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Institutionalised abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory

On July 25th 2016, Australia’s ABC network broadcast a documentary from its ‘Four Corners’ series that was to shake the country’s reputation. ‘Australia’s Shame’, exposed the conditions and practices of the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention facility in Darwin, and revealed the harrowing circumstances in which children were being kept. Of the detainees incarcerated at Don Dale, 98% were Aboriginal children, some as young as ten.

In CCTV footage obtained from 2014 onward it was clear that children were being held in isolation cells for up to 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end in a detention block that reeked of urine and faeces. Children had to eat meals using their hands, losing track of time and not knowing when, or if, they would be released back into the main detainee population.

A child is seen being dragged away from a phone by one of the guards – apparently for spending too long using it, kneed in the stomach, punched in the head and knocked to the ground. The child is then dragged out of the common room with the help of another member of staff. From accounts given by some of the Aboriginal children, such abuses were commonplace.

In another scene, reminiscent of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, a half-naked child is bound by the ankles and wrists to a ‘mechanical chair’. The boy’s face is covered with a ‘spit hood’ – a brown cloth sack – and he is left alone in the room for close to two hours. This, according to ‘Four Corners’, was common practice in Don Dale.

What really discomfited the public, however was the ‘tear gas incident’ as shown in the documentary. Caught on CCTV, a child held in the isolation wing is seen leaving his cell, which had mistakenly been left unlocked by one of the guards. The child, disorientated, confused and having been left there for days, begins striking a door with a light fixture.

How the guards reacted was reprehensible. This time recorded on an officer’s handy-cam, one officer is heard saying: “Go get the fu*kin’ gas and gas them through”, after which the cell block is sprayed ten times with tear gas. A news release falsely asserted that six boys had escaped from their cells and guards told police it was a “riot” but it involved, as shown on CCTV, just one detainee. The incident saw the remaining locked cells, housing five other boys, engulfed with the gas for a total of eight minutes.

Children were pictured cowering beneath blankets, scared for their lives and struggling to breathe. After the eight minutes, the children were then marched outside, wrists bound, thrown face down on the ground and their heads sprayed with a fire hose. Guard laughter intersperses the recording.

Lawyer Jared Sharp, who works with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and contributed to the ‘Four Corners’ documentary – has represented many of the children of Don Dale. He has been scathing in his criticisms of the brutal and at times barbaric conditions there. He told Village:

“In 2014 I went to Don Dale with some of my colleagues and we were taken on a tour of the facility. As part of the tour, we were taken to this back area, which could only be described as a dungeon; it was damp, dark and actually pretty medieval looking. There were no immediate signs of life, but as we were being shown through the area we heard noises. I said to the guards: ‘there aren’t kids in there, are there?’. They said there were, and it raised alarm bells straight away.

When we looked we saw that these boys were being kept locked up in these tiny little cells. There was no natural light, no air-conditioning and no running water. Some of them had been kept there for weeks. It was after we found out who these boys were that we began to document the conditions they were being kept in and then to try to advocate for them to get out”.

Abuse at the Don Dale child detention centre in the Northern Territory
Abuse at the Don Dale child detention centre in the Northern Territory

Jared wrote to the then Corrections Minister demanding these issues be addressed. In his letter he highlighted the physical conditions in which children in solitary confinement were being held, and said that the most striking thing was the “removal of all hope” – how the children were left feeling they were being detained for an indeterminate period of time, without any hope of being returned to the main part of the detention centre.

When a satisfactory response wasn’t forthcoming, Jared wrote to the Children’s Minister, and an investigation was immediately launched. However, questions were raised about the independence of the investigation, since it was conducted by a superintendent of a New South Wales youth detention centre who was known to the Corrections Commissioner.

The investigation was also conducted over a very short period so that there were serious questions as to how rigorous and detailed its analysis was. However, as a result of it, a damning report of the practices at Don Dale was made, along with a list of recommendations. Despite this, abuses continued to happen at the centre:

“Since the tear-gassing incident we’ve seen many incidents of young people being treated below the standards that any reasonable person would find acceptable, and beneath the standards that international law requires.

Things like use of force, use of restraints, use of isolation and being kept in a facility that is really not fit for purpose.

The children are currently being kept in a facility that was an adult prison, and was decommissioned because it was deemed no longer suitable to hold adults. This is the same facility where some of these children have had family members incarcerated, some of whom have committed suicide, so it’s a facility that’s associated with enormous despair and anguish amongst the Aboriginal community”.

One glaring omission of the 2014 investigation concerned children who suffered self-harm/ suicide ideation. A child who displayed signs of self-harm/suicide ideation was accorded ‘at risk’ status. Once deemed ‘at risk’, the child was subject to exceptional treatment: guards coming into their cell, cutting their clothes off, stripping them naked and leaving them there overnight. This practice has been in place at Don Dale for a number of years.

Most of the Aboriginal children are pulled from very disadvantaged backgrounds – where there has been trauma, violence, sexual abuse, neglect and entrenched poverty. About one in three of them are in the care of the welfare department and have been removed from the family unit. Many children have mental health issues, mostly left undiagnosed. These problems are not unique to the Aboriginal community, but are exacerbated by extreme poverty and disadvantage. On the issue of why there is such a disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in custody, Jared says:

“I believe a lot of it is to do with systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonisation. A lot of these detentions would appear to be racially motivated. Whether it’s also because of the physical circumstances of poverty or because of the psychological impacts of colonisation and dispossession I don’t know, but what I do know is that the kids I represent are often very alienated and marginalised.

We have practices here in the Northern Territory that are very punitive. Police will target so-called serious young offenders and the way they target them is quite extreme, given that they’re children. We have a justice system that is really ill-equipped to meet the needs of these children and that is overtly punitive. We don’t have the type of responses to deal with trauma amongst Aboriginal people, to support them and help get their lives back on track and I think we’re the only jurisdiction in Australia that doesn’t have any Aboriginal justice programmes”.

The abuses are embarrassing for a modern democracy like Australia, albeit that it has long intermittently scandalised the world with indecent treatment of minorities and immigrants. For Irish people in particular with our background of institutional abuse it is interesting to know what Jared thinks grounds the abuse:

“I think any organisation that doesn’t have strong checks and balances is susceptible to these sort of things happening. In the Northern Territory, our institutions are very fragile, there’s no independent oversight of corrections, police or government agencies – they’re left to police themselves in the majority of cases. We also know that the workforce has been under-trained, or scandalously untrained.

We still don’t have a trained workforce at this point; it’s moving in that direction, but there are serious questions over expertise in corrections to manage the workforce. They have no specialization of dealing with children, of adolescent behaviour and trauma, and unfortunately as we speak, they are continuing to apply an adult corrections model to children and are not learning the lessons of the past”.

One disturbing aspect of the issues surrounding Don Dale is the fact that children from the age of ten-years-old are detained there. Inexplicably, these young children would be subject to some of the abuses inflicted upon other detainees. It would seem unthinkable for a young child to be strapped to a chair with a hood over their head, being beaten or kept in solitary confinement for days or weeks. As Jared says:

“It’s outrageous that Don Dale houses 10, 11 and 12-year-olds, and it speaks of the systemic failures of the justice system as a whole. In my mind there should never be circumstances where 10, 11 or 12-year-olds are in a detention centre. What the criminal law acknowledges for all children is that culpability and criminal knowledge of behaviour is less and less the younger children are, so for a ten year-old the criminal culpability will always be extremely low.

If they are committing offences it’s almost always going to be because of abuse they’ve experienced, or deprivation and disadvantage they are suffering, so therapeutic responses must always be used. As we speak, I’ve got clients in Don Dale who are 12 years of age. I think there are fundamental failures of our child protection system when welfare is using detention as a so-called ‘placement’ because they can’t manage them in the community. That is an indictment of our child protection system when it cannot provide safe alternative places for these children to reside”.

The ‘Four Corners’ documentary has had a major impact on the courts, so that now there is a greater emphasis on finding alternatives to detention. With a population of only 250,000 in the Northern Territory, it is also hoped that detention centre numbers will reduce so they become proportionate to the population.

In the wake of the ‘Four Corners’ documentary and following protests all over Australia, a Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention in the Northern Territory was established to investigate conditions and practices in Don Dale and other detention centres. Though it is uncertain what impact the commission will have, it is hoped that it will instigate much-needed change and reform. The wider issue, however, is the grossly disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in detention.

“We’ve got to provide alternatives to detention so that we don’t have so many Aboriginal children ending up in places like Don Dale. At the moment, we have a justice system that is still very white and mainstream and is not adapted to the needs of the Aboriginal people. “The real tragedy and the most overlooked point is that all of these kids are Aboriginal. This is the legacy of colonisation, that so many of these kids end up here. Many of these arrests are racially motivated which is why indigenous Australians make up 98% of the detainee population. We need to find an alternative to detention, support these kids as best we can and finally seek justice for Northern Territory Aboriginal children”.


By Ken Phelan