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Health systems must be held to account for the ongoing toll of deaths in custody

Thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released its report, which included more than 60 recommendations relating to healthcare, health systems continue to contribute to trauma and suffering.

Health and medical organisations are among those calling for action on what has been described as “a modern day massacre”.


Marie McInerney writes:

Leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politicians, health and justice services and families whose loved ones have died in custody have marked the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, calling on Australian governments to “act with urgency” on what continues to be a national crisis.

Fifteen families released a statement through the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), urging action on 10 key demands, including for governments to “meaningfully” implement all the Royal Commission recommendations and to have independent investigations of all deaths in custody.

NATSILS chair Priscilla Atkins told a webinar on 15 April that the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission were “still gathering dust” while more than 470 other people had died since 1991 — “Elders, mothers, fathers, siblings and children — each one of them loved and missed”.

She urged governments to implement the outstanding Royal Commission recommendation “in partnership with families left behind, with culturally safe support and Aboriginal led solutions”.

Unsafe healthcare

Health organisations like the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and the Partnership for Health and Justice (P4HJ) urged dramatic change in the health system, reminding people that many of those who died in custody, like Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, did so in hospitals and other health systems where they should have expected safety and care.

The tragic stories of Ms Dhu and Wiradjuri woman Naomi Williams at Tumut Hospital in New South Wales in 2016, “speak to the truth of unsafe healthcare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both dying from preventable diseases within racially biased systems”, said the P4JH in a statement, urging media to privilege the stories of families.

The P4JH, an alliance of health and justice organisations co-chaired by Lowitja Institute and National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners (NAATSIHWP), noted that more than 60 of the Royal Commission’s recommendations in 1991 relate to healthcare and health systems.

“The P4JH recognises the subsequent pain caused by the process of coronial inquiries which have historically rarely held the justice and health systems to account for their failure in upholding their duty of care for First Nations peoples,” it said.

That pain was made powerfully clear by the family of Tane Chatfield, a Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr and Wakka Wakka man, who died in Tamworth Hospital in September 2017.

His parents told the NATSILS webinar how their grief and loss had been compounded by their struggle to get to the truth of what happened to their son, who had been waiting to be soon released from the Tamworth Correctional Facility.

“They need to work with us Aboriginal families, where each family member is told a different story by a different level of authority,” his mother Nioka Chatfield said, urging independent oversight of deaths in custody and support for families in coronial processes.

“Everybody else’s opinion seems to matter except for ours”, she said of a process that  “painted a picture of our son that didn’t even look like Tane”.

“Aboriginal children are not born to die in prison. Aboriginal mothers are not born to die on cold concrete floors, to die on trains. We deserve equal rights yet our people still suffer,” she said, describing the ongoing toll of deaths in custody as “a modern day massacre”.

Lifelong toll

Troy ‘Jungaji’ Brady told the webinar about the grief experienced last year by his family and community when his Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo, a Birri Gubba woman, died while on remand at the Brisbane City Watchhouse.

With many Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups calling on Australian governments to urgently raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 from 10, Brady talked about his time working in a youth detention centre a decade ago, when an 11-year-old boy – “younger than my son, with those baby eyes” – came into his section at about 3am.

“He was shaking…and he said, ‘Uncle, I just want to call my mum. Can I have a glass of milk?’, said Brady, warning of the lifelong trauma of over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

“You take that to your grave,” he said.

Senator Dodson at the webinar

Leading Indigenous Labor MPs Senator Patrick Dodson, who was a Commissioner on the Royal Commission, and Linda Burney called for national action led by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is yet to respond to long-standing calls from families to meet him to hear their pain and solutions for deaths in custody.

Dodson and Burney said that in the three decades since the landmark inquiry, 474 First Nations people have died – “that we know about” – either in custody or in police pursuits, and too often as a result of assault, neglect or preventable suicide.

Also in those 30 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as a proportion of the imprisoned population had doubled from 14 percent to 30 percent, and in some places was nearly 90 per cent, they said.

Action was needed to break the cycle of disadvantage – “the socio-economic drivers of these unacceptable trends” of incarceration, they said. Dodson called at the NATSILS webinar on national, state and territory governments to:

  • Expand justice re-investment to tackle the root causes of crime and recidivism.
  • Ensure coronial inquests into deaths in custody are comprehensive, adequately resourced and inclusive of the voices of families and First Nations communities.
  • Establish national consolidated real-time reporting of deaths in custody.
Senator Thorpe at the webinar

Stop investing in prisons

Also at the webinar, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe backed Dodson’s calls and urged governments to support the 10 demands of families working with NATSILS, including those of Chatfield and Fisher-Tilberoo.

Thorpe added the need to “stop state and territory governments from investing in new prisons and in policies that continue to incarcerate and target our people”.

If governments raised the age of criminal responsibility tomorrow, as widely urged, “we could release 600 black kids around the country,” she said.

Thorpe said genocide in Australia “has become so sophisticated, it’s in our hospital systems, it’s in our education systems, it’s in the justice systems.

“We are continually faced with systemic racism. You wonder why our kids don’t want to go to school, you wonder why our people don’t want to go to the hospital. You wonder why our people are dodging the cops in our cars,” Thorpe said, adding that she, even as a Senator, gets nervous when she sees police in the rear mirror.

The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association also called on governments – federal and state/territory – “to accept, and to address racism and unconscious biases that are embedded in police, prison, legal and health systems”, saying continuing deaths in custody are “a national travesty”.

AIDA said the social determinants of health “and of incarceration” – education, employment, poverty, housing, child removal and family violence – remained “as urgent today” as they were when they were addressed by the Royal Commission in 1991.

“Further, we urge governments to understand the importance of cultural determinants such as connection to language, culture and country which can strengthen our resilience as individuals, families and communities,” AIDA said, supporting calls for action on justice reinvestment, mandatory imprisonment, and keeping young children out of prison.

Disclaimer: Marie McInerney provides writing and editing services for Lowitja Institute on a casual basis.


See previous Croakey articles on the #RCIADIC30Years. 

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Acknowledgement
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PIJ Commissions 2021
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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
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AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
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#CRANAplus15
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