Above: Royal Commission panel at yesterday’s community meeting, Tony McAvoy, senior counsel assisting, on the microphone; Ken Lechleitner, far right, was facilitating.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Royal commissions don’t work unless people come forward with their stories, but the stories themselves are not evidence of the sort on which the commission can base its recommendations.
This sobering note was sounded at the start of yesterday’s community meeting in Alice Springs, by Tony McAvoy, senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Child Protection and Youth Detention in the Northern Territory.
The commission understands its terms of reference as allowing it to conduct a broad inquiry, he said. Essentially they’ll be looking at “the way kids live their lives in the Northern Territory and the things that effect their lives”. This will include looking at health and education services.
“The difficulty will be to draw together all these strands into recommendations that can be implemented.”
These recommendations must be based on the evidence of formal documents accepted into the commission and the evidence of witnesses in court (and hence subject to cross-examination).
Nonetheless, written submissions (first round due 28 October) and what people tell the commission can “inform its lines of inquiry”, said Mr McAvoy, especially if a lot of people are describing similar situations.
He also warned of a limit to what the commission can do in terms of confidentiality. The commission is mindful of people’s fear of reprisals, he said, but if adverse comments are made about another person, that person has a right to know who is making them.
A woman wanted to know if she could protect people by making a statutory declaration on their behalf, recounting their experiences without disclosing their identity.
Nothing stops her from doing so, said Mr McAvoy, but the statement would be regarded as hearsay.
Ultimately individuals will have to decide: if they are too fearful then they may have to choose to not come forward, he said.
That morning he and other members of the commission had met with a number of “very forthcoming” young people behind closed doors at the Gap Youth Centre.
At the community meeting, adults spoke on their behalf. A caseworker argued for the usefulness of trusted adults in helping young people find their voice.
Her work puts her in close contact with young people in the justice system, especially young women, many of whom have also been in child protection. She said an initial conversation about their detention experience might not turn up very much. It is only with time that details of abuses can emerge, as the young women often think their treatment was to be expected, as part of their punishment.
“Not big things,” said the caseworker, but the examples she gave included being placed in isolation for 24 hours with no food; losing phone call privileges for three weeks for swearing during a call to family (“I f***ing love you”); being served frozen food.
She said a “major demographic” of the young people the commission needs to hear from attend St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, and urged the commission to look at holding a meeting at that school.
A number of youth workers and community development workers spoke of their experiences with young people in remote communities.
A couple of little boys had been taken from their grandmother – unsupported to look after them – and placed in residential care for a period. When they were returned to her care, she was still left without support.
A youth had been in and out of detention so often that he had become institutionalised; he reoffends to go back inside because he can’t cope outside.
A young fella got a community work order as the penalty for his offending but there was no support from Corrections to help him fulfil his obligations. For another, work with the local council was the only option for his order but staff there were unwilling to take him on.
What is “best practice” in this area? the youth worker wanted to know, contrasting what happens in the NT with his experience in Queensland where community work orders are “fully supported”.
Proceedings against a 14-year-old began despite the victim of the alleged offence saying that she could not positively identify him. He had since been locked up for other offending and on release was back in the care of his grandmother, a highly stressful situation for which the grandmother was receiving no support.
Are there many people in that position? Mr McAvoy asked.
“Pretty much 100%,” replied this woman.
Above: Telling her story, a woman addresses the commission.
Prominent advocate for youth in remote communities, Blair McFarland of CAYLUS (Central Australian Youth Link Up Service), spoke of the importance of diversionary youth programs. The campaign that stopped petrol sniffing in its tracks rested not only on the introduction of non-sniffable Opal fuel, but on the existence of youth programs, yet the support for them in “really patchy”. There is no one source of funding for them and thus no consistency. CAYLUS props up half a dozen that would not exist otherwise.
No matter what reform is accomplished in detention centres, if the push factors aren’t addressed then the commission will have been wasting its time, said Mr McFarland: “These kids aren’t bad kids, they’ve got great potential. The reason why they are 20 times more likely to offend, is that they are 20 times more disadvantaged.”
A common question from the remote workers was around how the commission was going to hear from youth in these communities. (In Central Australia the commission has already been to Santa Teresa and will visit Mutitjulu and Yuendumu next week.)
Robin Granites, from Yuendumu, who works for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service, also raised the question of language. Hundreds of pages are coming out of the commission, he said, but “none of the words is in our language”. He said people in remote communities are very worried by what they saw on the Four Corners report that prompted the creation of the commission, and they want to make sure they have input.
Mr McAvoy said the commission is “very aware of the language issues”. It was unclear what would be done about them.
Community engagement officer Jenny Bedford said she was keen to hear specific requests; she also said that submissions from organisations like Anyinginyi Health in Tennant Creek would capture some of the concerns from remote communities.
Other speakers were critical of the culture and actions of the Department of Children and Families (now subsumed into Territory Families, with a strong reform agenda already underway).
An Aboriginal man with a decades-long history in the public service and with NGOs, described his recent two year service with DCF as the worst experience of his career. It was personally destructive and it raised many concerns about the way the department was doing business.
It was “driven by statistics”, to the point of presenting case plans for children in care as completed, when there was nothing in them, he alleged. It was bogged down by “five layers of managers”; getting out to see a child would take three to four weeks.
It would be planning to remove children without working with their families and without even notifying them, he said. Families might ask for help and the response would be to remove children, with no counselling was provided to the children when they were taken.
It failed to act when he drew attention to carers being unregistered or acting inappropriately (saying destructive things in front of children, having inappropriate sleeping arrangements in place).
An Aboriginal woman, who grew up in Alice, had moved to Victoria for her children’s education. While there she worked in the Aboriginal guardianship program. Returning to Alice she has been shocked by the contrast between how Aboriginal children and their families are treated here and by how much power child protection has over their lives.
She said many families don’t know that they can contest a decision of the department; they are “scared and vulnerable”.
She said families could have five different people “knocking on the door” to deal with the situation of one child – “the voice of the child is lost”.
She spoke of the number of children with protection orders who end up in the youth justice system. Where is the “duty of care” of the department? she asked. People are ready to blame parents for the fate of their children, but what about the responsibility of the department?
She spoke of young people being detained on remand for longer than the ultimate sentence for their offence; and of young people copping long sentences, 10 to 15 years, because of “common cause laws” (likely referring to convictions for acting with “unlawful common purpose” in a serious crime, without being the principal offender).
On the latter point, Mr McAvoy said this aspect of the law applies to everyone and the commission would not be able to make recommendations in this regard.
She had also spoken of adults currently in gaol who had been in juvenile detention previously and asked how the commission is going to get these stories.
“Good question”, said Mr McAvoy. He said the commission is visiting detainees in juvenile detention centres but there is no proposal to go to adult prisons. He said the commission understands that some juvenile detainees in the period 2006-2016 would have “graduated to the big house”. However, it was unclear if this would be taken further.
Note: Permission was sought by the facilitator for photographs to be taken during the meeting.