• A Coroner said that a spate of suicides among young Indigenous people were shaped by cross-generational trauma and poverty. (Source SBS/NITV - 14 March 2016)Source: Source SBS/NITV - 14 March 2016
Indigenous advocates say children are being failed by the very systems designed to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.
Sarah Collard

16 Dec 2020 - 9:44 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2020 - 9:44 PM

Indigenous advocates say children are being failed by the very systems designed to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. 

On Tuesday, the Northern Territory coroner handed down findings on the suspected suicides of three teenagers in remote communities in the Top End.

Judge Greg Cavanagh didn't rule out foul play in the deaths of one of the girls but said departmental agencies had been "blind" to the stress and trauma the girls suffered in their short lives - including rape, molestation and apathy. 

Government departments had missed warning signs, according to Thirrili's chief executive Jacqueline McGowan-Jones. 

"These failures are ongoing. This is the third enquiry where we have seen systemic failings across government and other services," said Ms McGowan-Jones. 

Thirrili Ltd provides support services for Indigenous families dealing with suicide and trauma, and Ms McGowan-Jones said she had serious concerns about how agencies are dealing with at-risk children and young people.

"It's horrific to me that sexual abuse is not being identified earlier, that we're not able to intervene, that the service system of child protection does not appear to be working for our young girls," she said.

"There's a lot of talk of 'cultural'. It is not and it never has been cultural to rape or abuse."

Ms McGowan-Jones said historic practices by government agencies means many Indigenous peoples don't trust the system.

"Our people have a very long and bad history with child protection agencies and that is often because of the past policies and practices leading to Stolen Generations."

Young people uncomfortable with mainstream services

More services and wraparound supports are needed to address the structural inequalities facing may Indigenous peoples, Ms McGowan-Jones said.

"A lot of money goes into mainstream services. Our people have a dreadful history with mainstream services. We have racism, whether it's overt and blatant or whether it's casual or systemic and structural."

She said Thirrili has found many young Indigenous people don't feel comfortable seeking support through non-Indigenous services.

"We're really concerned. Young people out there will not ring Kids Helpline, they want to speak to an Aboriginal person.

"We need indigenous controlled and led services to be providing those responses. Our families and communities are not reaching out to mainstream services for the most part, and that leaves us more at risk."

Dr Gracelyn Smallwood has worked for decades as a nurse, mental health and Indigenous rights advocate. 

The Birrigubba, Kalkadoon, and Southsea woman told NITV News that shame and fear prevents many families from speaking out and accessing help.

"There has to be more culturally appropriate programs to deal with these traumas and look at the underlying issues of behavioural problems, skipping school, or why they are taking drugs, why there are all these complications," said Ms Smallwood. 

She said too many families protected abusers or were unsure of where to turn if they did suspect abuse. 

"The people that know about the sexual abuse, it should be mandatory reporting - everybody, not just health professionals," she said.

"Abuse is hidden in the Black and the white communities. They're not talking about it… We've got to start dealing with the issues - head-on – and stop going through denial," she said. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar, said too many Indigenous peoples faced systemic oppression and disadvantage. 

"It is clear that significant work needs to be done to overcome the structural racism and disadvantage that disproportionally affects our First Nations peoples around the country," Ms Oscar said. 

The Bunaba woman said Indigenous women and girls were at particular risk in our society - emphasised by a  recent report into the experiences of First Nations women and girls.  
"My team and I met with thousands of women and girls, from urban settings to the most remote corners of the country.
"While their experiences, customs and culture may be diverse, they sung collectively from the same song sheet; their struggles are borne out of the failure of existing systems to address the issues they face on the ground," she said.
The solutions to entrenched disadvantage and creating systems to support and uplift Indigenous peoples are being overlooked, said Ms Oscar. 
"The policies and systems that are designed for us are failing, because they aren't designed with us," she said. 
"Our women and girls need a seat at decision-making tables to guide policy reforms and design trauma-informed services that respond to the issues they face."
Teenagers’ tragic lives and deaths - ‘A disgrace in a country such as Australia’
The Northern Territory Coroner says multiple criminal offences may have been committed in relation to the suspected suicides of three teenage girls in Top End remote communities.