The Commission’s inquiry into the detention and care and protection systems of the Northern Territory has revealed systemic and shocking failures. Children and young people have been subjected to regular, repeated and distressing mistreatment and the community has also failed to be protected. The systemic failures occurred over many years and were ignored at the highest levels.
The systems have failed to address the challenges faced by children and young people in care and detention. Indeed, in some cases, they have exacerbated the problems the children and young people faced. These failures are all the more startling in light of the multiplicity of previous reports and inquiries that have investigated youth detention and child protection systems.
The procedures and requirements of the law have simply not been followed in many instances. The systems failed to comply with the basic binding human rights standards in the treatment of children and young people. Government policies and procedures were ignored, systems designed for adults were inappropriately applied to youth, or they simply did not exist.
The systems this Commission examined exist to serve the interests of children and young people and their communities. Those interests include the interests of some of the most vulnerable babies and children in the community, the vast majority of whom are Aboriginal. The Commission heard from many people who had experienced the systems as children and from members of their families. Once they became aware of the work of the Commission they came forward in large numbers.
The narrative of the Commission’s work became clear from the stories of those who exposed their lives to the Commission and to the public. The life trajectory of children and young people in care and detention was repeated over and over. The Commission was told about children born to families in crisis, struggling with addictions, mental health issues, domestic violence and the many challenges of poverty.
Instead of receiving the support those families needed to care for their children we heard of removal from the family and often from the community. Once in the child protection system we heard of inappropriate placements, dislocation from community and culture and a lack of support or follow through to address the trauma so many children had suffered in their young lives. As children absconded from places where they did not feel at home or where they felt unsafe and lonely or to be with other children who had become their family, the next step was contact with the criminal justice system and ultimately detention. That is not, of course, the story of all children in care but it was certainly the story of most children in detention.
The Commission received many suggestions for improvement to the child protection and detention systems. Children, their families, people working in the systems both in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia and the world, and experts, gave the Commission many ideas for improvement and fundamental change. Enriched by those ideas, the Commission has made numerous recommendations to address the failures of the care and detention systems. Some recommendations are capable of immediate implementation. Others will require sustained, long term commitment to new approaches.
The conduct of this inquiry and the presentation of this report should be the end of the beginning. The commissioning governments, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory, have the opportunity to achieve lasting change to stop the abuses of the past and to help ensure that all children in the Northern Territory can flourish and reach their potential.