‘My daughter didn’t have to die’

September 23, 2016
The rally against Black deaths in custody at Blacktown on September 17, at which Debbie Small's tribute to her daughter was read.

Dominic Wykanak read out this moving tribute by Debbie Small to her daughter Rebecca Maher who died in police custody in July, at a rally against Black deaths in custody at Blacktown on September 17.

* * *

It has been two months since a young Wiradjuri woman Rebecca Maher died within hours of being placed in a Maitland police cell.

A week after her death, NSW Police Media released a statement saying they had arrested Maher in Cessnock because she “appeared intoxicated” and that police “had concerns for her welfare and conveyed her to Maitland Police Station”.

Although we still do not know the exact circumstances surrounding her death we now know the initial news reports of alleged intoxication were unfounded. Toxicology results recently given to her family show that Rebecca had no alcohol in her system.

She was not accused of any crime.

Had the police taken Rebecca home or to a hospital, called a doctor or even followed their own guidelines and allowed Rebecca to make a phone call she would be alive today. I would still have my daughter and her children would still have their mother.

Not receiving any answers is in itself traumatising. We, Rebecca's family, still need answers to the questions we asked two months ago.

  • Why was Rebecca taken into custody?
  • Having not been charged with any crime, why was she put into a police cell and left to die?
  • Why did it take more than six hours to notify her family of her death?
  • How did the police apply their duty of care?
  • If police took Rebecca into custody out of concern for her welfare, why was she not taken to a hospital, home, to her family, or why was an ambulance or police doctor not called?
  • Why instead was she taken to the last place an Aboriginal person would feel safe?

The fact of her death within hours of her being put into a cell, points at the very least to police negligence in their duty of care.

The police media release also said that an investigation subject to independent review was currently underway.

But there is no “independent review”. The investigation that they call independent is conducted by police from a neighbouring district.

We need to stop pretending that an investigation of police by police can in any way be considered independent.

Rebecca's family needs to see Rebecca honoured and her death given meaning by making changes that will stop any further deaths in custody.

For anything to change there needs to be a fully independent investigation whenever someone dies in custody. We can never fully trust a police investigation it and makes everything so much harder.

No family of someone who has died in custody should be expected to trust information from the same organisation in whose custody their family member died.

Additionally, families should always be able to have an independent doctor present at the autopsy of any death in custody and be allocated the funds to get their own legal representation and forensic testing done.

A lot has been said lately about the NSW Custody Notification Service (CNS) and how this has helped keep people safe while in police custody.

It should be expanded to not only include situations where someone is put in cells regardless of arrest; it should incur a penalty if it is not used — it is only a phone call and no matter what they say, we know it is often ignored.

Why has it not already been legislated in every state?

As [journalist] Amy McQuire so accurately states: "How can we as a country continue to talk about ‘Black deaths in custody’ without any conversation around the fact no police officer or correctional officer has ever been convicted over one?

“How could there be 400 Black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission, and no accountability?"

"Instead, we have narrow debates about ‘police protocol’ and ‘procedure’, about whether they should have rung a hotline, rather than even allude to the idea that Aboriginal people are continually the victims of brutality and violence within police watchhouses and jail cells."

I miss my beautiful daughter Rebecca so much. Every day I keep thinking it is a nightmare and I will wake up. I still look for her hoping to see her and tell her about the nightmare I keep having over and over again.

I walk to the shops hoping I will see her, hoping she's there. I keep looking at people who look like her. Waiting for that phone call, that knock on the door that says “I'm ok mum”. But it doesn't happen.

No parent should ever have to bury their children. It is not right. You're never ready for that to happen. It is heart wrenching. I miss her so much.  

Parents are supposed to protect their children no matter their age. But I was not there. No one told me and now she is gone and all her family can do now is to try and go on without her.

Rebecca should be here with her family who love her. Stop deaths in custody.

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