There is an “appetite for change” said Commissioner Mick Gooda at the press conference on the Report on Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. And there needs to be changed because it’s the children who pay the price for inaction if there isn’t.
Four Corners “Australia’s Shame” went to air on the 24th of July 2016. On the 25th of July 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the Royal Commission. On the 1st of August, it was established. All it took was days days.
So, what drove such swift and decisive action? Despite the low number of rehabilitations, the high number of re-offenders and the ongoing practice of hiring staff who had no formal qualifications and were given only 3-days training before commencing work with children - when it came to the horrific conditions children Don Dale were exposed to, it took footage. Images of a child restrained and wearing a spit hood, other children being tear gassed and others pinned to the floor by multiple men. Images that were difficult to watch. Images that could be splashed across every TV screen, computer and newspaper for days to come.
The government has been perpetrating the same neglect and abuse which it claims to be protecting our kids from.
The Little Children are Sacred report in 2007 was released and designed to protect children. In the 10 years since its recommendations, how have these children been protected? Since the Intervention, we have seen the number of children in out of home care and in-detention skyrocket. The children that were meant to be protected, were the ones being abused in Don Dale. Ironically, the government has been perpetrating the same neglect and abuse which it claims to be protecting our kids from.
Report after report after report
One of the most upsetting aspects of this whole story is that it was avoidable. This is by no means the first report on juvenile justice in Australia and the NT. In 2011, six years ago, the Doing Time - Time for Doing: Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system, much like the NT Royal Commission, had a focus on prevention mentioning it over 30 times. The 2012 House of Representative Inquiry into Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Report also had a focus on justice, prevention and conduct of judicial officers. In both cases, little to nothing was done.
In January 2015, the Review of the Northern Territory Youth Detention System Report by Michael Vista highlighted numerous significant concerns about youth detention. It also highlighted the substantial and unnecessary reliance of confinement and the impact that had on vulnerable people. Similar to the current Royal Commission, it highlighted the lack of training, called for more money to be invested in culturally appropriate programs and case management.
A Royal Commission is a fact-finding mission without any impetus for the Commonwealth and Territory governments to implement the recommendations. This is not the first of its kind in Australia. In 1991, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report was handed down. However, very few of the recommendations have been implemented and sustained. Had they been implemented would we have had the 330 plus deaths we have seen since the Royal Commission?
What is that price these kids and society pay? The price is recidivism, poor education, low self-efficacy, trauma after trauma.
With an appauling track record of implementing official recommendations, what is going to happen to our children if the recommendations in this report are also ignored like the previous reports? The current juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory and most likely those in other states and territories teaches children that as an adult you can do what you like. That the rules don’t apply. It teaches these children that power through violence is ok. And what is that price these kids and society pay? The price is recidivism, poor education, low self-efficacy, trauma after trauma. We are creating adults who are not prepared for anything but incarceration. By not investing in their future we are breaking them before they have had a chance to succeed.
Locking children up does not work
The Royal Commission report is clear, locking children up does not work. It does not make them better people, does not stop them from breaking the law and certainly does not make the community safer.
Let's hope the finding of the report has caught the attention of the Minster of Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion who is from the Northern Territory himself. Let's hope that he becomes a driver for change. This is an opportunity for him to demonstrate he really is the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. The original program didn’t garner his attention until well after it had gone to air. When asked if he had watched the Four Corners program the night before he said it “didn’t pique” his interest. Hopefully, the report and its recommendations have now “piqued” the Minister's interest.
What are the solutions? What hasn’t been done that needs to be done? Let’s be honest, there is no single solution, not quick fixes. What needs to happen, as the Royal Commission Report calls for, is systemic change. At the centre of that change needs to be Aboriginal people. Solutions need to be created with and by the communities themselves. We need both governments to put aside politics and share power with Aboriginal people so our kids can have a better future.
Traditionally governments have not been very good at power-sharing and genuine partnership. This one of the reasons there continues to be a significant health disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Governments think about re-election, where a “tough on crime” message appeals to the general populous. Report after report has called for change. They've spoken about the damage done to our children. They've made suggestions about how to assist our kids. And now, with spit hoods and tear gas circulating online, this government has some hard decisions to make. Decisions that may not be popular with the majority. Then again, the children in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory are largely Aboriginal. This isn't about non-Aboriginal Australia...
Will we see swift and decisive decisions on the Royal Commission's recommendation the same way we did with its establishment? The recommendations within this report must be implemented and quickly. Our children, the ones in the footage and the ones still behind bars, cannot afford for them not to.
Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman who grew up in Lake Macquarie near Newcastle. Summer is an academic, a writer and a public health consultant. Summer has worked in a number of different areas relating to Aboriginal health and social justice. Follow Summer @OnTopicAus