• Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
The Northern Territory Royal Commission has heard that children in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre were afraid to speak up about their mistreatment, because they were scared of prison officers.
Elliana Lawford

12 Oct 2016 - 5:02 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2016 - 5:04 PM

In the witness stand, the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, said detainee’s had told her about their fears during visits to the centre.

“There has been from time to time a young person will say that they are concerned about retribution from particular officers,” NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne said.

“There have certainly been young people who have expressed concerns about being targeted from time to time by staff there.”

The commissioner told the inquiry at times detainees were also restricted from the phones in the centre that were intended to be used to contact the commissioner’s office with concerns.

“The phones were physically working, but what they did is they removed the ability for young people to be able to use the phones … not always, but at times … when they were in isolation,” she said.

“My view is that the reason we want the phones working is when young people are at their lowest and need to speak to a third party the most, or have access to us to make a complaint, then they can do it.”

Dr Howard Bath, the former NT Children’s Commissioner, also raised concerns about the way staff dealt with detainee’s who misbehaved.

“Sometimes punishment can be disguised as behaviour management,” Dr Howard Bath said.

Dr Bath said it’s important to understand the reasons why children might be acting out, and ensure kids are not re-traumatised in detention.

“There is a whole body – a huge – in fact emerging body of research on the impact on the developing child of exposure to extreme adversity,” he said.

“I’m talking about things like domestic violence, chronic neglect, exposure to alcohol abuse.

“The evidence is suggesting that simply being exposed to a chronic level of domestic violence for instance, that doesn’t necessarily directly involve the child, has a significant impact on the development of that child’s brain and subsequently their adjustment, their behaviour, their ability.”

Dr Bath said the system needs to embrace "trauma informed", holistic services.

"If we are not dealing with the feeder issues ... the struggling families from which all these children come it's like you're waiting for the harm to occur before you provide your services," Dr Bath said. 

"As much effort [should be] put on preventing these children coming into these services as trying to fix the harm once it has occurred."

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