History / Mentalhealth / News

Don Dale – a future avoided

I don’t know how far and wide the news of abuses at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Center have spread but I do know it is a hot topic on my news feed, primarily because it is news from our home town.

So lets cover the basics and clear up some facts,

The abuse at Don Dale has never been much of a secret it was pretty difficult to live in Darwin and not catch wind of it, some did refer to it as a holiday camp and complain that they had Xbox and Nintendo (hey it was a big thing back then) but that the boys would be beaten, raped and all else in there was no secret.

Darwin is not a fan of its delinquent youth, unfortunately this fact makes it very difficult to run programs to divert youth from their course as its considered pandering to the criminals rather than constructive. What works in relation to delinquent juveniles unfortunately is not what victims tend to call for, it requires compassion humanity and being the bigger person. it requires standing up and being an adult and setting the example, rather than taking a swing and getting even.


Don Dale Royal Commission

Don Dale v’s Guantanamo Bay

Focus on NT Abuse Claims

UN Shocked

Treatment at Don Dale could amount to torture

Fresh Claims

Lets get this straight, these boys are in fact not complete irredeemable monsters. nor are they angels. They have issues, only made worse by their time at Don Dale.

I have prior to leaving Darwin often enough spoken to these boys face to face, dealt with them day to day, chased them off the roof of commercial buildings AND cleaned up the mess they made raiding a coin op laundromat or smashing car windows in our car park.

Hugs and kisses isn’t going to make this all better, but no amount of damage to physical items warrants what those children were put through because they were in fact children. some of them as young as 10 years old.

If I had not gone through hell and back getting us out of the NT today the little super hero would be one of those kids in those cells at Don Dale that you are all hearing about, Or occupying isolation in Cowdy Ward where her grandmother spent the better part of 10 years of her life.

Don Dale is not the whole problem in the NT it is just the tip of a very corrupt and misguided iceberg taking a chunk out of the titanic of our Youth. The ramifications of how Darwin has handled its youth for the last couple of decades will be felt for generations. the sad part is Department of Justice (DOJ) staff are untouchable, whether assaulting inmates or their own family members police do not investigate, take reports or lay charges. This is why we now live in Victoria a fact which I am grateful of every day even if it did cost us thousands and take years to achieve.

An old Friend Hanna Watts from high school has this to say on the issue:

So…quite a few people have asked me ‘what i think’ about last night’s 4 Corners report. Despite it being rare to actually be asked my opinion, I didn’t want to have one on the specifics of this, because I don’t have all the facts. None of us do. Instead, what follows is this series of random thoughts, rather than a clear opinion..it’s long, so feel free to scroll on by…

– There is a lot of research that tells us solitary confinement, particularly long term, is not good for anyone’s mental health, and changes the structure of the brain. Personally, I think we need to seriously look at how we use it as a form of punishment.

– Speaking of punishment…Prison itself is a punishment. Being cut off from friends, family, society is the punishment. With young people, we have a real opportunity to impact the course of their life when they are engaged in juvenile justice systems. It takes time, money, and hard work…it’s a long term investment that also involves the family and community. We can not rehabilitate everyone – that’s a hard truth for some of us to hear. But we can and should do a lot better….that’s a truth that is hard for others of us to hear. Prison may be necessary…but the way these children and young people have been treated is not necessary (that’s my opinion, based on what I saw in the report).

– Living in Darwin in the heat sucks. Being locked up with no fan would be awful. Not having running water would feel like torture. Dehydration makes you crazy.

– I have a real concern that there is little consideration given to the impact that FASD (foetal alcohol spectrum disorders) and petrol sniffing has, particularly on young aboriginal people in the NT (I say particularly on this group because so many of them are affected by this). These things need to be considered when we look at how we ‘punish’ and ‘rehabilitate’ children. Anyone working with children and young people should have thorough training on these issues and their impacts.

– It is my opinion that anyone who works with children and young people also need to be trained on the impact of trauma. When a child experiences trauma at a young age, the way their brain functions is different from those of us who haven’t. Their brains are wired differently – they handle stress and stimulation differently, are less able to regulate emotions and anger, and are more prone to self harm and suicide ideation, depression and anxiety. Some genetics studies have shown that trauma can also affect DNA, which means intergenerational trauma is a real issue for most of these young people.

– The above two points are rarely discussed when making policy, never mind being given consideration in public discussion and debate. They should be. If you care enough to make comments of stories like this, please care enough to educate yourself about these things.

– I mentioned self harm before…my understanding is that some of the videos in the report were a result of the detention centre policy of how to react to threats of self harm…all the research and evidence would indicate this response is pretty much worst-practice on how to deal with this, not best-practice.

– Working with young people who are violent and aggressive is hard. Really hard. Really really really hard. Sometimes it feels impossible…like banging your head against a wall (sometimes that literally happens too). I have my own personal experiences of how hard this type of work can be. Being spat at, having blood, piss, shit and vomit thrown at you or left for you to step in or accidentally touch isn’t pleasant. Fearing that you might have caught an infectious disease from someone means you function in everyday life with a cloud of dread invading your mind until you get the all clear. Going home after a shift bruised, scratched, bitten, bleeding is awful. Being called every name under the sun, being threatened…none of that makes for a good day. However, I am an adult who is rational, trained, and when I was a youth worker I had a duty of care to every young person I worked with, and was to act on what is in the best interest of that young person. I’m glad I never worked at Don Dale…but I think that if more fully trained, highly skilled youth workers were employed to work with young people in detention and with their families outside, we would have different outcomes for many young people.

– One comment I am seeing a lot of is “oh these poor darlings, we need to give them hugs and sunshine and their lives will be all better”.
Another comment I am seeing a lot is “we are only seeing one side of the story…you haven’t seen what these little S#*+$ do…they deserve to be punished. Lock em up with the big boys and see how they feel then”. Well, I’d say both are wrong.
This isn’t a story on whether or not we should lock up children…that’s another conversation for another day. This is about how we treat children and young people who ARE locked up. The boys in the 4 Corners report were in prison because that was their punishment. I would bet they were annoying/disrespectful/violent/inconsiderate/stubborn when they were there (I’m pretty sure I would be). But I saw little evidence of the prison officers working to de-escalate situations.
I know that the skill set I have as a youth worker is different to the skill set that police need to have to ensure the broader community is kept safe. But prison guards are not police. It is not their job to personally punish the young people in their custody and care. We don’t know all the facts leading up to the incidents in the videos…but what we do know leads me to believe there was a far better way to deal with what was going on. As a youth worker, I’ve dealt with young people displaying many of these behaviours, and can guarantee you there are better ways to act / react than what happened here.

So what now? There needs to be a conversation about how we treat, rehabilitate, and care for children and young people in detention. The broader public needs information that is factual and as unbiased as possible, because it’s good for them to know. The media needs to continue to inform the public what happens from here, however a ‘trial by media’ isn’t ideal. Public opinion doesn’t always have to inform policy. Policy made from uproar and outcry isn’t always best. The decisions need to be made with the advice of a diverse group of experts…from researchers and policy makers, yes…but also from front-line youth workers and police officers who interact with these children, young people and families often in stressful times over long periods, from AOD and mental health workers, and from young people and community elders who are affected by the decisions we make that impact so much of their lives.

*edit: note & disclaimer
Most of these thought are based on my 11(ish) years experience as a youth worker in the NT, and in my formal studies and personal learning on youth related issues.
All opinions are my own, and not necessarily reflective of any organisation or group I have worked for.
I will respond to comments/questions where necessary when I can, but I’m a busy girl so be patient. If you want to engage in debate with each other, feel free to. But please be respectful and don’t argue out of ignorance or make it personal 🙂

Or you can read it here in the Huffington Post.

Jac could have been any one of those boys in Don Dale, by now she would have had 2 years under her belt if we had stayed, at the very least. Rather she is the Blue House Captain, she is the schools Volley Ball Team Captain and heading for High School next year enthusiastic for her future.

Youth have the best chance of rehabilitation of ALL clients of the justice system. Youth have hope more than anything else, and yet Don Dale made a point of trying to take hope away from them.

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