Royal Commission: Children’s voices are at the centre


p2428 Royal Commissioners 1Opinion editorial by Commissioner Margaret White AO and Commissioner Mick Gooda
When we were appointed to conduct this Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry in August 2016 the treatment of children and young people was front and centre of Australia’s consciousness. The title of the Four Corners program, “Australia’s Shame” matched the sentiments shared by most of us.
That children and young people could be subject to such brutality in a public institution confronted our sensibilities about what is acceptable and what is not.
Both the NT and Commonwealth Governments were right to call this Inquiry and today the report will be given to them with our recommendations for the future.
What we have found is disturbing on many levels, not least of course because it has occurred on our watch and in our country.
Our Interim Report painted a bleak picture of detention and our Final Report will expand on the serious problems and challenges facing children in care and detention.
1,020 children and young people were in out-of-home care across the NT as of June 2016 and 89% of those were Aboriginal.
78% of the 20,465 notifications received by Territory Families related to Aboriginal children and young people.
The Northern Territory has the highest rate of children and young people receiving child protection services in Australia – 91.5 per 1000 compared with 28.6 per 1000 nationally.
30% of the Northern Territory population are Aboriginal yet 94% of children and young people in detention are Aboriginal.
The Territory has the highest rate of children and young people in detention in Australia.
The problems we have identified are deep seated, confronting and come at an enormous human and financial cost.
Neither will be sustainable for the NT in the short term.
The human cost of the “crossover kids” is a case in point – 75.2% of Aboriginal children and 60% of non-Aboriginal children who had a proven guilty offence had previously been reported to child protection.
The financial costs are also staggering.
A cost benefit analysis undertaken by Deloitte for this Commission outlines that changing the current approach to youth justice and detention as we recommend is estimated conservatively to deliver savings of $335.5m by 2027.
Doing nothing will see costs of $37.3m in 2016-17 increase to $113.4m by 2026-27 with the main driver being ongoing use of existing facilities.
p2366-royal-commissionersWe were initially given seven months to complete our inquiry. However, it was quickly recognised that this timeframe was unlikely to be achievable, because not only was youth detention in the Northern Territory to be investigated but also the child protection system.
These are complex issues and in the event it has taken 15 months to complete our work and report to the commissioning governments.
And just as our inquiry has taken time, the paradigm change that is undeniably needed in the Northern Territory will also take time, commitment and resilience to deliver a better future for children and families as well as safer communities.
Other jurisdictions have done it and it has worked.
The Northern Territory is not alone in facing the challenges and entrenched problems that undermine the current systems of detention and protection.
Failures of systems, agencies and people are not unique and indeed many of today’s recognised world leaders in secure detention and child protection were once beset with the same unacceptable outcomes for children and communities. The Commission was privileged to hear from many of them during its hearings.
It has been both a challenging and rewarding experience for us. The challenges are readily apparent throughout the report we will deliver today, in the nature of the subject matter, the geography of the Northern Territory and the dispersed spread of the people across some of the most beautiful and remote land in the country.
The rewards may not be so self-evident. From the beginning we realised that for us to have any hope of understanding the dimension of the task we needed to meet the people of the Northern Territory.
We started at Kalkarindji where the Northern and Central Land Councils were meeting in late August 2016 and progressively visited many communities throughout the Territory.
We listened to men and women speak of their love for their children, their deep sadness when they were removed or detained, their recognition that many parents need a lot of support to be good parents and their strong belief that they, themselves, must be partners in improving their children’s health and welfare and creating conditions where they can flourish.
This was the same message from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people but our visits were more directed to Aboriginal communities because of the stark fact that of the children in care in the Northern Territory, 89% are Aboriginal and of the children and young people in detention 96% are Aboriginal.
We met with many other people – teachers, doctors, social workers, police, foster carers, government officials and the victims of offending. All of them, the victims too, wanted the children to be able to grow up in conditions which led to a worthwhile life, not those which often led to criminal conduct.
We were the grateful recipients of much support and encouragement from all of these people: they all want the very best for the children of the Northern Territory. But support and encouragement carries with it the hope and expectations that this inquiry will do what many such inquiries before have been unable to do, to find the signposts to a better future for Territorian children.
Children’s voices are at the centre of this Inquiry.
In addition to describing in vivid terms their often graphic, disturbing and horrifying descriptions of their perceptions of what happened to them in detention and/or in care and protection, these children shared their ideas for improvements to the system in the “hope that what … happened [to them] doesn’t happen to other kids”.
One young person who gave evidence to the Commission said:
“I think it is too late for people like me, that I’ve missed my chance … I would like the Royal Commission to make these changes for kids who are in detention now.”
He is still a teenager. It cannot and should not be too late. He deserves more.
In all the negative stories we were told, other positive ones stood out.
One young woman recalled her case worker taking her out to lunch and spending an hour talking with her. This was apparently such an unusual occurrence that it stuck in her mind for years.
There were others.
We both made a habit of ensuring that we asked every vulnerable witness who came before us, “were there any good guards, any good youth workers?” And every one of those children said of course there were.
And what does that tell us about the needs and wants of young people? They just want people to talk to them and treat them with kindness.
To all who have assisted the Commission in any way we record here, our thanks. It is our most heartfelt wish that their dedication will see beneficial outcomes for the children of the Northern Territory.
Finally our thoughts return to that day in August at Kalkarindji where after our meeting with the Land Councils we were taken to meet several Elders who presented us with a Number 7 boomerang. We were told that in the “olden days” the giving of this boomerang would have been a challenge to fight.
But we were told by the Elders our fight was for all children and grandchildren and the challenge was to make sure children and grandchildren could be grown up by their families and will be kept safe.
In submitting our report, we think of those old men in the hope that we have met their challenge.
WIDE-RANGING AND DRASTIC RECOMMENDATIONS and further statements by the commissioners.


  1. NO CHANGE to SHAME until aLL elders lead by example.
    Detention Centre Staff have to deal with the bad guys.

  2. Many thanks for your work in consultation, collaboration and production of this report, Commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda. Your efforts will be long lauded throughout the jurisdiction.
    May your recommendations be adopted and wisely delivered to better strengthen our various government, non-government and commercial / industrial private sector agencies that work together in harmony rather than competition to achieve better social outcomes for our Northern Territory into the decades ahead.
    Health, education, housing, transport, police, first responders and other infrastructure entities will all benefit from a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to “whole-of-community” well-being. May we all thrive long into the present and future.
    May your hard work result in real action with the adoption of your recommendations. May it result in better and stronger, sustainable outcomes. May it not become yet another report gathering dust in some bumbling bureaucrat’s filing cabinet or book shelf.
    We all have the opportunity to grow strongly into our respective and collective futures if we have the will and determination to let it be.

  3. May I just point out that we recently passed a significant Territory milestone in relation to the vexed issue of youth crime and justice – the 40th anniversary of the official opening of the first juvenile remand centre built in the Northern Territory.
    It’s still here and in use, located on South Terrace, Alice Springs. Nowadays we call it Aranda House but it was originally called Giles House.
    It was opened on October 27, 1977 – International Children’s Day. To place this in some context, Chief Minister Michael Gunner was at the time a one year old baby.

  4. Yes Alex, but Aborigine and white kids were approximately of the same ratio, and they were all going to school / high school. They were driven by the police, then left in the hands of teachers who care, mixing with everyone. I know because I was there.

  5. Yes Alex but the detainees were roughly the same for white and Aborigines kids, they were still going to school / high school, driven by the police and left in the hands of caring staff.
    The lady in charge looked like an ex kapo but care for her wards to look strict she carried a set of keys on the belt and was follow by a dog that loved the kids.

  6. Evelyne, I was there too. I was one of those kids going to school / high school in Alice Springs in the 1970s.
    There were many kids, the majority of them Aboriginal, who were getting into a lot of trouble with the law in those years.
    Planning for Giles House began with acquisition of that land in early 1973. The point is that nothing has improved since then despite the promise held out to us that responsible self-government would be superior to the those “bad old days” of Commonwealth control. Rather, it’s gotten far worse.

  7. Alex, only Aborigines kids? Or may be the media like now did not talk much about the white kids. Was the phantom of Alice High an Aborigine? Were the teenagers who locked down in a locker the airport employee and tried to terrorize the passengers of the late plane Aborigines?
    The media kept quite. You are correct, nothing has changed and it is getting worse.

  8. Not all Aboriginal kids but some and some white ones too – some are getting on with it.
    Some are falling by the wayside and it is often a choice. Not many are in the same position as I am with no choice but that is because of me have so many rich relations that never gave a dam about what they did to us.
    Those who differentiate between white and black are in the wrong. The minute they stop the differentiation and start treating everybody the same the outcomes will be better.


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