The Northern Territory royal commission into juvenile justice is hoping to tap into an Indigenous initiative that draws on old traditions to help troubled youngsters.
26 Oct 2016 - 6:22 PM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2016 - 10:02 AM

Commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda visited Yuendumu, one of Central Australia's largest Aboriginal communities, on Wednesday.

They praised a program run by elders which successfully rehabilitated petrol sniffing teenagers in the 1990s and continues to this day.

"Instead of sending kids to Don Dale there should be a way to keep them in communities."

Kids struggling with depression, substance abuse and antisocial behaviour are sent into the bush to Mount Theo, a retreat where elders help them reconnect to country and culture.

"Mount Theo supports people instead of taking their kids away," Mr Gooda said.

"Instead of sending kids to Don Dale there should be a way to keep them in communities."

The inquiry, which resumes formal hearings in November, was sparked by an ABC Four Corners episode that aired footage of boys being tear gassed, shackled and spit hooded at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

Mr Gooda says it costs up to $100,000 per year to keep a child in detention. That money could be better spent on diversionary projects such as Mount Theo, Warlpiri artist Otto Sims says.

"With compassion you will change a person, not if you exploit them," he said.

"You must rehabilitate our children with care, respect and dignity. We can teach them the proper way."

Sims, the chairman of the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation in Yuendumu, thinks the concept should be adopted in other indigenous communities.

Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Matt Davidson says youngsters come to Mount Theo through police and corrections referrals and court orders.

Here they learn traditional law and bush skills for eight weeks to three months.

"The key is it's cultural. There's no fences, and these people are all related," he said.

Mr Davidson said the program received government support and royalties from a local gold mine.

"Warlpiri people divert a lot of that money into the program to help young people, and they come back different," he said.

Ms White said Mount Theo programs would be a way to introduce customary law into the "white man's system", and she also supported bush courts for lower level offenders.

"The reintroduction of elders sitting with magistrates may be one of the things we recommend," she said.

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