For Daralyn Bedford it came with a job. Larissa Malay hopes to be able to give it to her children if she can provide a stable home, something she never had. Shantelle Green credits growing up out bush. Natasha Short thanks “my strong mother” for her success.

In communities nestled amid the jowly bluffs and speckled plains of the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia, success is as elusive as summer rain. Many crave a better family life, stable job or educational goals, but find their efforts sapped by burning dysfunction. Depression, lack of confidence, poor health and bad behaviour drain morale. Those who do try often give up.

A quality-of-life index published by Bankwest in 2008 placed Halls Creek, a roadhouse town of about 1500 people located 360km south of Kununurra, dead last.

About $80 million is pumped into the community every year, according to one estimate, seemingly for very little improvement. Locals say living standards have gone backwards since the 70s. Three years ago about 100 prominent community members met and agreed something had to change.
Now a group of Kimberley ­Aboriginal leaders and service ­organisations wants to use Empowered Communities, a governance model championed by Noel Pearson, to better direct funding towards things they deem important.

About 55 per cent of the ­region’s population is under 25, meaning the social problems, ­including alcohol and drug abuse, chronic unemployment and child neglect, could triple in coming years if not tackled now, service providers say. “We need to do a mass change all at once,” Short says. “If it’s not done, we’re going to die — we will be destroyed.”

Short, originally from Halls Creek, now works for Wunan, a Kununurra-based Aboriginal development organisation headed by indigenous leader Ian Trust. Wunan is among half a dozen organisations signed up to help develop and implement Empowered Communities in the region. Trust was inspired to replicate Pearson’s Families Responsibilities Commission after a visit to Cape York in 2011. The FRC gives a panel of locals and their advisers carrot-and-stick powers to help struggling families meet predefined “social norms”. The east Kimberley replica, under development since 2012, would be called Living Change.

“We think Living Change is the main program that should be funded under Empowered Communities if we are going to make a difference,” Trust says. “The main change is exactly the same (as FRC), there’s going to be an Aboriginal panel.”

The FRC also includes non-Aboriginal people. An 18-month trial in Halls Creek would cost $1.8m. Wunan is seeking delegated child protection powers from the WA government and income-management authority from the commonwealth “to give the panel teeth”, Trust says.
Bedford is among a handful of Halls Creek locals interested in joining the panel. “I wouldn’t mind doing it because I’ve got family struggling,” she says.

Bedford has about 80 relatives locally, and knows how hard it can be to share success. While her 16-year-old daughter attends school in Sydney and talks about university, her 13-year-old son still cannot read.

Malay, one of Bedford’s cousins, recently returned to Halls Creek seeking help after a few difficult years in Broome in which she lost custody of three of her four children. “I don’t abuse my children; I abuse myself by drinking,” Malay says.

She wants to improve her life, but is homeless and has been told the waiting list for public housing is 11 years.

Empowered Communities aims to match service delivery to local priorities. Living Change would then “wrap” struggling families in a “case management framework”, hoping to improve the chances of success. Those involved say about half of Halls Creek favours the program; opponents view it as punitive. Robyn Long, a supporter, asks why people who have not taken responsibility should be given a choice. “We’ve got people who’ve got all the support, all the help, and they’ve been in the system for years and years — and they’re still choosing not to support their children and their families by changing the way they behave,” Long says.

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