Don Dale fire disturbance riot
Don Dale youth detention facility (IMAGE credit: AAP/NEDA VANOVAC)

On Friday, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory handed down its final report after 15 months, $54 million, 54 days of hearings, over 200 witnesses and 12 case studies.

The investigation by commissioners Margaret White AO and Mick Gooda found that all detention centres in the Northern Territory operated in the same manner as adult prisons, caused trauma to the children and did not have any rehabilitative programs.

The evidence presented during the hearings was that children were (and still are) subjected to verbal and physical abuse, humiliation and isolation for long periods of time, in addition to the denial of basic human needs such as access to water, food and the use of toilet facilities. Staff were found to either be untrained and not know the rules, or flagrantly ignore the rules and break the law.

Numerous witnesses and children gave evidence to this effect and it was accepted within the hearing that these were not isolated or one-off incidents but rather an endemic problem within youth detention in the Northern Territory. This was a problem that was known by government officials and intentionally ignored.

One of the case studies, of course, is that of Dylan Voller — the young man at the centre of Four Corners footage of abuse that occurred in Don Dale Detention Centre where children alleged to have been “rioting” (according to guards) were seen clearly in the footage to be in their own cells and were then set upon by guards and subjected to violence, tear gas and expletive-filled denigration.

At the commission hearing, Dylan gave testimony about his treatment in various facilities during his detention periods, which first started at the age of 10 (experts said that he was failed by the system from the outset).

A particularly dehumanising method of punishing children in detention was, as Dylan recalled during testimony, the way guards would inhibit the detained children’s access to toileting facilities.

“There was one instance where I was in an isolation placement at Alice Springs detention centre and I was busting to go to the toilet … I had been asking for at least four or five hours. They’d just been saying ‘no’. I ended up having to defecate into a pillow case because they wouldn’t let me out to go to the toilet. Eventually when I got let out the next morning, I was able to chuck that pillow case out.”

The report was unequivocal in stating that every level of the government and relevant authorities and institutions within the Northern Territory have failed children — particularly over-represented Indigenous children — and made a number of reform recommendations. These included:

  • the immediate closure of Don Dale Detention Centre and High Security Unit;
  • raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 (currently 10);
  • enacting a policy in which no child under 14 should be detained unless there are exceptional circumstances; and
  • a number of other policy-level reforms intended to provide familial support and increase diversionary and therapeutic programs.

Of course, the accounts provided to the commission by victims and witnesses and the subsequent recommendations are not novel; we have heard this before and we continue to agitate for justice for our Indigenous children. The footage from Four Corners was simply so sensational that the government was compelled to announce a royal commission to address the claims made in the program.

However, we are not strangers to royal commissions and subsequent recommendations. Our government has a habit of spending tax-payer dollars on royal commissions that ultimately tender reports that sit on a shelf and result in little, if any, action to address the recommended reforms.

Though the report does give credence to the many families of the Northern Territory who have been calling for change for decades and addresses the injustice that disproportionately affects Indigenous youth, we are no closer to a reduction of the trauma to our children caught up in the system. Following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — there were 39 recommendations and the majority of them were ignored — we continue to have Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Australia is very good at announcing royal commissions but woeful at taking legitimate action to address the systemic problems that lead to the abuse and trauma of Indigenous people — particularly children.

Peter Fray

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