Indigenous Child Abuse Continues in Australia

The incarceration of Indigenous children in the condemned adult Berrimah Jail, the infamous Don Dale, continues unabated in Darwin. At the time of writing, there was a record high number of child ‘prisoners’; some as young as ten and eleven. All of them are Indigenous. There are no white children in Don Dale.

Conditions in the jail are horrendous. Due to staff shortages, Covid excuses, and alleged poor behaviour, some of the children—including one who is my client, an eleven-year-old Indigenous boy (‘Billy’, for the purposes of this article)—are held in B Block, the former maximum-security section of Berrimah Jail. This means Billy occupied a cell that was previously occupied by the worst of the worst: killers, rapists and child sex offenders. What ghosts must haunt these children who now lie in these cells! Billy’s concrete and steel cell is 3m x 2m, with a Judas hatch on the door to receive meals, a mattress, a toilet bowl and shower, and a faulty TV.

No human being should be held in such a dystopian relic, let alone a troubled Indigenous child. Billy spends twenty to twenty-two hours each day on his own in that cell, released for only fifteen minutes every four hours, to sit in a concrete yard in the company of one other child. There’s virtually no sport or recreation available and little education. Most, if not all of the children held in Don Dale, require therapeutic, trauma-informed care from qualified and experienced staff. This was the basis of three White/Gooda Royal Commission recommendations (2017): 16.7, 19 and 28.2. What they actually get is  trauma-compounding.

Note again, Billy is only eleven years old. Back in 2011, then-CEO of NT Adult Corrections, Ken Middlebrook, described Berrimah Jail in his evidence to a coronial inquest as being ‘only fit for a bulldozer’. I’ve been through the place. It’s derelict, all crumbling concrete and rusting steel mesh, with a dilapidated basketball court with broken hoops. Most of the staff are inadequately qualified to work effectively with the troubled Indigenous child inmates. This is barbarism. And yet it continues unabated. We have moved backward. We have become backward.

Billy’s story

Billy’s story, apart from his particularly young age, is not unusual. An urban Indigenous child from a troubled home, both his parents were ice addicts and violent towards each other. His antecedents are Stolen Generation on both sides. Billy was a regular witness to domestic violence and drug offences, mostly by his father upon his mother. Flight or Fight was Billy’s all-too-often experience and response, with Billy at times cowering under the kitchen table. A psychologist’s court reports tell us that this response has affected Billy’s brain and behaviour, making him impulsive, and limiting his capacity to filter, consider or reflect before acting. His childhood has been punctuated by both his parents having long spells of imprisonment. His mother is currently  serving a five-year sentence for drug offences. Violence, instability and abandonment have been his norm.

Billy would escape this war zone and team up at the shopping centre with older kids from similarly dysfunctional homes. This led to minor offending, shoplifting, graduating to stealing cars in company. He’d be arrested, charged and released on bail; bail would then be breached, then be granted again on stricter conditions, including wearing an electronic monitoring device. Billy would then breach again, drawing him towards that looming chasm of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

The constant delays in the under-resourced NT Juvenile Court System meant that Billy would languish in this condemned jail before eventually being released on court bail, again with strict conditions. He then went home, but not for long. His mother was in jail and he didn’t get on with his father so within days he was off again; back to the shopping centre with his mates, breaching his bail conditions and committing more of the same offences before being arrested and put back into Don Dale.

Off and on, Billy ended up spending three months on remand in Don Dale before eventually being sentenced. Seventy-five per cent of the children held in Don Dale are on remand awaiting their court hearings. Bearing in mind Billy’s mental state before he was locked up in Don Dale, that three-month ordeal has probably further damaged him psychologically. As noted, there is no trauma-informed care at Don Dale. But few people involved seem to really care, from the police to the lawyers and the public servants from various departments, right up to the judicial officers who ordered his incarceration. People say that they care; the judges wring their hands and look pained, but then order Billy and other children into this dungeon.

“My dear children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth”

1 John 3-18

Child Abuse

This abuse of afflicted children is not only grossly immoral, it is also unlawful. Juvenile justice falls under the Department of Territory Families, and its duty of care is being grossly breached, together with the requirements of various international legal conventions, instruments and standards as signed and ratified by Australia (e.g. the 1990 UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty and the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).

If parents were found treating their child like this, the child would be placed somewhere safe while the parents were investigated for offences relating to child abuse. In March 2022 figures were leaked to the Northern Territory News revealing there were fifty-four episodes of self-harm and attempted suicide inside Don Dale from July to December 2021. On 5 June 2022, it was reported that a 16-year-old Indigenous inmate was hospitalised after he attempted to take his own life by stabbing himself in the stomach. That same weekend, three other children in Don Dale were reported to have been hospitalised after self-harming.

Despite this ticking time bomb, and the recommendation of the 2017 Royal Commission for the centre’s closure, the NT Labor Government’s plan for Don Dale is to expand it. It plans to open up more former cells until a new detention centre is built, presently expected to be late 2023, which practically probably means 2024. Children have been incarcerated in Don Dale now for over seven years. The Royal Commission recommended another Detention Centre be purpose-built, and not near the adult jail. These recommendations have been ignored. The facility under construction is next to the adult prison. It is 36 kilometres south of Darwin, with no bus service to facilitate family visits.

The reason I continue to write about this shameful feature of Australian society is to try and bring it to an end. There was a huge display across the nation of disbelief and outrage after revelations of the treatment of children at Don Dale, yet the same treatment of young people as moved us to a Royal Commission continues unabated.. I don’t want to live in a ‘place that treats children like this. How can Australians turn a blind eye to it? Children are the most precious aspect of any community.. That’s why we love, protect, guide, indulge and educate them. This has applied in all communities, throughout history. It’s called being human.

Billy didn’t receive the love, care, protection and security from his parents that we expect children to receive, because of their chronic dysfunction, caused by the usual socio-economic factors and Aboriginal dispossession. Billy’s familial situation provides incontrovertible explanations for Billy’s trauma and offences. Equally compelling is the strong likelihood that treating Billy and other children like this means their existing trauma will be compounded and, upon release, they will re-offend. The majority of child detainees in the NT are returned to detention within twelve months of their release. This goes against all best-practice which knows that, unlike adults, children present with strong prospects for rehabilitation while in detention so long as the detention experience is professional and appropriate.

Close Don Dale NOW!

On Christmas Morning 2021, the Close Don Dale NOW! (CDDN) movement began, comprised a small group of citizens from various walks of life: Billy’s grandmother and other family members, students, public servants, tradespeople and others, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, young and old. The movement has, from that first day, been supported by Amnesty International. It has continued weekly vigil protests outside Don Dale on Fridays at 5 p.m., with stalls set up  at both the Nightcliff and Palmerston markets, a website and Facebook page created, and  T-shirts, stickers and information hand-outs created and sold to help fund our actions.

We have protested outside the relevant minister’s office, which led to one arrest, and we’ve had a formal meeting with that minister, which has led to nothing! We’re currently devising a public forum on crime and youth justice to be held at the Garrmalang Festival in Darwin in July. We have been successful in getting media coverage nationally, on ABC, SBS and NITV, and in The Saturday Paper and The Guardian, as well as in NT newspapers. We’ve been doing this now for six months. And yet our numbers have basically remained the same throughout this period despite our best efforts to attract more people. And while our numbers have remained static, the number of children behind bars and occupying cells has increased. Apart from letting the children inside know that every Friday a group of protesters who really care about them are gathering there, and hopefully raising public awareness, we have singularly failed to achieve our aim, which is to garner support to Close Don Dale NOW!

The selfish country

All of this provides reflects dismally on the country and its attitudes in 2022. One could joke this off with ‘Australia’ is Esperanto for ‘the place where no one gives a shit’. But this is no joke. This lack of real care is arguably the most serious and disturbing aspect of Australian society today. And yet it’s rarely, if ever, mentioned, never mind discussed. The Lucky Country is now The Selfish Country; not many people actually give a shit.

Consider this. From 28 June to 1 July 2022, the 18th Biennial Criminal Lawyer’s Conference of the Northern Territory is being held in Darwin. It’s entitled; ‘I Can’t Believe it’s not Bali; Lockdowns and Lock-ups’.

Lawyers, Judges and experts from all over Australia will be gathering in the jurisdiction with the highest and ever-increasing imprisonment rate in the world, with over 85 per cent of the prison population there being Indigenous, to present and discuss learned papers on current criminal-legal issues. This conference will be bookended with a cocktail party and a ‘Gala Dinner Under the Stars’.

Of the thirteen papers and presentations in between, only one, from the NT’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner, addresses the issue of youth crime and punishment in the Northern Territory. It is entitled ‘If a “Tough on Youth Crime” Approach Worked, the NT Would Be the Safest Place in Australia’.

It seems the convention centre hosting the conference will contain a large number of Australian criminal lawyers and several herds of elephants. I hope they have time left to read this article.     

The Indigenous kids I work with are powerless and voiceless. They are currently legally represented by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) or the NT Legal Aid Commission, as it was with all the abused children who appeared in Four Corners’ ‘Australia’s Shame’ program. For just under ten years, NAAJA has chosen to pursue a policy of not opposing, resisting or even publicly criticising the inhumane carceral policies of the previous NT Country Liberal Party government or the current NT Labor government. The German anti-Nazi and martyr, pastor Paul Bonhoeffer said that Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act’. NAAJA’s policy of not publicly criticising and thereby collaborating has been a catastrophic failure and disgrace. The purpose and philosophy of the Close Don Dale NOW! movement is action. This will include direct action and civil disobedience. They say change happens when ordinary people do extraordinary things. It seems it has to be this way.

Readers are welcome to join the Close Don Dale NOW! movement. You’ll find our website here.

Editors Note: A longer version of this article will appear in Arena in the non-too distant future.

‘The Aboriginal Gulag’: The Northern Territory’s Criminal Legal System

John B. Lawrence SC, 22 Oct 2020

It is no longer an overworked, under-resourced and at times chaotic legal system. It is now not fit for purpose and has become a depraved jailing machine consuming Aboriginal men, women and children at an ever-increasing rate.

About the author

John B. Lawrence SC

John B. Lawrence SC is a Darwin barrister. He was a Crown prosecutor in Darwin and later solicitor in charge of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. He is a past president of the Northern Bar Association and of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory. He represented one of the Don Dale youth detainees during the Royal Commission.

More articles by John B. Lawrence SC

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