The West

Braving Broome after dark
Braving Broome after dark

It's just before midnight on Saturday on Anne Street in Broome, where groups of children are hovering under weak pools of light cast by a handful of poles.

Down the road, drunken teenagers circle on bikes, surrounded by older men holding beer bottles, their faces inscrutable in the dark.

HYPE worker Polly Banks' car slows to a crawl and pulls up next to four young women standing on the kerb. "You all right for a lift," she calls out, and they clamber into the car.

When they ask to go home she is relieved, driving them away from the madness outside.

Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 7pm until well past midnight, this is how HYPE workers spend their evenings - driving into streets no one else will go down to find children, pick them up and take them somewhere safe.

The Department for Child Protection developed Helping Young People Engage for the Shire of Broome in 2003 because groups of up to 400 youths regularly gathered on the streets after dark.

This month, the program was boosted with $200,000 from the Criminal Property Confiscation Grants Program until 2013 and handed to Save the Children to revamp and operate in partnership with Broome police, DCP, the shire and the Juvenile Justice team.

Ms Banks, Save the Children's senior project officer who came from a similar role in Kununurra, said the program targeted young people aged between 10 and 18 who were at risk of engaging in antisocial or offending behaviour.

Pairs of workers drive a car supplied by DCP, picking up young people to make them - and the community - feel safer.

This year, juvenile offenders were apprehended for almost half of all crimes in the Kimberley.

In September, children as young as 13 were responsible for a horrifying sexual assault on a 22-year-old backpacker who ventured into back streets of Broome on her way home from the pub.

The Shire has already announced plans to improve street lighting in the back streets of Broome, hoping it will reduce crime.

However, Ms Banks believes the vast majority of young people who loiter are not necessarily up to no good, but simply bored or escaping trouble at home. Picked up with her 15-year-old friend just after 9pm, Shantelle, 17, agrees that even though it is scary, many of her friends walk the streets at night "to get out of their bad situation".

"Some of them are in bad homes and they just want to get out . . . they have parents that are always fighting or using drugs," she says.

Shantelle has HYPE's number stored in her mobile phone because taxi drivers often refuse to drive down the back streets.

By 10pm, the HYPE phone is running hot and teenagers under the influence of drugs and alcohol are roaming the streets.

Ms Banks' co-worker, nursing student Ellen Piesse, fields calls as they drive back and forth between homes, service stations and phone boxes, ferrying as many children as possible.

If they come across young people in a well-lit area, they encourage them to call their parents. With just one car, they must quickly judge which children are most at risk of harm.

“Stay at your mate’s place until we come and get you – we don’t want you walking the streets,” Piesse tells some callers, who must wait up to an hour.

HYPE workers often find children as young as six on the streets without adult supervision and unable to identify a safe place.

In that case, they have to phone Crisis Care for help. Often, young people they strike up a rapport with will disclose sexual abuse, violence or thoughts about suicide.

“I spoke to one kid and said ‘what have you been doing today’ and he said ‘digging my cousin’s grave’ – he was 10 years old,” Piesse says. “That’s when it hits home.”

Close to 11pm, the police call. A group of nine young people has been spotted outside Chicken Treat and officers want HYPE to check on their welfare.

When they pull in, boys aged between 11 and 15 climb all over the car and beg for a ride to the skate park.

There is not enough room, so Ms Piesse has to ask two boys to wait under the lights.

At the skate park, it is well-lit but older boys are milling around and Piesse looks concerned.

“Can I drop any of you home … is there a house that you can all go to,” she says, but the boys shake their heads. “Make sure you stay safe … I’ll come back,” she calls after them as they melt away into the dark.

By 11.30pm, the phone calls have slowed but Ms Banks says they will keep driving. "If the phone keeps going, we keep going until 2am," she says.

Later, they will spend an hour writing reports about any issues of concern - valuable information which is passed on to other agencies every Monday.

Banks knows there are far more children on Broome’s streets than HYPE can cope with and wishes there were more activities for them to engage in – but funds are limited.

“I’d love to see two youth workers based in a well-lit park running evening sporting activities with kids at the same time as having two workers running the car,” she says.

HYPE picks up the last two boys from McDonalds just before midnight. David*, 12, is boisterous, saying he plans to be out all night.

He says his mum doesn’t care what he does and it’s safer being out on the street than at home: “My mum will be drinking … she always drinks – and they’ll be fighting,” he says.
When they get to the skate park, the other kids have gone and the lights are off and the boys peer uncertainly into the dark.

“Can I take you to a safe place,” Banks says, and they nod and ask to be taken to Matsumoto Street. There’s parties going on there, but at least they won’t be alone in the dark.

Picture: Chris Eon Mitskinis
The West Australian

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