We saw how terribly children were treated in prisons and promised ‘never again’. Now there is just bitter disappointment | Sophie Trevitt

There is no question about what needs to be done, only a question of who is prepared to do it

I left my job in Canberra and drove to Alice Springs with the graphic images of Aboriginal children being teargassed and spit-hooded still fresh in my mind. The nation had been shocked by the footage revealed on Four Corners. The prime minister had called a royal commission. Everyone declared “never again”.

One of the first things I worked on in the desert was compiling tens of thousands of harrowing words into submissions for the royal commission. I trawled through the evidence collected by the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, compiling accounts of children being locked in cells for days on end, denied education and held in uninhabitable conditions.

There was a sense of urgency – even at this early stage – that we had to make sure the centre was not forgotten.

The explosive Four Corners footage came from an incident at Don Dale, but it was the children in Alice Springs who were being stuffed into overcrowded cells, held in watch-houses and denied access to any sort of meaningful programs or mental health care.

Over the past 18 months I, with many others, have watched with bitter disappointment as the Northern Territory government has moved further away from its promises of reform, particularly in recent months as the territory election approaches.

The “Berrimah line” is an imaginary line that divides the Northern Territory between those in Darwin and the rest who live below Darwin’s southern suburb of Berrimah. The complaint is that decisions are made by government in Darwin to benefit those above the Berrimah line, and the rest of the vast Northern Territory is left behind. This disparity is apparent across a range of government areas, but its effect is felt acutely by Aboriginal children in the centre – and the communities they are a part of – who find themselves in contact with the criminal justice system.

The royal commission was clear about what was required to turn the Northern Territory’s trauma-exacerbating youth justice system into something that could offer rehabilitation and hope to young people. The prison blocks had to go, highly specialised staff were essential, culturally and linguistically appropriate programs should be implemented, the age of criminal responsibility had to be raised, and deliberate steps had to be taken to keep children out of the criminal justice system.

The Northern Territory government is yet to come good on these promises, and overwhelmingly it is children from Alice Springs and its surrounds who are paying the price.

Last year I was appalled to find that in the Alice Springs youth detention centre up to five teenage boys were being sardined into single cells; children were being locked in cells for days and were being denied time outside and at school.

I was deeply distressed for the children who talked to me about their frustration and hurt at being treated in a way that was plain to them lacked dignity, let alone care.

At any time, more than three-quarters of the children being held in detention in the Northern Territory are from Alice Springs or the Barkly. Yet, it is Don Dale – above the Berrimah line – which has been allocated $70m to be rebuilt, and it’s Alice Springs which is again being left behind.

Instead of knocking down the Alice Springs youth detention centre and resigning it to a dark passage of history where it belongs, the NT government has decided to address the problem of overcrowding in Alice Springs by sending children as young as 13 hundreds of kilometres away from their family and community to Don Dale.

The royal commission, and the media attention it precipitated, understandably focused on the shocking scenes at Don Dale captured on camera. But it would be a further injustice for limited improvements for children and communities in the Top End to come at the expense of Aboriginal children in the centre.

The minister for Territory families responsible for the “care” of young people in these ghastly places is the member of Braitling and lives in Alice Springs. Her constituents are not just these children and their families but also the broader community who suffer the effects of a broken youth justice system. I’m not a psychologist, but it would be plain to anyone who entered the Alice Springs youth detention centre that you cannot hole children up in that tiny building, deny them any sort of regular, meaningful activities or therapeutic programs, fail to offer them consistent education and then spit them out the other side and get a safer community.

Over the past 30 years there have been dozens of reports and inquiries into youth detention in Australia. More than 60 reports and inquiries were examined by the royal commission into the detention and protection of children in the Northern Territory. There is no question about what needs to be done, only a question of who is prepared to do it.

All children deserve to be a part of their community and to lead healthy and happy lives. All members of the community deserve to feel safe in their homes and suburbs. If the Northern Territory government cares about these children or their communities, then it must show leadership and stay true to the royal commission roadmap.

And if the federal government – which responded with horror to the images of hooded, shackled teenager by calling the royal commission in the first place – cares about the Aboriginal children of central Australia, then it ought to step up to the plate and help fund these reforms.

• Sophie Trevitt is a lawyer who has been representing children in Alice Springs over the past two years


Sophie Trevitt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The road to hell, where children are left to fall through the cracks | Sophie Trevitt
I’m told lawyers aren’t meant to have these fierce, protective feelings for their clients, but the law isn’t meant to torture children either

Sophie Trevitt

17, Aug, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
Northern Territory juvenile detention 'may amount to torture', says Unicef – as it happened
Chief minister takes over portfolio and PM announces royal commission after ABC airs footage of teenagers being teargassed, hooded and restrained for hours

Calla Wahlquist (earlier) and Elle Hunt (later)

26, Jul, 2016 @7:18 AM

Article image
Northern Territory royal commission: Turnbull urges speed but Labor backs 'full' inquiry
Human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs wants a broader commission into Australia’s detention regimes

Katharine Murphy, Ben Doherty and Paul Karp

26, Jul, 2016 @6:45 AM

Article image
NT royal commission 'should also include children in immigration detention'
Human rights advocates say inquiry should be expanded to including ‘all children deprived of their liberty by the Australian government’

Calla Wahlquist, Katharine Murphy and Gabrielle Chan

26, Jul, 2016 @8:25 PM

Article image
NT youth detention horrors emerge as commission concludes hearings
Called after revelations of mistreatment inside juvenile detention centres, the commission examined 10 years of policy failure

Helen Davidson in Darwin

30, Jun, 2017 @10:00 PM

Article image
George Brandis has made a hash of the royal commission into juvenile detention | Richard Ackland
Did it really never dawn on Canberra’s brains trust that the royal commission should include an Aboriginal leader? George Brandis has been left looking foolish

Richard Ackland

03, Aug, 2016 @3:10 AM

Article image
The juvenile detention scandal, news fatigue, and the power of an image | Mike Ticher
The footage shown by Four Corners should not allow anyone in the media to give themselves a free pass on the failure to bring this story to wider attention earlier

Mike Ticher

28, Jul, 2016 @1:47 AM

Article image
Teenager in Four Corners juvenile detention exposé 'fears for his safety'
Exclusive: Dylan Voller, the boy shown in a spithood in the ABC report, was allegedly told by a prison guard ‘you bloody well deserve everything you got’

Calla Wahlquist

26, Jul, 2016 @9:39 AM

Article image
Indigenous 11-year-old released from Don Dale detention centre as lawyer slams incarceration of children
Lawyer calls for ‘lawful, peaceful civil disobedience’ in response to ‘disgraceful’ locking up of children around the country

Stephanie Convery

21, Dec, 2021 @3:58 AM

Article image
Don Dale run like a 'human storage facility', NT royal commission told
Author of report into territory’s corrections system tells inquiry the Darwin youth detention centre is ‘basically a prison’ and not a ‘therapeutic environment’

Helen Davidson in Darwin

05, Dec, 2016 @4:01 AM