Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.

The Disability Royal Commission First Nations public hearing, held virtually, heard the testimony of incarceration and the out-of-home care system from a Don Dale inmate.

Originally scheduled to take place in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), the hearing was pushed to a virtual forum in response to COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Hosted instead in Brisbane, the hearing kicked off on Friday and shared experiences of First Nations people regarding the treatment of children in out-of-home care.

Currently First Nations children are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-First Nations children and over a third of children on care and protection orders in the country are First Nations.

The hearing began with a Smoking Ceremony by women of the Akeyulerre Healing Centre in Mparntwe and Welcome to Country by Amelia Turner Kngwarraye.

“This is a healing smoke; you can let go of all the things that are weighing down on you. All the bad things that might be hanging around you, let go of them,” she said.

“We acknowledge that the healing is very important to us because this is about First Nations children with disability in out-of-home care system and has focus on out-of-home care here in the Northern Territory.”

Following Kngwarraye, Dorreen Carol McCormack, Kumalie Kngwarraye Riley and Elaine Peckham from the Strong Grandmothers Group of Central Australia addressed the hearing.

“We have a right for our voices to be heard, we have a right for the government to recognise and acknowledge our needs. We’re struggling to survive with all this red tap cutting in front of us all the time,” said Riley.

Riley noted the removal of rights from First Nations people to have their children protected.

“They are not being protected if they’re in custody, they’re not protected if they’re in homes. They’re not protected, the children have a right to be connected with their kinship and to their families,” she said.

“Don’t take away their identity and their dignity.”

“Children with disability should be at home with their own parents. In their own homes, where they feel it’s the best place for them to be,” added Peckham.

The Royal Commission heard from a 17-year-old First Nations inmate in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

The young boy, who has been in the out-of-home care system since 8-years-old, spoke about his experiences being placed in multiple homes.

He told the hearing since entering the out-of-home care system, he has had over 20 Territory Families case workers – none of which he identified as being Aboriginal.

“They’d be there for me … for like a month or two and then they’d leave and then they’ll become the senior or team leader of Territory Families,” he said.

From Mparntwe, the boy had been “in and out of prison” since he was 10-years-old.

The boy alleged during a two-year sentence at Don Dale, a caseworker only visited him “twice of three times out of those two years”.

“It felt like they were only using me so they can get up to a high level in the workspace.”

Speaking about his experiences in Don Dale, the boy noted the lack of support he found outside.

“When I’m here they give me everything … when I get out, it’s like they just kick me out on the streets [with] nothing,” he said.

“I’ve been homeless since the age of 8 … I had places to go but when I went there it felt like I didn’t belong you know. It felt hard for me, [I] didn’t get to have a say, [I] felt unsafe.”

The boy disclosed information about physical and verbal abuse he suffered at the hands of foster carers. He noted beginning to have suicidal thoughts at 8-years after suffering abuse, and later in life he consistently breached bail whilst attempting to spend time with his family.

Speaking to the impact of sustainable resources and support in his life, he felt he “wouldn’t be in this situation” if programs were made available to him earlier.

“I would have been a good kid, going to school every day … I never really had anybody to teach me right and wrong you know,” he explained.

“That’s why I trusted Territory Families but then they let me down too so that’s why I’m sort of tough on letting people into my life.

“I want to be a hard-working man, a youth worker helping youths like me because I know the system and I know how it works …. [I want to be] helping other Aboriginal youths and younger people.”

The Royal Commission was the first opportunity for the 17-year-old to share his story publicly and to push for change.

“When I was younger, I couldn’t speak up you know. A lot of people used to bring me down, tell me ‘Nobody is going to believe you’,” he said

“I’m starting to trust you now and this is probably my time to tell my story and let them know what really happened.

“I’m not only doing this for me. I’m doing this for the youths of the future … so they can have a good life.”

Disability Royal Commission First Nations public hearing will continue until Friday.

Find out more about the Royal Commission here.

If this article brought up anything for you, please reach out to, call or visit the online resources listed below for support.

 

By Rachael Knowles