Release the kids, charge the abusers now

August 4, 2016
Adelaide protest against the abuse of children in Don Dale and all juvenile justice systems.

The shocking abuse suffered by children in Darwin's Don Dale detention centre revealed by the ABC's Four Corners on July 25 has angered wide layers of the community. It has also prompted a nationwide demand to take immediate action against the perpetrators and ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again in the juvenile detention system.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's decision to call a narrowly focused royal commission into Northern Territory youth detention centres has been met with justifiable scepticism and criticism.

After all, a royal commission's findings are not binding on government and the fact that the abuse was known about for more than a year but nothing was done makes many feel that a new commission is nothing more than a delaying or face-saving exercise for the NT and federal governments.

Turnbull's appointed commissioner Brian Martin's decision, on August 1, to remove himself has highlighted how badly thought through the commission is.

Martin presided over the trial of five white men in 2009 accused of killing an Aboriginal man camped in the Todd River bed. In sentencing the five for manslaughter, Martin said their crime was “toward the lower end of the scale of seriousness for crimes of manslaughter”. This is despite the fact that they had beaten the man to death after terrorising him and others camped in the riverbed.

In stepping down from the role, Martin affirmed he “would not have the full confidence of sections of the Indigenous community”.

Mick Gooda, a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, has now been named as one of two new commissioners. He had called for the NT government to be sacked and had cast doubt over former prisons minister and NT Attorney General John Elferink setting its terms of reference, but appears now to have backtracked.

This is not the genuine consultation nor the truly independent inquiry that First Nations' community leaders have been calling for.

As most of the young people at Don Dale are Aboriginal, the Aboriginal community must be centrally involved in planning an appropriate response.

We can have no confidence in any royal commission unless the Aboriginal community and its leaders are able to take the lead and set the terms of reference. Its recommendations also need to be binding on government.

If this cannot be guaranteed, the only just alternative would be to launch a full, independent and public inquiry into the treatment of young people in the youth justice system.

We agree with the families of the young people in Don Dale who want the royal commission to be national and investigate allegations of abuse of young people in detention in other states.

They also say, correctly, that the government can and must take immediate action to ensure the safety of the young people still at Don Dale by closing it down and releasing the juveniles from a centre which has been dysfunctional since it moved to the old adult prison in September 2014.

They are also demanding compensation for the suffering they have endured and that action be taken immediately against those responsible for the abuse of the young people at Don Dale. That means sacking Elferink and NT chief minister Adam Giles.

We agree with the call from the families of the abused kids that charges be laid against all those involved in the abuse. The children should not be transferred to adult prisons and there should be a guarantee of anonymity and protection for those whistleblowers who are still incarcerated.

The revelations about the abuse of children at Don Dale come despite a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCADIC) 25 years ago, which recommended imprisonment be a last resort for Aboriginal people.

The NT government has consistently de-funded and underfunded youth diversion services and organisations that provide legal or other support to, or work to build resilience in, Aboriginal communities.

All recommendations of the RCADIC must be implemented. Aboriginal legal services, youth services and community organisations must be fully funded to allow them to assist in the empowering of Aboriginal communities, which would include mentoring to young people who have been damaged by the child protection and so-called justice system.

We must acknowledge that the horrific abuses taking place at Don Dale and elsewhere are the pointy end of a war on Aboriginal children that reaches back a century or more.

The official Stolen Generations policy may have ended decades ago, but Aboriginal children are placed in out-of-home care at much higher rates than they were under that policy.

Former Labor PM Kevin Rudd may have apologised to the Stolen Generations, but he refused to compensate them. Similarly, Giles has said he would not “waste” taxpayer's money on compensating the victims in this latest abuse.

In 2007, under the “Little Children are Sacred” slogan the then John Howard Coalition government sent the army into NT Aboriginal communities. The NT Intervention disempowered thousands of parents and elders and restricted people's basic rights and freedoms based on a concocted concern about child abuse.

The children in Don Dale have grown up under this paternalistic legislation that demonises Aboriginal people and creates an atmosphere of increased racism. The NT Intervention, which became the Stronger Futures policy under Labor must be dismantled and control taken back by communities.

The Four Corners program highlighted what many of us have known for a long time: abuse and torture of children — overwhelmingly Aboriginal children — is a real thing and is happening right now in government institutions. The broader community — with Aboriginal people front and centre — must be part of a solution to the latest example of state-sanctioned racism.

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