Is 2016 the year our leaders are shocked into action for Indigenous kids? | Rodney Dillon

As Coag meets to discuss youth detention, we urge them to recognise that cohesive societies are built through stronger families not stronger prisons

Locking up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as young as 10 years old, at 24 times the rate of non-Indigenous kids is one of the saddest human rights abuses in this country.

But I’m hoping to look back on 2016 as the year we turned the corner in ending this injustice for our kids – and I want to see our leaders keep up this momentum at the Council of Australian Governments (Coag) meeting on Friday.

Friday’s meeting is historic, as the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has pledged to put youth detention and child protection on the Coag agenda for the first time.

In announcing this, he said, “We know that there is nothing more important than that we care for our children. Our children are our future.”

He’s right of course, and this is why, this Friday, I want to see our Coag leaders commit to a national plan to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in detention.

Indigenous communities have long known that the justice and family protection systems need fixing, and that we will create a more cohesive society through building stronger families rather than stronger prisons.

In 2016, politicians and the wider community finally started to understand that the justice system was very, very broken, when ABC Four Corners aired footage of an Aboriginal child strapped down and hooded in a torture chair that looked like a cross between something from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

In an unprecedented move, Turnbull called a royal commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory the morning after the footage aired. And in Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called an independent review into that state’s youth detention system, the day after ABC’s 7.30 program aired images of abuse of children, obtained by Amnesty, in Townsville’s Cleveland Youth Detention Centre.

2016 was the year that our leaders found dwindling political mileage in trotting out the old, cheap, “tough on crime” rhetoric, and saw that the electorate was ready for smarter solutions for our children.

In this new political environment, the Queensland parliament made the historic move, after more than 50 years, to shift 17-year-old children out of adult prisons, in line with the rest of Australia and with international law.

The Northern Territory, meanwhile, underwent its own transformation: the former NT government had legislated in May to extend the use of barbaric restraint chairs in youth detention; last week the new government completely banned the use of the chairs on children.

Progress has slipped in Victoria, which met with condemnation and legal challenges for its ham-fisted choice to move troubled children into the Barwon adult prison. It later reversed the decision for Indigenous children, but is still putting non-Indigenous children at risk.

At a federal level, the government has thankfully shifted its position on justice targets, which will hold governments accountable for reducing Indigenous incarceration, and has urged all states and territories to adopt them.

It has launched an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in our prison system.

The federal government has also said it is on the cusp of a decision about ratifying the UN Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture (Opcat). This would require independent investigations of all places of detention in this country – including by UN inspectors. It would be a vital step for protecting our kids, because abuses could no longer go on in secret.

Leaders are finally starting to recognise that the old approach doesn’t work; now they need to take the next step and work with Indigenous communities to create one that does.

Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised from family violence, while Indigenous kids are almost 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care.

Our leaders need to keep listening, to understand the nexus between experiencing family violence, incarceration, and the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

They must better understand the complexities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, many of whom live with the inherited trauma of being stolen from their parents, of being evicted from their ancestral lands, of poverty, of a home life marked by violence, of alcohol and drug use, of losing loved ones to soaring suicide rates.

All kids deserve to start life in a better place than from behind a prison door. Let’s instead try to reach people at a young age when there is such possibility for rehabilitation – and give our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander the best possible start in life.

Political leaders need to learn that investing in Indigenous communities will create the best outcome for Indigenous kids, and that Indigenous kids who run into trouble connect most strongly with Indigenous mentors.

Government must direct funding to Indigenous-run initiatives, where it will have most impact and build capacity for change within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Federal, state and territory governments at the Coag meeting this Friday need to commit to a national plan to set things right.

It will be a strong way to end 2016, the year, I hope, on which we will look back and say we saw the landscape finally begin to shift for Indigenous kids.


Rodney Dillon

The GuardianTramp

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