Trigger Warning: This article discusses suicide.
Many of the recent cases of Indigenous youth suicide have concerned young girls from my country; Rochelle Pryor, Linda Cockie and Jade Hill-Collard are their names and we should remember them and their names.
They were Noongar girls who were experiencing such severe distress they presumably saw suicide as the way out of their suffering. The rates of Aboriginal girls and women committing suicide is rising, this may be a reflection of the high level of family violence, sexual abuse and racism they are experiencing. It seems that their lives have just become too unsafe.
Most recently, reports in The Australian, concerning the suicide of a young Noongar girl holidaying in Queensland with her family highlight lack of cultural safety inherent in the mainstream criminal justice response. According to the mother of Jade Hill-Collard, Jade’s wellbeing and mental health deteriorated following the decision of the WA Director of Public Prosecutions to drop criminal charges against an older male relative.
While Jade initially had the supportive involvement of a woman police officer, it has not been reported why the DPP discontinued the prosecution but the Australian Law Reform Commission in 2017 importantly acknowledged that Aboriginal women and girls are more likely to be judged as offenders, rather than victims, and Aboriginal victims do not receive equality of treatment in the justice system.
The devastating impact that discrimination in the criminal justice system can have on vulnerable Aboriginal women and girls impacted by gender violence such as sexual assault has been demonstrated time and again with the loss of many innocent lives.
Many years ago in West Australia the Coroner investigated the 1999 death of Susan Taylor, a 15 year old Noongar girl whose body was found at the Swan Valley Noongar community. According to the Coroner, the evidence was that Susan had been sexually abused and that this abuse ‘played a large part in the circumstances of her death’. The Coroner also found that there was widespread sexual abuse and rape perpetrated against Indigenous children and youth in WA and that very little of this abuse was being reported to the police.
Young Susan had reported to police sexual abuse by senior male relatives in her community and her death took place in the weeks immediately following. The WA police did not, however, follow established rules of police investigation and as such the Coroner was bound to make an ‘open’ finding as to the cause of her death.
The Gordon Inquiry triggered by Susan’s death and the Coroner’s finding promised ‘a commitment to do things differently and a committed focus on working with Indigenous people to affect change’. The fact is that key recommendations from the Gordon Inquiry such as Aboriginal healing centres and the One Stop Shop for victims of family violence and sexual assault supported by Local Action Groups were not supported with government preferring instead the establishment of multi-functioning police stations, staffed by largely non-Aboriginal police and social workers, with a child protection mandate.
This approach has led to sharped increase of Aboriginal child removals, especially on the basis of family violence experienced by Aboriginal mothers, increasing trauma for Aboriginal women, children and entire communities but it has not improved safety for Aboriginal women and girls.
The work of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar shows systemic racism is a daily encounter for Aboriginal women and girls across Australia. Racism against Aboriginal women is very evident in the criminal justice system.
As the Australian Law Reform Commission found in its 2017 inquiry ‘Pathways to Justice’ Aboriginal women and girls are subject to racial profiling as offenders with less attention to their status as victims. I do question why the DPP dropped the charges in relation to Jade Hill-Collard and ask, was racism was at play in this decision?
In 2017 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Race Discrimination in its report to the Australian government expressed great concern ‘about the persistent challenges and discrimination face by Indigenous peoples in all aspects of their life’.
The UN noted that the Closing the Gap (CTG) strategy was failing with only one of the seven targets being on track, and there was a considerable lack of resourcing and proper implementation. The UN called on Australia to ‘urgently introduce a paradigm shift in its dealings with Indigenous people and to demonstrate the necessary political will to ensure that aspirational plans and programmes become a reality’. While the government has committed to a refreshed Close the Gap process we are yet to see the paradigm shift in practice.
This week the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (NACHO), the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) called on the Prime Minister to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth suicide an urgent national priority requiring immediate investment into Aboriginal led mental health and wellbeing.
To date the current suicide responses announced by the federal Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt include provision of significant funding to non-Aboriginal Primary Health Networks to commission regional and culturally appropriate suicide prevention programs especially in the Pilbara and Kimberley region. Minister Wyatt also funded Aboriginal men’s health promoting culture and traditional knowledge.
These responses do not sufficiently empower Aboriginal communities, or Aboriginal women, and are not the answer to the rising rates of youth suicide, especially that of women and girls.
I am in support of the Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Declaration which calls for the recognition of the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in mental health and the imperative of cultural safety, including cultural healing in Indigenous mental health care services.
We must also properly identify the serious risk posed to Aboriginal women and girls by the impact of trauma from sexual assault and family violence and the additional impact of trauma from an inherently unsafe criminal justice system.
Based on significant evidence, including many deceased women and child victims, it is my strong belief that police, courts and prosecuting authorities are inherently racist and that entirely new approaches founded in human rights, self-determination and importantly cultural safety are urgently required to address the rising rates of suicide of Aboriginal women and girls.
We must develop our own Aboriginal models of justice and healing to address family violence and child sexual assault, this is a matter of human rights of the utmost importance.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe.
Dr Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Western Australia. She is the author of "Our Greatest Challenge, Aboriginal Children and Human Rights" which received the 2013 Stanner Award for excellence in Aboriginal research. In 2016 Dr McGlade was appointed the Senior Indigenous Fellow at the United Nations OHCHR. She has led the establishment of legal support services for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander victims of family violence and sexual assault in Western Australia.