Women locking themselves in steel containers to avoid domestic violence, children sleeping on the floors of homes strewn with dogs’ faecal matter, the only street light in town the community social centre, and no way of ensuring children are safe from sexual predators in homes where up to 30 people live.
This was a version of Indigenous life in the Northern Territory given to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory as bureaucrats and health specialists gave evidence on Thursday about government attempts over the last decade to address the problems of child protection.
Psychologist Damien Howard told commissioners overcrowding coupled with the rise of iPhones and other devices had created a second epidemic of people with hearing loss that was now contributing to the breakdown of law and order.
He said 94 per cent of Indigenous prisoners in NT jails suffered impaired hearing, compared with 45 per cent of the wider Indigenous population.
A deaf Indigenous community consultant, Jodie Barney, slammed the use of spit hoods and handcuffs on young offenders as shown in the July Four Corners program on abuse at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre that caused Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to appoint the royal commission.
Research had shown that six out of 10 boys at Don Dale suffered hearing impairment.
“It is distressing to method a process of such a form of discipline is used on children who can’t hear,” Ms Barney said.
“… taking away another sense from a person who already has a limited sense, sensory … is frightening. And that fear stays, the fear of having that happen again …
“Unfortunately, I have had a few young people who have had a spit hood and they have also been bound. So therefore their form of communication is lost in every sense of the word.”
On the third day of things in Darwin, adjunct professor of social work at Victoria’s La Trobe University Muriel Bamblett attacked the so-called 2007 “intervention” by the federal government to protect children from sexual abuse, saying it had broken Indigenous communities and caused massive and ongoing problems.
She said the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care increased by 215 per cent in the 10 years to 2010. She said the federal government had cut funding to two local child protection agencies and the NT government had not stepped in, a situation Professor Bamblett described as a “shame” and “embarrassing” given the issue in the territory was the worst in Australia.
The unrelenting media coverage of the “intervention” meant respect for elders had been lost, she said, with community leaders so diminished that public servants appointed as community managers took it on themselves to represent the local Indigenous point of view.
The decline in authority made it even more difficult for overburdened young families to raise children but taking children away and placing them outside their culture was self-defeating because, Professor Bamblett told commissioners, when psychologists asked children in the protection system what made them feel safe, 85 per cent drew the Aboriginal flag.
“If the NT doesn’t recognise that its Aboriginal people are its greatest asset and the fact that you’ve got such a strong cultural base and you need to build on it and invest in it and be proud of it,” she said.
“It would be a waste of opportunity if you build a child protection system that makes the Aboriginal communities become more non-Aboriginal, rather than build on what has been unique for 60,000 years.”
Professor Bamblett, who is also chief executive officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and the co-author of the 2010 Growing Them Stronger report into child protection in the NT, named housing as the highest priority.
“We saw housing where up to 20 or 30 people were living, co-sleeping. Children sleeping on the floor … dog faeces on the ground … Conditions that no child should live in but Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory live in,” she said.
Professor Bamblett called for a complete overhaul of the “imploding” NT child protection system, calling it a “vehicle for trauma rather than protection”.