Director of Jarjum Centre in Lismore, Maurita Cavanough, has had to instigate twice daily sweeps of the preschool for syringes.
Director of Jarjum Centre in Lismore, Maurita Cavanough, has had to instigate twice daily sweeps of the preschool for syringes. Mireille Merlet-Shaw

Preschool under siege forced into twice daily syringe sweeps

DIRECTOR of the Lismore Jarjum Centre Maurita Cavanough never wanted to give her preschoolers a lesson about the dangers of picking up hypodermic needles.

But after children found used needles near the Aboriginal preschool's carpark during NAIDOC celebrations last week - the second find in recent months - Ms Cavanough felt she needed to address the realities of living next to the Department of Housing flats on Rifle Range Rd, an escalating drug-dealing hotspot.

Another needle wrapped in a cigarette packet was stuffed through the inadequate preschool fence. Staff now perform two needle checks daily.

But it's not just the needles. At the behest of police, teachers and children have been in lockdown five times in the last nine months after domestic violence incidents and brawls spilled dangerously close to the preschool.

This year alone the preschool has been victim to nine vandalism attacks; outdoor furniture and bins were set alight and a shed ripped down.

"I blame ice. I've been here for three years and before recently nothing has been touched," Ms Cavanough said.

"I've been here alone with my children when the fence was being kicked in. The police took two hours to arrive."

While the dire state of the centre's donated ageing building should be her focus, Ms Cavanough said drug-related violence was her priority.

According to recent building inspections, it would cost an estimated

$200,000 to get the preschool up to basic building code, however if asbestos can't be contained during renovation, the preschool would have to relocate.

Renovations are clearly needed. Preschoolers have to bathe in a tiny laundry sink if they soil themselves. A change table folds out precariously over the children's hand basins. Early intervention therapy sessions take place in a barely enclosed veranda with a 3-inch crack between the wall and roof. A major crack in the bricks on the building's facade flag profound structural problems.

Ms Cavanough said it was her duty of care to push for relocation, not renovation.

"We've had positive meetings with Kevin Hogan, Thomas George and Inspector Nicole Bruce about police response times," she said.

"But this is not a situation you can fix that easily.

State Government Community Building Partnership grants are available, however the preschool would have to match the funds dollar for dollar.

"We have nothing to spare. All our money goes into extra services," Ms Cavanough said.

The centre provides a food and transport program as well as a screening program which link in with other services to ensure disadvantaged children don't get left behind.

Eighteen out of 20 children at Jarjum Centre have additional needs - usually speech or behaviour related.

"My heart goes out to many of the kids here," Ms Cavanough said. "Many come here in a heightened state. They live in domestic violence situations and are traumatised. So we drive them here and get them settled only to have to go into lockdown. They are in a flight or fight state wherever they are."

In May, Page MP Kevin Hogan announced Jarjum Centre would receive $350,000 in funding to continue its literacy and numeracy programs.

On Wednesday the preschool will receive an asbestos inspection report which will inform any decision about the viability of renovation.



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