The survival of Aboriginal people depends on the findings of the Northern Territory’s royal commission into youth detention not just being “dropped into a filing cabinet”, a social justice advocate says.
Patricia Anderson, chairwoman of the Lowitja Institute, a national Aboriginal health research organisation, has made an impassioned plea to the inquiry to enact real change.
She said commissioners were morally bound to ensure the inquiry wasn’t just a talkfest where “we all go away feeling all warm and fuzzy”.
“That cannot happen here today. Please, I beg you, do not just put it in the filing cabinet,” she said on Wednesday.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say the very survival of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory depends on this commission making a real impact here.”
Ms Anderson, who co-wrote the 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report, said there’s been no progress in the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, despite countless reports and recommendations.
“All this country does is talk about black fellas,” she told Darwin’s Supreme Court.
“That’s got to stop. We are not going to be here in another 20, 25, 50 years.”
Ms Anderson added that advances are constantly derailed because government commitments don’t stretch beyond “election cycles”.
In researching the 2007 inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse, Ms Anderson said she interviewed countless families who shared deeply intimate stories in the hope of finding a solution.
“The government’s response was to have the Intervention. This was a huge betrayal – trust was lost,” she said.
One of the report’s urgent recommendations was indigenous consultation on policy that directly affects them, including alcohol and domestic violence.
But the federal government’s NT National Emergency Response, or “the Intervention”, was a package of changes to welfare, housing and law enforcement that Ms Anderson said only added to indigenous trauma.
“It’s a further abuse of Aboriginal people and it continues today. We’re on our knees here. The last 10 years have just been appalling,” she said.
She said a media frenzy followed in which “every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man in the country was suddenly a pedophile”.
NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne told the inquiry more indigenous children who are victims of abuse should be placed with Aboriginal families for foster care.
The Territory has the highest child placement rate in the country but a comparatively low rate of placement of Aboriginal children in kinship care.
She said many kids in child protection leave their official foster carers and live somewhere else.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle where the young people are placed in a placement where there’s no cultural connection. There’s this constant absconding,” she said.
Ms Gwynne also supported more decentralised protection services, saying workers would never be able to fully support children in communities from Darwin or Alice Springs.
Her predecessor, Dr Howard Bath, had recommended that a family placement approach be adopted, which empowers and resources the extended family of an at-risk child in making decisions about their protection.
The inquiry led by co-commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda continues.
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