Child protections services wrote off reports of possible abuse as “unsubstantiated” because they didn’t have time to get to them and the use of force inside Don Dale was “a matter of normal conduct”, the Northern Territory royal commission has heard.
The royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory began its first public hearing in Darwin’s supreme court on Tuesday. It sought to head off concerns that it would deliver recommendations only to have them ignored by calling into question Australia’s “inquiry mentality” which replaced action with investigation.
The commission was called by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in July amid national outrage at the long-running mistreatment of juvenile detainees broadcast by ABC’s Four Corners program.
The former NT ombudsman Carolyn Ann Richards took the commission through parts of her 2011 report into the territory’s child protection system, launched after whistleblowers drew her attention to 17 children in need.
She discovered during her investigation that uninvestigated notifications of possible abuse or neglect were being finalised in the system.
She said a witness from the department of child protection’s central intake service told her: “At the end of three months after the notification had come in, if they hadn’t reached it because they were overloaded or if they hadn’t been able to contact the child or the family because they were moving around, or if it had been referred out to one of the regional work units and that work unit had not had time to reach it because it was overloaded, it was entered as ‘abuse/neglect not substantiated’.”
Richards earlier told the commission she found the intake serviceto be secretive, protective and withholding of information.
She had discovered more than 600 cases of “dummy forms” being entered straight into the final stage of the department system and recorded as needing “no further action”, covering up that the case had not been assessed or investigated.
“The minister was told that the name of the child, the date of the report, a simple outline of what the facts were, was being recorded, assessed and entered into the database, and it wasn’t,” Richards said.
The minister at the time of the 2008 and 2009 incidents was Malarndirri McCarthy, now a federal senator.
Earlier, the commission heard from the national commissioner for children, Megan Mitchell, who told the court she had toured a number of detention centres around the country, including Don Dale in May.
“It was clear that isolation was frequently and routinely used and for very long periods of time,” she said, elaborating that some children were held in high-security isolation for 23 hours a day for several weeks.
“It was also clear that the use of force was routinely used as a matter of normal conduct of the business of the organisation, not just ... when there was an incident or to overcome an incident.”
She said the poor conditions of the facility were also breaches of human rights.
If Australia ratified the optional protocol on the convention against torture, which it signed in 2009, independent monitoring could go through juvenile detention centres in every state and territory, she said.
She believed it was still an active issue, despite there not being the “political appetite” to ratify it in the seven years since.
This first public hearing, scheduled until Friday, is largely examining previous reports and inquiries, and questioning the authors and experts. It has identified more than 50 relevant inquiries conducted in the past decade, including two royal commissions and 23 independent reviews.
Counsel assisting the commission, Peter Callaghan SC, in his opening remarks said he and his co-counsel agreed with the commissioner Mick Gooda’s past statements that there was no need for more description of the issues, and that the enormity of past reports not acted upon invited a question.
“Do we need to confront some sort of inquiry mentality in which investigations is allowed as a substitution for action and reporting is accepted as a replacement for results? The bare fact that there has been so much said and so much written over such a long time is suggestive of a persistent failure that should not be allowed to endure.”
John Lawrence SC, said Callaghan’s statement gave confidence to his clients about the commission’s capacity to effect change.
Lawrence is representing Jake Roper, a former Don Dale detainee who appeared in the Four Corners episode and was at the centre of the tear gassing in 2014.
“We’ve had so many previous such reports and recommendations and yet none of them clearly have been complied with,” he told Guardian Australia.
“This inquiry is going to discover the reason for that, which hopefully will lead to the recommendations from this being genuinely effective. Thus ensuring that the disaster that was discovered in the territory’s juvenile justice system which was going on for years could never be repeated again.
Lawrence said Roper, who had travelled to Darwin from Tennant Creek for the commission, was willing to fully assist the commission. “He’s willing to give evidence, and one of the reasons is he doesn’t want this thing to happen again,” said Lawrence.
It was also revealed on Tuesday that the NT government has paid more than $57,000 in legal fees for the former attorney general John Elferink.
• This article was amended on 11 October 2016 to clarify the time Malarndirri McCarthy was a minister in the NT government.