Systematic abuse of children by NT government

July 28, 2016
CCTV footage shows abuse of young offenders in Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014.

ABC's Four Corners released CCTV footage on July 25 of horrific abuse of youth offenders in Darwin's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, spanning six years of consistent abuse by detention centre staff of repeat offenders as young as 11 years old.

Some of the footage shows systematic abuse of youth offender Dylan Voller. Voller can be seen in solitary confinement being stripped naked and held down by staff. He can be seen beaten in front of other inmates for taking too long on the phone. Other incidents show guards trying to block cameras before beginning a round of abuse.

He is last seen being strapped into a "mechanical restraint chair" for more than two hours because he threatened to self-harm. The device clamps all his limbs, fastens his hips and covers his entire head in a white hood.

At this point he is a 17-year-old who has been in and out of youth detention for six years.

The footage was shocking, even to those who have seen the excesses of incarceration in the NT. Here, legal professionals comfort themselves with the mantra "At least it's not Texas" and proceed with the next bail application.

Green Left Weekly reported on the crisis in January. We noted: “The Northern Territory has the highest rate of youth detention in the country, six times the national average. Of those detained in the juvenile justice system 97% are Aboriginal youth.

“There have been a number of reports and investigations in the past two years into the treatment of Aboriginal youth in custody. They show that by deliberate design and policy Aboriginal youth are treated in a barbarous, inhumane and illegal way.”

We even noted the existence and use of the “mechanical restraint chair”, but the footage released by Four Corners brought home the personal barbarity of the abuse.

This rot has been known to authorities for some time. In 2012, knowledge of this abuse led to an investigation by the NT children's commissioner, who called for changes to the way staff used restraints and urged the NT government to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But they changed nothing.

Buzzfeed has a list of all the times the NT government was told of the problems at Don Dale and did nothing.

It is only now that the footage has become public that action has been taken, but the actions have their problems.

First, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a Royal Commission into the abuse. Of course, given that almost none of the 339 recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were ever implemented, scepticism seems appropriate.

Brian Martin, the former NT Supreme Court Chief Justice, has been appointed to lead the Royal Commission. He is well-known to Aboriginal people as the justice who described the bashing to death of an Aboriginal man by five white youths on a drunken rampage as “a bit of hooning” and the killing as being “at the lowest end of the scale of manslaughter”, when sentencing them to between one and four years' jail.

Second, corrections minister John Elferink has lost his portfolio. He still retains control over the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and in theory he is responsible for stopping the family breakdowns that lead to youth crimes.

How well has he done?

On July 25, ABC news reported that an 11-year-old girl who had been placed under the care of the DCF had been found after being missing for three weeks. During that time, DCF withheld information from her family and the public about her disappearance.

In this case, it is the government that is a bad parent. The child was taken from her family last November after she was arrested by police at her Tennant Creek primary school. She was found in the Northern suburbs of Darwin, more than 800 kilometres away.

Much of this lies with John Elferink, who has promoted law and order as a key plank of his political career. A former police officer and former youth offender himself, Elferink likes to promote “tough love” as a pathway to reforming youth offenders.

When confronted on the allegations, ABC reported Elferink as saying: "Where there has even been a suggestion of criminality we've looked at it. Unfortunately these kids come into the system, these juveniles come into the system pre-broken and we have to cope with them, particularly when they are violent…

"The system has challenges, there's no doubt about it, which is why the system has been so substantially improved in the last four years since I've had control of it."

They were “pre-broken” so it did not matter that detention broke them further, is the logic of the NT government.

And there is no evidence that any changes were actively made. After the Four Corners report, the NT government claimed that that was the only time the “mechanical restraint chair” had been used. A former guard has since come forward to say he knows it was used on at least three other occasions. So when they say they “substantially improved” the system, why should anyone believe them?

Indeed, this government wants to make the situation worse by removing the presumption of bail for “bad youths” meaning more kids will languish in jail awaiting hearings in an overstretched prison system that no child should be in.

The NT legal fraternity is almost completely united in its opposition to these laws and this culture.

Russell Goldflam, president of the NT Criminal Lawyers Association told ABC on May 17: “If we want to make youth crime worse, go ahead ... lock up more youths. When they get out they will be much, much more likely to reoffend and create more victims.

"You fix the problem by looking at the things that are driving this sort of behaviour and addressing those things."

But the NT Country Liberal Party has slashed the community groups, the social services and the diversion programs that could address this behaviour without prison.

This government will go when it faces re-election on August 28. But for fixed terms, it would have gone some time ago; it lacks the numbers to govern. But some of this culture, some of these practices, began under the previous Labor government. Unless public pressure is maintained, then the suffering of young people like Dylan Voller will continue.

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