NSW Children’s Court Registrar and 2021 winner of the Law Society President’s Medal, Mary Gleeson, prefers to share the spotlight. It’s why she chooses to meet us at The Shed, an Aboriginal suicide prevention service, for lunch with coordinator Rick Welsh and members of the community.
The Shed at Mount Druitt in Western Sydney looks just as its name suggests. An unassuming brick building with a red tin roof, large common room and a barbecue out the back. The front garden is brimming with local bush tucker plants; lemon myrtle, Davidson plums and midgen berries. You’ll often see staff and visitors making herbal tea from the Native River Mint.
But while its physical description is simple, The Shed’s purpose and its people are multi-faceted.
When I arrive on a rainy Wednesday morning, the place is in organised chaos. But this only adds to the warm and inviting experience. People are walking and talking everywhere.
I hear Rick Welsh, The Shed’s coordinator, before I can see him. The proud Murrawarri man bellows out, “Hey Brother”, and “Hey Sister, welcome”, to anyone who sets foot in the door. Some have been coming for years, while others are only joining for the first time. Although everyone is fighting their own battles, The Shed is a family.
On paper, it is an Aboriginal men’s suicide prevention service but there are just as many women who attend. Welsh says, “We are male-targeted but not male specific.”
People from all ages and family relationships travel from across NSW to come to The Shed, especially on Wednesdays when there is a free community lunch.
Some are homeless and need a meal. Others come for company and conversation. Many need help with Centrelink and a significant proportion want support accessing the family law system or dealing with children in state care.
“To see that you can actually make a difference as opposed to doing superficial things. We aren’t putting Band-Aids on people. It’s about making them feel safe,” Welsh tells me.
“I’ve seen Aboriginal families in the family law system keep their kids within family rather than losing them to state care. I think a big part of The Shed is when people ring you and they’re talking through tears about the difference we’ve made.”
According to 2020-21 statistics by the Department of Communities and Justice, Aboriginal children and young people are 12 times more likely to be in statutory out-of-home care (OOHC) than non-Aboriginal children and young people.
The Shed was established in 2004 as a partnership between Western Sydney University, the Men’s Health Information and Resource Centre (MHIRC) and the Holy Family Church at Mount Druitt.
Since then, they’ve partnered with 28 different therapeutic and community services that take referrals and send outreach workers to the space to help engage the community. To name a few; Legal Aid and family law solicitors, drug and alcohol counsellors, psychiatrists, care and protection and homeless services. There’s also a podiatrist who makes an appearance.
Welsh says although these relationships are the key to improving access to justice, it isn’t always easy to get service representatives out to the centre, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sometimes it’s about jumping up and down to make things happen. I’m good at throwing tantrums. I’ll start making noise when things are urgent, especially with care and protection matters,” he says.
Welsh has connections everywhere. He grew up on The Block in Redfern and has been with The Shed for 11 years. In a past life, he was a field officer for the government-run Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group and worked for the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, which is the peak body for Aboriginal medical services. He’s the only non-judicial member on the Federal Circuit Court’s Family Reconciliation Committee.
One of the many reasons people keep coming back to The Shed, Welsh says, is the way he “quality controls” the services he partners with.
“One of the problems is being able to retain Indigenous engagement. It’s very difficult for non-Aboriginal services. We shift and swap lawyers and psychiatrists until we find the one the client trusts,” he says.
“By having Aboriginal staff here, it makes a difference with communication between the people and support workers. We have to make sure people feel safe enough to ask questions.”
“To see that you can actually make a difference, as opposed to doing superficial things. We aren’t putting Band-Aids on people. It’s about making them feel safe.”
One client, Brian, has been coming to The Shed for years and is the first person to introduce himself from a chair next to the entrance.
“I keep making more friends who want to help and get involved with my situation. It’s a community gathering place and the best place to be,” he says.
NSW Children’s Court Registrar Mary Gleeson first became involved with The Shed 10 years ago while working as a senior solicitor at Legal Aid. Gleeson provided weekly outreach services, and many of the people give her a welcoming hug as she walks around the grounds.
“All the service providers are guests here but feel totally welcome. I’ve always felt respected and never for one moment felt unsafe,” Gleeson says.
“When you are seeing a client at The Shed, the usual power dynamic is overturned because you are in their space.”
Welsh is sitting in his office to the right of the common area, eating a plate of steamed vegetables, potatoes and beef rissoles. ‘Top End Bush Medicine’ posters line the walls and ‘thank you’ cards are scattered across his desk.
The father of four loves to speak about his family and the myriad of complex cases he’s dealt with. But he soon changes topic to how he wants to change the justice system for the better.
“The judiciary, irrespective of what system they are coming out of, know there is an Indigenous issue, but don’t know how to address it. They want to get to the water, but they need someone to show them how to drink. I’m happy to do that,” Welsh tells me.
“Even though Aboriginal people are a small population, we are a big population when it comes to state courts. A third of matters in the Children’s Court are Indigenous and one in four in criminal courts. They need to work out ways to do things better and I think the resolution for it is the establishment of Indigenous lists and treating Indigenous matters differently.”
Both Welsh and Gleeson were instrumental in setting up the Federal Circuit Court’s Indigenous Families List in 2016. It supports parents and proposed carers by giving them access to services for issues like drugs and alcohol, mental health and family violence, while they are at court. The list was spearheaded by former Federal Circuit Court Judge Robyn Sexton.
“Before the Indigenous List was established in the Family Law Court, the number of Aboriginal litigants in the Sydney registry was minimal. Now, the list which is conducted by Judge Elizabeth Boyle runs every fortnight,” Gleeson says.
“The success of [the List] came from having the court process embedded in therapeutic and cultural support services. We are in a unique position as lawyers to bridge the gap and work for Aboriginal people in a way that sees real change in families and communities.”
The Children’s Court plans to establish an Indigenous List in 2022 to ensure the court has greater involvement in the lives of families outside the litigation process.
During our lunch, Gleeson asks me for a piece of paper and a pen. She outlines George Street Parramatta down the centre of the page and draws a box representing the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court on one side and the Children’s Court on the other.
Applications to the Family Court are brought by individuals, including couples in divorce, property and child proceedings. Conversely, applications to the state-based Children’s Court are initiated by child welfare authorities.
“If you’re an Aboriginal person and you have no connection to the justice system, would you even go to a court? Which side of George Street you end up on is more about your willingness to access a system and obtain legal advice,” Gleeson explains.
“For Aboriginal people, their value is looking after their children and the future of their children. Once they can see the court system lining up with the best interests of their children, they are there.”
Welsh and Gleeson developed the model for the Aboriginal Family Law Roadshow to educate Indigenous communities
all over NSW about the different court systems. It was a collaboration between the Judiciary, Aboriginal community organisations, Legal Aid, the Aboriginal Legal Service, Wirringa Baiya (an Aboriginal women’s legal service), and private sector lawyers.
“Once the work started getting done, it spread like wildfire through the community. Now the best thing you can see is an Aboriginal person come in for a service aware of their rights. You think, ‘Yes we’ve done a good job,’” Gleeson says.
Gleeson was awarded the 2021 NSW Law Society President’s Medal for her outstanding contribution to the betterment of the profession. She says the award took her completely by surprise, as she assumed she was nominated among a wide group of experienced members of the profession. While Gleeson has surely impacted the lives of clients during her almost 30 years in practice, she says they have changed hers tenfold.
“I have an incredible respect for the Aboriginal community. The strength of their family bonds is extraordinary. I have seen grandfathers give up their housing so their granddaughters can keep their babies. I have seen people recover from serious drug addiction and achieve amazing personal growth.”
Conversation and laughter flow freely during lunch. Welsh says the supportive atmosphere at The Shed has been built over time and the “peer model” is what makes it successful.
“We have men in similar situations that can support others. If I try to refer someone to an Aboriginal service but they are unsure, they can come to The Shed and speak to one of the lads here that has dealt with the service to have a yarn first,” Welsh says.
I ask one of the men, Joe, about the impact The Shed has had on him. “It’s good to come here and hang around other men, sit around and talk about cultural stuff … They help me in some ways, and I help them in others,” he replies.
During her time at The Shed, Gleeson helped countless individuals take back control of their lives. But says the friendships fostered there have the most impact.
“A client once said to me, ‘The people who get you out of dark places are the ones who have been there before. They still see hope and something in you. They are the ones that get you to the other side.’”