WHEN 15-year-old "Joshua" tried to steal a $2 ice cream from the only supermarket in Onslow, about 1400km north of Perth in Western Australia's vast Pilbara region, it was the final straw for the shop's staff.
Joshua was a regular at the store and had been given many warnings for stealing. "This is not about one ice cream," store owner Kerry White tells The Australian. "I don't call the cops when the kids steal something. They get a ban. They get a week or two weeks. If they do it constantly, they get a month. Joshua has had many bans. For some of these kids it works and for others it's like talking to a brick wall."
Joshua was confronted by a staff member - the wife of a local policeman in the tiny coastal town of Onslow - after stuffing the ice cream down his shorts on May 23.
Police were called and Joshua began a road and air journey that was to cost taxpayers an estimated $10,000. He was escorted on a three-hour drive north to the nearest overnight police lock-up at Karratha, spending a night in custody before justices of the peace remanded him in custody to appear in a Perth court. Accompanied by police, he was then flown to Perth and held in Rangeview, the state's only dedicated remand facility for children.
He appeared in court 12 days after the incident, pleading guilty to attempting to steal - an offence not even punishable by detention - and the matter was dismissed without further punishment.
Joshua's bizarre journey and his 12 days in custody have outraged the Aboriginal Legal Service, which says the case smacks of overkill and is further proof that Aboriginal children in regional areas are over-policed.
"It is hard not to think that this is another example of a young Aboriginal offender from a small regional town of WA who has in the past [incurred] - and continues to incur - the wrath of local police and whose punishment for that is to be over-policed for the most innocuous breach of the law," lawyer Peter Collins told the court.
WA Department of Justice statistics show that of the 74 children on remand in the state's two detention centres in Perth last fortnight, 56 per cent were Aboriginal and nearly one in four were from regional areas. Of the 74 children sentenced to detention, 81 per cent were Aboriginal and nearly 38 per cent were from the country. Nearly four out of 10 were serving detention for serious property offences such as burglary, arson and drug crimes, while 25 had committed serious offences, including murder, manslaughter, wounding and sexual assault. Another 18 had committed less serious assaults and robberies.
Perth Children's Court president Denis Reynolds described Joshua's case as staggering.
While police at Onslow have refused to speak to The Australian, store owner White says Joshua's case is symbolic of a lack of services for bored youths in her isolated community.
The estimated $10,000 cost of escorting Joshua to Perth and keeping him in custody is unimportant to White; there are no facilities to deal with juvenile offenders in the remote region and she believes breaking a cycle that is likely to result in the teenager winding up in an adult jail is paramount.
Joshua is now living with extended family in a tiny, remote Aboriginal community 400km inland from Onslow. When visited by The Australian at his new home with his aunt, uncle and cousins, Joshua says he regrets trying to steal the ice cream and says it was an impulsive act on a hot day after a trip to the beach with his mates. A shy, cheeky teenager who is obviously bright and wilful, Joshua's offer to pay for the hazelnut roll came too late. "I had a couple of silver for a drink but I wanted an ice cream," says Joshua, whose real name can't be published.
He admits he was hanging out with the wrong crowd in Onslow and is happy at his new home; his new mates do not steal but spend their time at school and playing football. He loves painting, basketball and football, pursuits that went largely untapped in Onslow, where there is no organised sport. The youth centre shut months ago and many teenagers give up on their education by high school.
His aunt - who also cares for one of Joshua's younger brothers at the community of a half-dozen houses - is surprised by the attention her nephew's case has attracted.
Keen to give the teenager a chance, Joshua's aunt speaks of her sense of responsibility for the two boys she has known since they were babies. "We are just trying to give him some hope," she says. "I keep reminding him this is a second chance."
Joshua's mother, who lives in Onslow with three of her six children, describes her son as an outgoing teenager led astray by his peers. "He takes great care of his younger brothers and sisters," she says. "I have always got into his ear about choosing his friends wisely."
But his mother is upset by the way she was portrayed in court. Admitting she drinks once a week, she denies she is an alcoholic and says she has ended a relationship with a violent partner. A quietly spoken but articulate woman who has worked with government departments and mining companies, she believes children in Onslow deserve more.
Joshua's father, who lives and works in Karratha, also blames boredom and a lack of facilities for problems with the young people in Onslow. He hopes his son will get back on track at his new home in the bush.
Joshua's mother is also upset by the waste of time and money in sending her son to Perth but she holds no animosity towards the store owner who blew the whistle on her son.
White, meanwhile, is unconvinced that moving Joshua to the Aboriginal community is the solution. "This kid needs counselling. He doesn't need to be just pushed out somewhere to a remote community. What they have done is not fixing the problem," she says. "Somebody has got to get through to him. Otherwise he is going to be in bigger trouble when he turns 18."
It is not the first time Joshua has broken the law. He's a "third striker" under the state's tough burglary laws. He was placed on a 12-month conditional release order by Reynolds in February, his last chance before detention.
Locals in the tight-knit mixed race community of Onslow stress the town is not overrun by crime. Many still don't lock their doors at night. They also reject any suggestion that the treatment of Joshua is indicative of discrimination or overzealous policing, saying local officers give youngsters more warnings than teenagers in big cities would get.
With an official population of 850 that locals say is more like 650 and swells during the tourist season, the town is predominantly white with about 25 per cent of the population Aboriginal.
Often battered by cyclones, Onslow is more than 300km from the regional centre of Karratha in the north and more than 470km from Carnarvon to the south. It sits 81km from the main highway on a landscape punctuated by salt lakes, rocky outcrops and hundreds of ant mounds. An airport services charter planes but there are no commercial flights.
Onslow was established as a town 120 years ago to support surrounding pastoral stations. In its early days it was home to a fleet of pearl luggers. Today its fortunes are tied to the oil and gas industry as nearby Barrow Island is a key supplier and the site of the $11million Gorgon gas project that is expected to start producing by 2009-10.
But despite its proximity to such rich resources and the presence of exploration giants BHP Billiton, Chevron-Texaco and Apache Energy in the region, the town's youth centre was abandoned for the last time about seven months ago. White says its funding of $60,000 a year was not enough to pay a wage and provide facilities and activities. The town has a basketball court, tennis courts and football oval but locals say no one in the town has taken on the task of co-ordinating any sport. There is one small playground and fishing in the local creeks is the main activity to keep youngsters occupied.
"There is no movie theatre, no roller- skating rink, no bike tracks," says White, who has lived in Onslow for 11 years. She wants the gas and oil companies in the area to help provide facilities for the town's youth but admits it may be that nobody has asked.
"We have more meetings here than Gloucester Park [the WA harness-racing venue]," she quips. "We have lots of wonderful ideas. The biggest thing is we have no money. Everything gets put into the too-hard basket. What do these companies put back into here? It is pretty telling when you look at the resources that leave our shores."
Peter Bromley, who ran the town's youth centre until three years ago, is unsure reopening the centre is the right answer as it removes responsibility from parents. "Someone out here needs to get the families involved in sport," Bromley says. "You need someone to organise sport. A swimming pool would also be a good idea."
© The Australian