Nimby

by Helen Burnie

‘They’re putting a parole office next to the school. I’m scared of walking by myself. I want to go to a different school.’ My eleven-year old was greeting me after school one Friday. By Monday I had learned a lot about our town.

A schoolbag note from the P & C confirmed my daughter’s fear. I rang for more information. Like many, the P & C President’s children caught a public bus to and from school. Parolees would be likely to catch it too. She worried that someone might take the opportunity to follow a child home. Yeah, I’d already thought of that. I’m often in an office an hour away when my daughter walks the block and a half from school and lets herself into the house. Her high school brother is home within twenty minutes and their dad arrives an hour later, but…

Our town has well-off, middle income and poor. There is a preponderance of Anglo-Celtics, a decent proportion with Aboriginal heritage and some migrant multiculturalism. My family lives between two pubs and close to a station. A lot of people drink alcohol as they walk by. Homeless men like this town – especially the park a block away. I have spent years teaching my children safety strategies, like being aware of who is around, sticking together, watching out for your friends and avoiding contact with anyone suspicious.

The local paper screamed ‘public outrage’. The article said parole staff members in the current office were cramped and needed larger premises. Apparently the office had been a kilometre along my street, above a shop for years, but I didn’t know. Now I knew, it explained a lot.

There’s a gaol just outside town, presumably the reason for the parole office. Recently the men’s gaol was extended with a women’s section – to much outcry by women’s groups. They said most women prisoners had been sexually abused earlier in their lives. This was unlikely to be coincidental. I agree. Recovery from abuse or assault can be life-long. We move on, healing what we can on the way. I’ve been lucky with good education and people who care for me. Gaol, probation, parole – there but by the grace of God go I. And I’m not religious.

My less-pleasant experiences fuelled my determination to limit danger to my child.

Dear Councillor

Council's aim to lease the old library building to the Department of Corrective Services for a parole centre is unacceptable.

I appreciate that Council needs a decent financial return on its property, but the building’s situation, across a narrow one-way street from the public school and close to the private school makes it completely unsuitable for a parole centre.

While rehabilitation is important for ex-offenders, their families and the community in general, using this site would create the problems outlined below.

  • For some ex-offenders – especially those with a history of sexual and violent crimes – the temptation of potentially ‘easy’ access to young children might be too strong.
  • Release from prison and/or probation as an alternative to prison is often stressful and re-integrating into the community can be difficult. This location will make those attending the parole centre clearly visible and identifiable.
  • Community discomfort with the decision to site a parole centre so very close to primary schools may add stress for parolees, undermining efforts for rehabilitation and community integration.
  • Should a child go missing from either of the primary schools or their proximity, parole attendees will immediately come under suspicion – whether involved or not – and Council and the Department of Corrective Services will be considered by the public at least partially to blame because of where they sited the office.
  • The site’s proximity to the hotel and the needle exchange and to the people that frequent them, could undermine parolees’ attempts to curb using alcohol and other drugs.

My particular interest is my eleven-year old, who walks to and from the public school. Clearly I have a strong responsibility for her safety and well-being. To a lesser extent, so do you and so does the Department of Corrective Services. By the same token, we all have a wish for the best possible rehabilitation and reintegration for ex-offenders. To meet both these ends, I urge Council to find a more suitable lessee for the premises. I will be urging the Department of Corrective Services to find a more suitable parole centre site, ie, one in a busier commercial or retail area, where anonymity is more possible and temptations are less striking.

 

Sincerely yours.

As evening wore on, I adapted and sent versions to the Premier and the Minister for Education. I couldn’t find an email address for the Minister for Justice – who from the web searches seemed to have responsibility for Corrective Services.

When an ‘issue’ bothers me, I shoot off the email and feel much better. Not this time. This nagged all throughout Saturday. My concern grew. The more I discussed the siting of the parole office with other local parents, the more they reflected my fears. And I mean reflected, not magnified. I was careful not to feed people my concerns until I tested the water for theirs. They all had them.

A friend had learned about it from a radio shock-jock that she hardly ever listens to. (I know: they all say that.) The Minister for Justice (he of no publicised email address) was interviewed and put on the spot. Understandably he’d never heard of the issue until then. My friend was determined to stop the parole office for the sake of hers and other children. As a primary teacher, she was also concerned for the students whose parents needed to report to the office.

“It’s hard enough for them. They just don’t need everyone knowing. I hate the court reports in the local paper. It punishes the kids. Kids at school hassle each other. ‘Saw your Dad in the court section of the paper again this week’”.

We agreed that the threat was not in the school grounds, but mingling on the buses, in the street and in the park across the road. We could both imagine teenagers and young adults on probation forming friendships with kids who were perhaps under-parented or who just liked the attention of older kids. Sexual abuse was a fear. Also there would be increased initiation into drugs and alcohol, and hanging out with the wrong people, leading to all sorts of trouble.

Councillor 1 left a message on the voicemail. He’d be out today but would call me tomorrow. Councillor 2 rang. He had voted for it. Council needed the money and the department had offered the best financial deal. But he had changed his mind when he took his wife and daughter-in-law to see the set up. They said it wasn’t good enough. He now agreed but could not see an option. He thought the lease would go ahead.

Councillor 3 emailed that he was trying to contact the Mayor to change the decision. Good, but I knew from reading local papers that Councillor 3 would never ‘have the numbers’. I wanted this treated as non-partisan, as above party and factional politics. Not easy. In-council bickering had been big local news for months.

Councillor 4, always with ‘the numbers’, emailed that there would be an announcement made on Monday. Positive, I thought. But my teacher friend said the lease was to be signed on Monday. “Maybe they’ll announce when the new parole office will open.” We agreed we should knock it on the head before the lease was signed, otherwise the fight would really drag on. We got on the phones and encouraged others who were concerned to email councillors over the weekend.

True to his word, Councillor 1 called on Sunday. He unofficially informed me that the Department of Corrective Services had decided to pull out. They would make the announcement on Monday morning. We had a long chat. He had never had so many emails on one issue.

He asked if it had occurred to me that I had some pretty risky people walking past my house all the time. Yes, I had noticed that. He used to let properties for a living. “There’s this nomadic population. They come into the area with their kids, to be here while the partner’s in gaol. The rents are cheap and the housing is about as close as you can get to the gaol. Then the guy gets let out and he moves in with the family. They like it here and they stay.”

So, increasing numbers in the area report to the parole office. Over time, Corrective Services has increased staff and they need bigger premises. Now with the women’s gaol there’ll be even more parolees. And presumably there are and will be lots of kids with mums in the gaol. In the past I’ve read that most women in gaol have kids.

“My question is this,” said Councillor 1. “If the parole office is not acceptable next to the school, is it acceptable in this local government area? I mean the gaol is not in this council area.”

True, but it’s only just outside it. “But you said people move here to be near it.”

“Yes. But would they stay if the parole office was not here?” asked Councillor 1.

He may have a point. I’m even tempted by it. But I can’t pretend that moving our problems to another council area solves much.

My next-door neighbours grew up here. So did their parents and theirs. Some of their ancestors were traditional owners. The couple have often told me that 15 years ago, everyone in our town left their doors and cars safely unlocked. Another friend who first moved here at that time told me the same thing. But it’s changed. I check a few websites. The timing of the change coincided with the opening of the gaol. Without a sociological study, I don’t know if there’s a connection. Expansion of Sydney’s western fringe has been rampant over the same time. There were probably many factors.

On Monday, the Department of Corrective Services issued a short statement withdrawing its expression of interest in the building due to community concerns. I guess that we have the shock-jock to thank. I never thought I’d say that, but thank him I do. A new community group who exists to ‘keep watch’ on Council also had a role, but I don’t know the details.

Into the future, as population increases, competing interests and the decisions of what to site where, will become all the more difficult. For me, the take-home message is, wherever applied – even to shock-jocks, other council areas and ex-prisoners – the dichotomy of ‘us and them’ is false. There is no ‘them’.

 

© Helen Burnie

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem