NT royal commission into detention of children admits to system failure

A scene from the Four Corner's program on Don Dale that sparked the royal commission.

The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory released its interim report on March 31. Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White are now due to deliver their final report on August 1.

While the report contained no specific recommendations as hearings were ongoing, it said the system was broken and had “failed at every level”. It outlined a youth detention system that was “likely to leave many children and young people more damaged than when they entered”.

“We have heard that the detention facilities are not fit for accommodating children and young people, and not fit for the purpose of rehabilitation,” the report said. “They are also unsuitable workplaces for youth justice officers and other staff.

“They are harsh, bleak, and not in keeping with modern standards. They are punitive, not rehabilitative.”

The commission also found that children and young people who entered the child protection system and were placed in out-of-home care were likely to get caught up in the juvenile justice system. It said it would examine the current child protection system to discover what needed to change to break the vicious cycle of children going from care into detention.

The commission noted that the NT had the highest rate of children and young people in detention in Australia and the highest rate of engagement with child protection services. It said 89% of children and young people in out-of-home care and 94% of those in detention in the NT were Aboriginal

These figures reflected the continued impact of intergenerational trauma — trauma handed down through generations with its roots in colonisation, the loss of culture and land, and the forced removal of children — on Aboriginal people within the NT, the commission said.

It also found the NT’s children and young people faced myriad health issues, including high rates of mental illness, rheumatic heart disease, sexually transmitted infections, ear disease and hearing loss.

The report said evidence so far pointed overwhelmingly to community safety and child wellbeing being best achieved by a “comprehensive, multifaceted approach” based on crime prevention, early intervention, diversionary measures, and community engagement.

The Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, an alliance of Aboriginal groups, said they absolutely supported the Commission’s position that: “There is community concern that this Commission’s recommendations and report will, like those before it, be shelved without leading to action and change. This must not happen.”

Problems in the NT’s detention centres were known within government well before the ABC’s Four Corners program that sparked the royal commission. A Memorandum of Issues in Youth Detention, prepared three years ago by the director of the Department of Correctional Services Professional Standards Unit, listed many of the same issues the commission was now examining.

Commissioner Mick Gooda said in the months ahead he expected to hear further evidence on the memo, as well as from key witnesses, including former minister John Elferink and former corrections commissioner Ken Middlebrook.

“We have cast the net far and wide to look at what is working and what could work in the circumstances of the Northern Territory,” he said. “In the coming months we’ll shift our focus on to the care and protection system.”

The interim report was delivered as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was completing a fact-finding mission to Australia.

She said the most disturbing part of her visit was meeting 12-year-olds in detention: “These children are essentially being punished for being poor, and in most cases prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty and crime.”

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