sehgal says. “So, I’m really hoping that, post COVID, we can be a bit more flexible in how people are in the court space.”

Jenan Taylor
Jenan Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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