Friday, March 31, 2006

wannabe a foster carer?

Here's a possible beginning for my book, The Big Lie.

On July 28 2004, only two months before the boy then in my care made his first allegation against me, an article appeared in the local Messenger press. Under the headline ‘Foster Care farce’, the article by Kara Phillips and Alison Mitchell began thus:

Foster parent numbers in
Adelaide have plunged by two thirds in the past seven years, in a crisis for the state guardianship system.

There were about 900 carers of wards of the state in 1997 and now there are between 300 and 400, says Nina Weston, a former president of the Foster Carers Association, who is still a carer.

“Years of neglect, lack of resources, and mismanagement have all led to this disgraceful situation,” Ms Weston said.

Even Families Minister Jay Weatherill conceded the system had deteriorated although he blamed under-funding by the former Liberal government…’

The thrust of the article was that Foster Carers felt unsupported by the responsible government department, that they were expected to care for high-needs, often abused kids, without adequate training and protection, and without adequate information about the child’s background. It quoted one expert, Freda Briggs, a professor of child development, as pointing out that the government’s policy of reuniting kids with their parents had been disastrous. Some kids were being re-abused on home visits, according to Briggs, and the government, though aware of the situation, wasn’t following these matters up. There were also claims by social workers that children were being removed from abusive parents ‘far too late’.

Departmental social workers had too large a case load to be able to provide adequate support and guidance to Foster Carers, and overall the relationship between FAYS (Family and Youth Services) and Foster Carers had deteriorated markedly. The situation could only be described as ‘a mess’.

I read this article with great interest of course, but though I was alerted, I didn’t feel alarmed. Paul Rossiter, the boy in my care, was due to be fully reunited with his mother by Christmas, and he stayed with her on weekends, but though my Anglicare placement worker, Rachel Mann, had serious qualms about the reunion and whether it would ultimately benefit the boy, there was no question of him being abused on home visits, and though I saw little of Paul's social worker, Andrea, who was based in faraway Gawler, Rachel was always on hand and willing to listen to any of my complaints or anxieties. I did feel that Foster Carers were kept too much in the dark about their charges, but I could sense the rationale for this, that it was preferable for the carer not to prejudge the kid, not to be intimidated by the kid’s history. To preserve an open mind. Almost to see the kid as a blank slate. If I’d read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate before taking on the role of Foster Carer, maybe I would’ve been more insistent on examining not only Paul’s own troubled background but every leaf in his family tree, but I hadn’t and didn’t.

Even so, Paul’s mother, Rae Meredith, had provided me with a large volume of case notes, and there were also Paul’s own unreliable and repetitive memoirs. Though I quickly realized that everything Paul told me had to be taken with salt, I wasn’t particularly alarmed or disturbed, either by his doubtful versions or by the case notes I flicked through only briefly, always promising myself that I would make a proper study of them sometime. Basically, I felt pretty well invulnerable, encased in an affable, easy-going demeanour, proof against an access of viciousness. Of course I didn’t realize that it wasn’t viciousness I should watch out for, but callous, solipsistic disregard.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

rage against rage

The other night, watching some late news program, I saw the exchange between veteran journo Helen Thomas and George Bush which caused a bit of a stir about the place. I was rather taken by surprise by my own rage, whipped up by Bush’s angry response, whether artificial or not. Certainly my rage drowned out Bush’s patriotic righteousness. I bellowed about the Iraqi dead and the demonisation of a nation, I raved apoplectically about the regime’s insulting and insufferable lies, about the imprisonment and torture of those who stand up against foreign occupation of their country, the bullying and trashing of the United Nations and any other representative organization of weight that takes an opposing view, of the cynical manipulation of a supine yank media and a horrifically uninformed public….

And then upon recovery I tune into the mainstream yank press and read this awful piece of rubbish which I suspect is typical. The idea is that confronting Bush about his duplicity is not going to win votes, so the opposition should be more moderate. Calling a liar a liar is a form of extremism in American politics it seems, particularly if the liar is a Republican. The commentator is right of course, the American public is a dead loss, by and large. But those who are neither Democrats nor Americans have nothing to lose by telling the truth.

Of course not all American commentators are fooled. Joshua Micah Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, has this take on the altercation, beginning with these Bush claims:

"I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences ... and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it."

Of course, that's not what happened. We were there. We remember. It wasn't a century ago. We got the resolution passed. Saddam called our bluff and allowed the inspectors in. President Bush pressed ahead with the invasion.

His lies are so blatant that I must constantly check myself so as not to assume that he is simply delusional or has blocked out whole chains of events from the past.

When will this insanity gripping the mainstream American media and the American public come to an end?

Monday, March 27, 2006

the big issue

From Catherine via Sarah comes this piece on the student protests in France about young workers’ rights. There are some similarities with the Oz situation (in France the buzz word is flexibility – for employers that is), though some important differences too, with France’s youth unemployment being extraordinarily high. The dispute threatens to bring down the French government (according to some), with a general strike imminent.

Meanwhile at home the new IR laws are about to come into effect, and Greg Combet, interviewed on this morning’s ABC program, is castigating Labor for being too distracted by internal bickering and political point-scoring re the AWB affair to get any coherent message across regarding these laws, to mount an adequate critique, and to develop an alternative policy.

It certainly does look as if Howard is being dishonest, rather than naïve, about the way these laws will be used by big business, as this article suggests. He’s warning of a scare campaign from you know who, but it’s likely that the effect of the laws will be insidious and long-term. As Combet points out, most workers are already on agreements of one kind or another now, so the effect won’t be immediate across the board. With collective bargaining effectively dead, it’ll be hard to compare impacts. Workers will be on their own, and the new system will encourage them to blame themselves for any misfortunes they suffer. It’s a clever way of engineering individualism, of a kind.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Don’t read as much as I used to, and often have to force myself, and usually I’m glad to have done so. With Manners, a 1998 British novel by sometime comedian Robert Manners, I’m not quite sure. Picked this up from a second-hand shop, the one I used to work in, hunting for buried treasure. Hoping to be exposed to mind-altering ideas for a cheap outlay, in this case $5. ‘The writing leaves you spellbound’, proclaims one blurber. I must say I was left more bewildered and irritated than spellbound.

The book is intended as a meditation on good and evil, with the protagonist a policeman working a high-crime, high-risk area – where I’m not sure, but possibly London. Stood down and under investigation for killing a crim in the process of an arrest or an investigation or just while on patrol (the details are deliberately kept obscure), he passes into a dark night of the soul, during which he becomes a vigilante of sorts, kitted out in his banned police uniform, encountering various assailants, accomplices, victims, hanger-on and by-standers, and distractedly trying to solve crimes and retrieve his fallen estate via a police scanner.

The premise sounds promising enough, but I confess shamefully to a certain lack of sympathy for PC Manners. Partly it’s an ingrained lack of sympathy for the police in general, and for the motives for joining such a force (and the key is in that last word), but mostly it’s the authorial style and the nature of his character’s ruminations and behaviour. The mix of painfully naïve ‘analysis’ and street-wise smart-talk (much of which was incomprehensible to me, a combination of police argot, punk talk, regional slang and various unidentifiables which serious hampered the flow) might possibly work for a stand-up comic, but I found it increasingly grating. Perhaps, coming after Pinker’s The Blank Slate, the insights Manners scrabbles after struck me as too limited and dubious. In any case, I’ve never had much time for good-and-evil reflections – or rather, I tend to recast the material in my own very different light.

I’ve mentioned guilt feelings about not liking the book – after all, it’s about a struggling working-classer who happens to be a cop, who’s having woman probs and friendship probs, who’s critical of and sympathetic to housing estate culture, who gets mired in tragedy. Somehow, though, I couldn’t quite believe in him. I was irritated by a sense of performance from the author, and Manners’ irrational enthusiasms and strident if nervy opinions left me almost eerily cold. Just how sympathetic are we supposed to feel?

outcast from life's feast again

A moment of profound lust in hick town Amritsar

After a stultifying day poring over housing co-op accounts (though I secretly enjoy the play of numbers) I sat down with friends to watch my first ever Bollywood movie, Bride and Prejudice. I hope Jane Austen would’ve liked it – it was actually surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original, and though it was light-on and I much preferred the weight of the recent British production, I still felt the stab of recognition of the moral dilemmas – particularly in the Wickham-Lydia episode – that first exercised me as a sixteen-year-old reading one of his first adult novels, a sixteen-year-old keen to run away like Lydia, keen to have a love, or just a girl, to run away with. In spite of the delirious color and costumes, and the cast of thousands, and a few pretty faces, this treatment wasn’t really my cup of Darjeeling. There were a few references to reading, and Indian lasses with books in hand, but this was half-hearted at best, and Bride’s Darcy was straight out of Mills and Boon. I suppose the idea was to be relaxed and entertained, and maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. There were a few cracks at Americans, and Americanised Indians, but they were altogether feeble, and belied by the old-style Hollywood treatment of the plot. Sarah picked up on the similarity of Bollywood films to the Hollywood of the thirties, when depression-ravaged movie-goers lapped up the fast-talking antics of the class they presumably aspired to. The Elizabeth character (Lalita in this version) had way more substance than Darcy, on whom she was wasted, and some of the minor characters were fun in a meet-the-Fokkers sort of way, but that was about it for jaded moi.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

reveries of a solitary wanker - wank one

1989 - an individual in the process of becoming historical
I’m not at all sure how life is going at present. Of course there’s the absurd court case, and its consequences, which have been costly, and I speak only of the financial cost. It’s because of the case that I’ve moved house, moved back with Sarah, as ‘just good friends’, having virtually given up on foster caring in the future. Two can just about live more cheaply than one, and here I can help her with housework, the garden, child-minding and the like. I lead a busy life if perhaps not an entirely fulfilling one. In my fiftieth year I’m as sexually frustrated as ever, but with less hope in that arena than in the past, but I’ve become inured to this state and don’t suffer too horribly.

Of course, unlike a few other celibates, I don’t feel spiritually purified by my condition, but I’m realistic about the future. It’s likely that I’ll never have sex again, that I’ll never travel overseas or make a substantial living, in terms of the astonishingly high standard of living taken for granted these days by my peers and juniors. These are not so much my decisions as the consequences of decisions I’ve made, to dabble in blogging, to teach, garden and perform other tasks on a purely voluntary basis. Of course I would love it if I was commissioned to write a book about some inner or outer journey in space or time, but only famous and tested writers receive such offers, which is probably just as it should be.

For my sins I work one day a week in a community centre, but it really isn’t my cup of tea. Today, in fact, was the day. As voluntary help goes, I’m probably one of the best of the crop, but that isn’t saying too much. Many of the others are elderly and afraid to use the computers, or else they’re immigrants, and afraid to use the telephones. I potter about, troubleshooting a few simple computer problems, doing layouts for newsletters and such, and being a receptionist. I like it when the Chinese senior citizens come in and Mr Chen cooks lunch for them, and us, which at least saves me money and at best is a thought-provoking culinary experience – I’d never though of stir-frying cucumber.

I prefer Mondays, though, when I teach English there. There are three or four teachers floating around, and I’m supposed to teach the advanced students, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Often there are no advanced students. Yesterday I taught two Chinese women, one of them a newcomer. The classes are for English conversation, so the structure is minimal, and with new students I like to use the opportunity to talk to them about themselves, the country they came from, their reasons for coming to Australia, their impressions of the new country and other things about their background and experience. I suppose this lets me off the hook of preparing lessons, but it’s often interesting, even if only to observe people’s styles of avoidance, or forms of politeness. And occasionally, though not often, we drift into troubled waters. We spoke the other day of recent Chinese immigration and asylum-seeking, of those who arrived here after the Tianenmen Square massacre, though I didn’t mention a massacre, they wouldn’t have recognized the word, they knew so very little English, and it took a while even for the older woman, who hailed from Beijing, to catch on to the place I was talking about. I couldn’t give up on it, and finally their faces registered the story of students and tanks and shooting I half acted out for them. I’ve no idea what they thought of it, if anything.

It’s pleasant to have a captive audience. You can steer the discussion in any direction you choose – it’s all English after all, and you’re the only one at the table who can command it. Not that I take too many liberties, and anyway their swamped expressions hold me in check. I find though that most of my students, whatever their English level, are neither well informed about nor much interested in the broad political scene (whatever that means). Doubtless they have enough on their plate. I don’t talk to them about their sex lives, that’s one for the future.

Of course, talk of sex is verboten, I might be had up for sexual harassment, or attempted rape. My case is to be heard again on April 19, and I expect that once the DPP receives a report from the police photographers, their qualms will only increase. The boy’s story, or one of them, is that he escaped to his bedroom and locked the door after the initial attack in the toilet. The summary of evidence [sic] presented to me at my very first court appearance stated that ‘accused left toilet and victim went into toilet and locked door’, which was a different story from that told to me upon my arrest at the police station. Anyway, the summary of evidence version will now be shown to be false in one important particular – there wasn’t and never has been a lock on the bedroom door.

I imagine the DPP will have to confront at least the mother – how could her son make such a mistake? Is he still adamant about this part of his story? If he is, the prosecution will fail, or be abandoned, because the evidence contradicts him. His only hope lies in treating it as a trauma-induced memory slip, but this naturally raises the issue of what actually did happen after the attack? Did I follow him in and attack him again – the gist of his first story?

This is a key issue – or rather not, since there’s no lock to fit any key. My feeling is that, since this is one of the few pieces of evidence that has changed, it will have been dwelt on during questioning of the boy. I can well imagine him describing the imaginary lock in some detail to his mother, perhaps confusing it with some other lock in some other house he has lived in. Perhaps he even described me trying the lock, thumping on the door, or talking to him through it, threatening or pleading.

And perhaps by now his mother will have received the incontrovertible evidence that there was no lock. Will her animus towards me lead her to believe that I’ve changed the lock? But why would I do that since the main incident was described as having taken place in the toilet? Wouldn’t I be keen to tamper with the toilet door lock instead?

No, it’s more likely that this evidence will have jolted the mother, and shaken her belief in her son to the core. Hopefully someone will confront the boy himself with this key, or non-key, evidence. I would love to see him trying to explain it away. Perhaps the Big Lie is being exposed as I write.

Monday, March 20, 2006

let's agree, or else

Last week’s ‘Background Briefing’ program – we bloggers are beholden to the regular media for almost all our info – alerted me to the details of our federal government’s practical reconciliation push re indigenous communities. The key to the policy is Shared Responsibility Agreements, 120 of which have been signed since their introduction in 2004. The BB program was titled Shared Responsibility: Mutual Agreement, and as a long-term dole bludger I see the connection more clearly than most. As part of Mutual Obligation the Newstart/Jobsearch benefit recipient has to sign a ‘Preparing for Work Agreement’, which I think is an agreement with Centrelink, though it’s facilitated by a job network provider. Of course, once you find work, you’re likely to sign a Workplace Agreement with your employer, so there’s no doubt that society is becoming increasingly agreeable, thanks to the arrangements being put in place by our government.

So imagine my surprise on finding that many are feeling more aggrieved than agreeable about these agreements. Why might this be? Well, rather than tackling the massive issue of workplace agreements, let me focus on the other types, and no doubt connections can be drawn by the reader.

Unfortunately, for various technical reasons, I’m having trouble accessing the internet at present, so I can’t revisit the BB program or the Awaie program that followed up the issue, but one of the points made by Aborigines working with as much goodwill as they could muster under the new guidelines was the simple one that ‘it’s the only game in town’. That’s to say, it seems that, in order to access the government’s ‘discretionary funding’, Aboriginal communities have no option but to comply with these agreements. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the concept (though of course it doesn’t defeat the government’s purpose).

Often they involve ‘communities’ (it’s unclear who is or should be responsible for signing these agreements) agreeing to ensure the kids in the region attend school regularly so that they can access funds for school equipment or community facilities, such as a swimming pool. Other agreements focus on cleanliness, in an attempt to reduce chronic infections blighting communities. Many of these agreements have produced positive results. Yet there seems something crudely behaviorist about the approach. As with the Preparing for Work Agreements, it’s a bit of a numbers game, with the aim being to have good figures (of disease-free kids, of kids at school, of people in jobs) to present to the nation and the world, for minimal financial outlay, at the end of the financial year.

As I’ve pointed out, the government has arranged things so that, for Aboriginal communities (as for workers and the unemployed), these ‘agreements’ are not, realistically, a matter of choice. This government is obsessed with the rhetoric of choice, but the hard fact is that ‘discretionary funding’ means funding at the discretion of the government, which has all the power in the relationship. It’s the same of course with employers, who presumably are the authors of Workplace Agreements. Who, then, decides upon compliance, how is it monitored, and what assistance and support is given in achieving compliance?

Shared Responsibility: Mutual Obligation. The idea of working together, of sharing, of some kind of mutuality of concern and striving, is explicit, and yet the obligation on the part of the government appears to be purely financial, which, considering that the public expectation is that the most disadvantaged will receive support out of taxpayer funds, seems the least to be expected. In the case of mutual obligation, some might argue that the government’s part of this mutual thing might be to provide more than just a ‘discretionary’ subsistence benefit. That is, that they might be obliged to provide training or activities which might be more useful to them and the community than back-breaking dead-end jobs which get them off the unemployment roll.

Another obvious feature of all these agreements is the elimination of collectives. ATSIC is gone, and it seems that other representative bodies, such as Land Councils, have been marginalized, apparently deliberately, by the government. ‘Communities’ ‘agree’ directly with the government, just as employees ‘agree’ directly with employers, without the interference of unions. It’s so much more flexible. Aboriginal workers are being scuttled, their expertise and their skills rejected. Morale is being undermined, whether deliberately or through incompetence is difficult to say. Even the developers of this new way of dealing with indigenous issues are crying foul. It’s all very disagreeable actually. I hope to return to this matter, once I’ve informed myself a bit more.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

smoothing over the cracks

There’s no doubt that Condaleeza Rice is a smooth performer, as she showed in the interview with Kerry O’Brien the other night (always wonder though how staged such question-and-answer formats are, and funny how my suspicions are particularly raised when members of the Bush administration are under question), and this makes her remarks more worthy of scrutiny than those of her Prez [obviously] and of most other senior figures in his camp. Yet even so the glaring faults in some of her arguments could’ve been picked up by a smart twelve-year-old, and it constantly disappoints me that the media let these things slip by them – or are they under pressure to do so?

For example, when O’Brien raised the possibility that the US just might feel a bit responsible for the current mess in Iraq, Rice’s response was to point out that the Middle East had been in turmoil long before the US invasion of Iraq and that this turmoil had brought about the September 11 attacks and the Bali bombings. Now, quite apart from the egregious and insulting gaffe about Bali, the argument is dismal – though typical. The ‘Middle East’ is used as a blanket term to homogenize the region, which may as well be renamed ‘land of the barbarians’, so that Iraq is basically the same as Iran is the same as Palestine is the same as Indonesia (a big leap – but hey, they’re all Moslem so there’s no real diff), and its turmoil, and its hostility to the US, can be used, apparently to invade, threaten and harass at will.

It’s the journo’s job to cut through this obvious bullshit and to point out that the US in fact invaded Iraq, which had nothing whatever to do with September 11, and has all but ignored the nation which did actually produce most of those terrorists, Saudi Arabia, a nation with an undemocratic and oppressive government and a large population of Wahabist practitioners, in other words a breeding ground for terrorism which would constitute a far greater threat to the US, on just about any sensible analysis of the situation, than a contained Iraq. When something so obviously dishonest is going on, it becomes almost culpable for journalists not to ask questions – and these aren’t hard questions, they’re straightforward ones, given the facts.

The other piece of bullshit Rice trotted out, one trotted out by our own government regularly enough, is the claim that everybody thought that Iraq had WMD before the invasion. I well remember that pre-invasion period, and I would hope that everyone does. The UN weapons inspectors, under Hans Blix, were telling a very different story from the US ‘experts’, who were harassing them at every turn and ridiculing their requests for more time to do a proper job of inspection. The Iraqi regime’s attempts to comply with UN and US requests for full disclosure seemed to me quite genuine, if only because Saddam well knew the dire consequences of non-compliance. It was quite clear too that not only the UN weapons inspectors but the whole security council were feeling the heat from a massive and unprecedented campaign by the US to get what it wanted – UN ‘permission’ to invade Iraq. US bullying and hectoring of other member-nations reached new depths before the invasion, and all of this is fully on record. So why don’t journos come out and say this? I just don’t get it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lilya 4 ever – more environmental determinism?

Like Anh Hung Tran’s 1995 film Cyclo, seen recently, Lilya 4 ever, a 2002 film directed by Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson is an uncompromising study of environmental entrapment. Environment here must be understood not only as the physical environment, bleak as this is in both cases, but an emotional environment of poverty, neglect and positive cruelty. Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is an attractive sixteen-year-old in a severely depressed unnamed region of the USSR (the actual location was Estonia). At the beginning of the film she’s upbeat; telling her friends she’s going to escape to ‘the States’. She starts packing, but she’s in for the shock of her life. Her mother is about to betray and abandon her with her new love. It seems unbelievable, but it happens – though we don’t get much background about the betrayal.

Things get worse. Left alone in the none-too attractive ‘family’ flat, she’s soon visited by a none-too friendly aunt, who shoos her out to a more modest accommodation, a filthy decrepit bed-sit, presumably nearby. Lilya is still fantasizing about flight, but in the meantime she goes out on the town with her girlfriend Natasha (Elina Benenson), who has the idea of making money in good ole fashioned way. Lilya can’t go through with it but Natasha can, but when the money’s discovered, she puts the blame on her friend, who’s soon labeled a whore by the local likely lads.

Meanwhile, a younger street-kid, Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky) starts hanging around, at first in the hope of sexual favours. Soon, though, a real bond develops between them, as he’s the only person in Lilya’s life who makes no demands – at least of the sort that need to be taken seriously.

So, estranged from her deceitful girlfriend, discouraged at school, hounded by the local lads (who end up raping her), Lilya has little alternative but to try prostitution in earnest. While she’s trawling for customers she encounters a tall handsome young character, who calls himself Andrei, played by Pavel Ponomaryov, who appears to take pity on her, but in fact his real purpose is to sell her into sex slavery in Sweden. She falls for it hook line and sinker, abandoning the hapless Volodya (who commits suicide), and driving off with Andrei, into the promised land and a new job having something to do with vegetables. Andrei contrives to have her bundled onto a plane alone, and she’s met in Sweden by a middle-aged pimp who locks her in an apartment, only taking her out when she is to be taken to a customer. She makes a few attempts to get away, and after a final escape she leaps from a road bridge. We’re not sure if she’s going to survive.

On the bare bones of it, not a film to inspire confidence in human nature, and I wonder along with other critics about Moodysson’s claim that there’s a Christian redemptive theme running through it. However, it does capture well – in fact this is what lifts the film above the horror of its subject matter – how children, and indeed all of us, deal with extreme suffering. Trapped in Sweden, utterly friendless, completely isolated, sold to man after man, Lilya dreams of Volodya comforting her, his furry angel wings representing a kind of pure goodness and innocence. They play together on the roof of the abandoned building that they’d actually played on back in the USSR, and Volodya still has the basketball Lilya bought him from her first earnings as a prostitute (in fact the ball was soon punctured by Volodya’s violent father). Dreams of this kind come more frequently to Lilya as her life becomes increasingly grim. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Christian about them, but they do ring true. We naturally feel the harsh irony of Lilya creating an idyll of such pitiful material, but it’s the idea of the idyll that matters, a crystallisation of positive, warm feelings and memories, an intensification and exaggeration that enables her to transcend the abject reality of the present. It may well be that Moodysson was trying to suggest something more, especially as, in the final scene, when Lilya has jumped off the bridge and is being resuscitated by a medical team, we see a last dream sequence in which Lilya too has sprouted wings, but again I prefer to see this as an association of hope and happiness, an attempt at emotional escape and rescue.

A simple film about a real issue, (and the title refers to a decisive moment of self-belief in adversity which is in itself redemptive) Lilya 4 ever works painfully well, highlighting all too clearly the lack of choices available to so many people, especially children, in our most ravaged environments.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

keeping the ODPP honest

The appearance of April 19 will determine whether my case proceeds. In fact, each new court date will determine whether the case proceeds, because, as the prosecution policy states, ‘there is a continuing obligation to assess the evidence as the matter proceeds’ [my emphasis].

There’s a key statement in this policy which provides an opening to seek justice from the DPP for the trial I’ve already been put through:

A prosecution should not be instituted or continued unless there is admissible, substantial and reliable evidence that a criminal offence known to the law has been committed by the accused.

The fact is that a prosecution has already been instituted, whether it proceeds or not. Now, it may be that this boy’s story constitutes admissible evidence. That’s no doubt a technical matter for the courts to decide. However, there’s no doubt whatever – absolutely none – that it doesn’t constitute substantial or reliable evidence. The unreliability of the complainant would be reliably testified to by every single professional person – foster carer, placement worker, teacher or social worker - who has ever worked with him, not to mention members of his own family. And there is no other evidence apart from this boy’s story. It therefore seems to me that in instituting this prosecution, the ODPP has flouted its own policy, to my great detriment and continued suffering.

At least my reading in this matter has calmed my fears, and made me more confident that ever that, now that we’re approaching the pointy end of things, the matter won’t proceed much further.

a friendly police visit

A few days before the arraignment, the police came to my house, the one I’m moving out of, to photograph it according to a request from the DPP. So, some eight months after my arrest, the so-called scene of the crime was to be visited for the first time. The officer who set up the visit, Constable Welsh, was the junior member of the pair who’s arrested and questioned me upon my arrival at Port Adelaide police station. On the phone he was much more relaxed, even affable.

He arrived at the house ahead of the police photographer, and apologized for the inconvenience. I showed him in, showed him the toilet door, and happily answered his enquiries by showing that, though the door was lockable from the inside, it could be opened from the outside with a mere twist of a fingernail. This information correlated with the little liar’s claim that the door was easy to open from the outside. So, it was all up with me. Next, we visited the front room, Andrew’s old bedroom. This was a key piece of evidence for, though during the interview at my arrest there was some story of my later having followed him into the bedroom and raped him a second time, in the subsequent written report of the police, the story was somewhat different. Apparently I’d followed him to the bedroom but he’d locked the door against me. As I pointed out to my lawyer, there were no locks on any bedroom doors. I was now able to show this to the good constable, to his great interest. I then asked, naturally, ‘why didn’t you have a look at this before you arrested me?’ The good constable fobbed this off apologetically. Apparently they didn’t think it was necessary, that it would get this far. And yet they’d arrested me. For rape.

Still, I didn’t feel too enraged. He seemed like a genuinely nice bloke, and I was relieved that an authority figure in the case was for the first time willing to treat me without either hostility or bureaucratic blankness. At our previous meeting, he’d handled himself with great nervousness, trying to rise to the seriousness of the occasion and to do everything with technical exactitude. Now, rather to my surprise, I found him keen to talk, struggling with the need for circumspection. We made awkward small talk about the house, and the near-identical one next door which he knew I was moving into. I explained how we’d managed to fit the two houses onto what had been one block, against prevailing advice, and then I gave a spiel about how housing co-ops worked. We discussed the travails of the Housing Trust, a subject of some interest to him, as his police work often entailed dealing with troublesome Trust tenants.

Yet after a few enthusiastic minutes, our conversation collapsed. We were silent for another five. The matter of the case loomed like an iceberg between us, tempting collision. I finally ploughed into it, regardless. ‘Anyway, my view on all this is to be very careful of the stories kids tell you – because foster carers have no protection whatsoever.’ I could see he was totally sympathetic – though his blaming of the DPP’s office for the fact that this matter hadn’t been cleared up struck me as a trifle disingenuous. ‘After the Nemer case, things have changed a bit with the DPP,’ he explained. ‘They wanna make sure, you know? And then I’ve heard they’ve got a backlog of cases about two years long.’

The constable’s remarks have prompted me to further thought on this matter of the DPP. A couple of years ago a new DPP was appointed by the state government. This was part of their law and order push. The DPP had come under a cloud because of a few highly controversial and much-publicised outcomes, most notably the Nemer and McGee cases.

In a broadcast for Stateline on May 6 2005, a few weeks after my last foster-charge was taken from my care, and a month or so before my arrest, the new DPP, Steve Pallaras, gave one of his first speeches. If the government was hoping Pallaras would fall into line with its ‘get tough’ policies, they would be gravely disappointed. Pallaras’ speech focused on government meddling with his office, on lack of funding, and on the lack of consultation around the Royal Commission called into the McGee affair, which he described as essentially a ‘politician’s picnic’.

These fighting words probably represented a calculated risk on Pallaras’ part. To stand up to the highly popular state government like this would mean putting the DPP’s own credibility on the line. Whether or not the previous decisions of the DPP had been mistakes, it was clear that there could be no more ball-ups, even if only on the level of public perception. If this meant hanging some lowly, powerless, even if innocent, foster-carer, out to dry for a while, then so be it.

I’m not pretending that I’m a vital figure in any of this, or even a dust-speck on the horizon, but the politico-legal climate does have its role to play. However, the question of whether the political battles being fought by the DPP have had any effect on my case is impossible to answer.

It might be more fruitful to look at the logjam of cases the DPP has to cover, and their lack of funds to do a comprehensive job. During a Stateline discussion on whether or not the DPP was in crisis, financial or otherwise – a discussion in which my own lawyer participated – the presenter, Ian Henschke, said this :

It’s a DPP in financial crisis. In fact, I'll go back to the Watkins case.* The DPP told the widow that 'We don't represent you, we represent the state'. So, in other words, what they're doing is they're making a financial decision about how they're going to run the case on behalf of the state.

To which my lawyer answered:

That's a very small part of the considerations about that. The choice about whether or not to run a prosecution for a serious offence such as manslaughter is ultimately going to depend on whether or not there are reasonable prospects of securing a conviction.

It would seem also that the prospects of securing convictions would depend to some degree on their funding. This might be a happy prospect for me, but I also happen to think it’s outrageous that my case or that of anyone else should be decided even partly on the basis of the state of the state prosecutor’s purse. But then, I suppose it has always been this way.

*Refers to a highly publicized case in which Andrew Watkins, a thirty-eight-year-old father of two, was struck down while riding his bicycle and dragged for several kilometres by Andrew Priestly. Priestly was gaoled for four years with a two-year minimum, but this sentence was increased after a public outcry and a DPP appeal.

The SA DPP’s prosecution policy is available online. The document emphasizes the point that justice must come well before winning. The duty of state prosecutors is first and foremost to lay the evidence before the court to the best of their ability, and they shouldn’t be reticent in so doing – indeed some of the document reads as if the adversarial system doesn’t exist.

From my perspective, the most important section of this document is entitled ‘The decision to prosecute’, which starts thus:

A prosecution should not proceed if there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction being secured. This basic criterion is the cornerstone of the uniform prosecution policy adopted in Australia.


This first statement is opened up and fully explored in subsequent paragraphs. However, I’ve dwelt on this long enough, for now. Let me finish the story of the police visit.

‘Well, meanwhile I’m waiting to clear my name and get on with my life,’ I said, and he nodded and shrugged and made sympathetic noises. So I went further. ‘You know the terrible thing about this is that, if we could’ve gotten together the people who worked with Andrew – professionally – this could all have been cleared up in a couple of hours. It’s just such a waste. I’m not too worried, I know it’ll be thrown out eventually, but in the meantime, my whole life’s on hold.’

‘Yeah, well I’m amazed it’s still going, we’ve talked to everyone. Amber – you know, Amber, his social worker? And we’ve been asked to look further into the Victor Harbour stuff, they’re very interested in that, but I mean that matter’s closed as far as we’re concerned.’

All this chat came to an abrupt end when the police photographer finally arrived. He didn’t know me of course, and treated me with the usual sort of police suspicion and disdain. He photographed the toilet, the front bedroom, and the lounge too. He had a few words to say about the front room, but I didn’t listen. Things would take their course. Afterwards, Constable Welsh – I’m sorry I never learned his first name – bade me an awkward farewell, not quite feeling free to wish me good luck…

Thursday, March 09, 2006

arraignment day

I was hoping or expecting to go on to teach conversational English at the community centre immediately after Monday morning’s court appearance, which I hoped would be a formality. Yet I admit I was also half-expecting that it would be something of a trauma. As I think I’ve reported, we stuffed up our appearance, or rather my appearance, last week, so I had to reappear a week later. This time Sarah didn’t accompany me, largely because we already knew the matter would be adjourned to five weeks hence, due to the prosecution’s ‘qualms’. All I had to do, apparently, was enter a plea – again.

I arrived at court in plenty of time this time. Court 6 was packed with arraignments, and I was near the bottom of the list. Still I fondly hoped that I’d get bumped up as it was a mere technicality, half-dealt with the previous week. But that didn’t happen.

There were a number of people waiting outside. I betook myself to the toilet for a while – anxiety always goes straight to my bladder and bowels. Then I paced about in front of the courtroom. No sign of my lawyer. The crowd was building up. A court official started taking people’s names. I gave mine in. It was about this time that I spotted Lee, Andrew’s mother. This would be the first time I’d laid eyes on her since she picked Andrew up after the ill-fated Victor Harbour trip. My agitation increased markedly. The lawyer finally put in an appearance, explaining that I’d be ‘patted down’, asked to enter a plea, and then it would be adjourned. Simple. The lawyer disappeared again. A court official ushered us all into the courtroom. I found myself for a while directly behind Lee, uncomfortably close. More people piled in. I felt trapped, claustrophobic. I stood up and made my way back towards the aisle, so as to be ready and close to hand when called. The first name was read out. The charges were recited, something to do with assault or attempted assault, the threatening of life and limb, the likely gent pleading not guilty. There were the usual negotiations around the next appearance, and then the next name was read out. And so it went, driving a car as if it was a deadly weapon, threats of murder, indecent assault of the accused’s daughter on several occasions, from her fourth year to her fifteenth, the growing of commercial quantities of marijuana. All pleaded not guilty.

Though I often made an effort not to even hear the charges laid against all these worthies, naturally some caught my ears and like everyone else there I wondered. And soon they’d be wondering about me. The young woman next to me took a quick squiz at my dog-eared copy of The Blank Slate. Little did she know that I’d soon be in the dock, facing the charge of having anally raped a fourteen-year-old lad.

So to continue my tale of court. My lawyer turned up again about ten minutes before I was called up. A little before my arraignment, a tall well-dressed young man was had up on the charge of having had sexual intercourse with a fifteen year old girl, back in ’97 or ’98. My guess was that he was probably a teenager himself at the time. He was the only one of us to plead guilty. So presumably the former ‘girl’ was now pursuing the matter. Trying to wheedle a little dosh out of an old peccadillo? Then again, she might’ve fallen pregnant and had her whole life overturned by the event. Useless speculation but really, how few of these sorts of connections would end up being settled in a court of law. Chance or fate really does play a large part in this, the kind of girl you manage to score with as a raw eager teen, and the kind of kid you cavalierly take on as a foster carer.

My name was called. I was asked, like everyone else, to step outside through a side door where I was cursorily patted down. Inside again, I stood awaiting the reading out of the charge. I started to fold my hands in front of my chest, then I let them drop to my sides, then I held my hands together. I danced from one foot to another. I was bursting out of my skin with nervous energy. How desperate I was to tell the story, to have my day in court, though I knew this wouldn’t happen today, that it wouldn’t happen for months yet, if it happened at all. More likely it would never happen, the matter would be dismissed without my having to say anything other than ‘not guilty’, such a paltry response to all this horror. The case would be dismissed and that would be me, processed and dealt with.

I didn’t look anywhere but at the judge, though I didn’t take him in at all. My ‘crime’ was announced to the packed court-room. Rape was mentioned, and anal intercourse. I barely took it in, concentrating as I was on enunciating ‘not guilty’ proudly and loudly, with the right admixture of scorn and outrage. However, I did vaguely register the words ‘that you did, between [a certain date] and the 30th of September 2004’, which may not have quite correlated with the previous accusation. The little liar’s previous claim was, as I recall, attached to a precise date. I may have to check up with the lawyer on that one.

After a brief confab, the case was adjourned to April 19, early in the morning I think – again, my brain was fuzzed by a general sense of outrage and humiliation. I stumbled back to where I’d left my ‘the Big Lie’ folder and my copy of ‘The Blank Slate’. Lee, Andrew’s mother, was making her way out of the court, and she contrived to give me a dirty look. Could anybody in the world, apart from her, believe that little liar for a moment?

My lawyer briefly addressed me – he could perhaps see my aggravated state – about contacting him before the next appearance, and then I was outside of the court once more.

I watched my adversary, a dumpy and middle-aged woman with a hearing aid and a face remarkably or perhaps unremarkably similar to that of her morally deficient son, negotiating the wide beige stairs down to the Square. Out there was the city’s heart, our festival city, at festival time. I wouldn’t be attending much this festival. I had a running joke with myself that I was always particularly poor at festival time. As if I wasn’t always poor, mea culpa, but at least this time I had someone else to blame for the poverty and the low spirits that would keep me largely outcast from the city’s party.

Yet this lonely mother was outcast too – perhaps even more, or more permanently, than myself. I at least would feel at home, under usual circs, at the Persian Garden or the Garden of Unearthly Delights, I could hold my own at the after-show nightspots, hobnob half-successfully with the clever Dicks and sexy Sallys who proliferated around festival time. Lee, I fondly hoped, had no such skills. Naïve, fearful, limited, she likely saw herself as the poor but honest protector of a horrifically trammeled son, stubbornly determined to set matters to rights. And how convenient to discover that, for all her failings as a mother, the state or the foster-care system was so much greater a failure. She could feel almost saintly by comparison.

And yet, I’d been reading Pinker on the nature and nurture of children. He subscribed to the view, made popular and notorious by the psychologist Judith Rich Harris, that kids are less influenced by their parents than by their peers. Basically, parents obsess too much about how their kids turn out, and we all know how resistant kids can be to attempts at parental moulding. Parents often find themselves shaping their parenting style to suit the unique nature they gradually or not so gradually uncover in their kids. Could Andrew have a psychopathic personality (are there degrees of psychopathy?) explicable partly through genetic inheritance and barely attributable to his upbringing, or to that part of it which was under parental control?

I had to admit that I, too, wanted someone handy to blame. A part of me felt sympathy, albeit limited, for the middle-aged woman plumping grumpily down the stairs, while another part of me wanted to run her down screaming, ‘your son is a moral monstrosity, and you’ve created him, and I won’t stop until you’ve both been brought to justice for your crimes!’.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

evolutionary biology, behavioural genetics and some common sense

Here are a few disparate thoughts on reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.

With a light-headed ambition, Pinker tackles every controversy – educational methodology, the GM debate, abortion and the genesis of the soul, hyper-reality and cultural theory, and that’s all in one short chapter. I agree with much of what he says, so the whirlwind-tour approach doesn’t bother me too much, but, as with that other ideas populist Daniel Dennett, his slickness occasionally seems glib, and his elitism is just a little suspect. Dennett’s book Elbow Room, a defence of ‘soft determinism’ (in which you can have your determinism and your free will too) was a reasonable book as far as it went, but as I recall it was quite dismissive of what might be called ‘social determinism’, the possibly ‘hard determinist’ view that people who commit crimes often do so because of their social and family background, the cycle of violence they’re in, their entrapment, their lack of alternatives, role models and the like. Of course, Dennett, along with his soul-mate Pinker, accepts that these are issues, and he makes all the right liberal noises about improvements in education and living standards and nutrition, but doesn’t dwell on the matter for too long. He wants to make the point that the criminal can always choose to do otherwise, in line with soft determinism. I would want to make the point that the fact that, for whatever reasons, people in these ‘trapped’ environments so often choose not to do the ‘right’ thing, in spite of the near-inevitability of severe punishment, is a far more important issue than the question of whether soft or hard determinism is correct.

With Pinker, also, there's an apparent need to score points and victories which leads him on occasion to deal with important issues with a crassness and inhumanity that makes my blood boil.

Take this passage from The Blank Slate, which I feel, could only have come from someone born in a world cushioned from real deprivation and stultification:

The most risible pretexts for bad behaviour in recent decades come not from biological determinism but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics, and different cultural mores…. Just in the week I wrote this paragraph, two new examples appeared in the newspapers. One is from a clinical psychologist who ‘seeks out a dialogue’ with repeat murderers to help them with mitigation, clemency, or an appeal. It manages to pack the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, the moralistic fallacy, and environmental determinism into a single passage:

Most people don’t commit horrendous crimes without profoundly damaging things happening to them. It isn’t that monsters are being born right and left. It’s that children are being born right and left and are being subjected to horrible things. As a consequence, they end up doing horrible things. And I would much rather live in that world than in a world where monsters are just born.

I have to wonder why Pinker directs such scorn at a passage like this. To me, there’s nothing exceptional about it. In fact, all of my observations and experience prompt me to agree with it, more or less completely. Further, Pinker’s claim that it is a prime example of the blank slate, the noble savage, moralistic fallacy and environmental determinism, all of these claims are either demonstrably false or damnably questionable.

Let’s take the blank slate first. This is the idea that there’s no innate human nature, that all is learned and can be unlearned. The above passage points out what all the evidence points out, that most people who do enormous damage are themselves enormously damaged. And the term ‘enormously damaged’ is in no way an indicator that children are blank slates that you pour lots of damage into so that they come out doing damaging things. The damage largely consists of neglect. It’s perfectly true what Pinker states elsewhere in the book, that toddlers are far more inherently violent than adolescents. Their emotions, and their venting of emotions is more extreme, and were they able to handle firearms at that age, the carnage would be incalculable. So, just about the worst thing you can do with toddlers is to leave them to their own devices. They need to be watched, corrected and to have their energies positively channelled. It’s called child-rearing, and it’s by no means easy – certainly not as easy as it would be if they were blank slates.

This does not mean, of course, that they’re monsters. They’re simply children, as the passage says. And to say that children are not monsters hardly implies subscribing to the myth of the noble savage. To me, the passage simply points out that all children are vulnerable to having their worst tendencies exacerbated by neglect and by role models who, as children, had their worst tendencies exacerbated by neglect and by role models… and so on.

So nothing in the passage Pinker quotes is directly supportive of the blank slate or the noble savage views of the world. Does the passage commit a ‘moralistic fallacy’? Pinker elsewhere defines the moralistic fallacy as the converse of the naturalistic fallacy – the view that whatever occurs in nature is automatically good. The moralistic fallacy declares that what is good is bound to be found in nature. Neither fallacy is exhibited in the quoted passage, because children are not ascribed any value at all, unless to be described as ‘not-monsters’ is an example of a value, which would surely be stretching it.

So how could Pinker have got this so incredibly wrong? Perhaps he picked out the wrong quote, and the clinical psychologist displayed these beliefs elsewhere? For there’s no doubt that the quote itself doesn’t justify his bludgeoning attack upon it. Nor do I want to suggest this is a typical ploy from Pinker, who, though always tendentious, usually balances and qualifies his arguments, indeed bends over backwards to appear a liberal democrat type, which perhaps he even is.

So this appears to be a lapse, but a most telling one. I think it’s indicative of his eagerness to present himself as a clever crusader, righting wrong thinking everywhere. It’s perhaps inevitable that he would over-reach himself and impute wrong-thinking to innocent people before vanquishing them. That he should have over-reached himself in the field of ‘environmental determinism’ is not at all surprising, because, like Dennett, he’s clearly a child of privilege, to whom the issue is largely academic, rather than a pressure point within his own inmost being.

I wouldn’t want to call myself an environmental determinist, and I of course accept that there’s much genetic inheritance, and that this is the most vital factor in intelligence, sexual preference, physical attractiveness and much much else, but I also keep my eyes and ears open. Lately I’ve been going to court, and inevitably observe the many other accuseds being processed alongside myself, along with their lawyers, and the various judges and court officials. It’s painfully obvious that I’m witnessing distinct strata of society there. It’s evident in their language, their dress, the way they walk, the way their eyes move about in their heads. Those who appear before the courts look unhealthy and uneasy. Whatever toughness they display seems brittle and unconvincing in such a setting. It’s true that being set on the wrong side of the law will inevitably put them at a disadvantage and make them nervous and agitated, but the difference I see cuts much deeper and speaks of an environment of social deprivation, poverty and struggle.

Their lawyers on the other hand – though many choose to work with the socially disadvantaged and may strongly sympathise with their plight for a variety of reasons – have an air of confidence and belonging which goes far beyond their years of working within the court system. It speaks of family backgrounds littered with academics, lawyers and professionals.

I myself was brought up in the poorest sections of Elizabeth, in the Downs and Davoren Park, some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, and in my early teens fellow-travelled with and, when I could, joined forces with vandals, drunks and thieves. I witnessed family brawls and break-ups routinely, I was bashed up more than once, I sold dud marijuana cigs to even younger and dumber kids than myself, and mostly I was happy as a pig in shit. There I wallowed, I could do no other.

The point is that neither I nor the kids around me had the option of plugging into role models who were lawyers, professors or entrepreneurs, and of course it wasn’t because they didn’t have the right genes. Environment doesn’t rigidly determine a person’s destiny, but my experience tells me that those, like Pinker, who make light of the role of environment (and he doesn’t do it throughout the book, only when he gets carried away with his crusade), are always those born into the right side of the social divide. The impact of violent and neglectful upbringings on people who grow up to commit criminal acts is too serious a matter to be the subject of cheap academic point-scoring.

pavlov's cat