The other Don Dale report: lessons from the tragedy of Maddy

Dear Prime Minister

I have decided to appoint myself a people’s commissioner into child protection and youth detention systems of the Northern Territory, pro bono. The great advantage is that I can report early. This was not a difficult task as there is already a report on events at the Don Dale centre, various officers have been dismissed and, in any case, the centre has closed down.

Accordingly, I take the opportunity to report more broadly.

You will recall that having watched ABC Four Corners vision of the rough treatment of Dylan Voller you called for the royal commission. Your action may reflect the views of several of your constituents who seem to think that any problem is solvable by the application of public funds. Indeed, the fact there are 1000 public servants employed in your department administering the affairs of Aborigines suggests as much.

You should be aware that the long-term trajectory of all such thinking is that everyone with a problem should be assigned a social worker.

You should read the report of the inquest into the death of Madeline “Maddy” Downman undertaken by the Northern Territory coroner on June 8. You will find in it all you need to know.

Maddy was 17 when she took her life. She was found hanging from the shower rail of the girls’ bathroom at a residential facility operated by the Territory Department of Children and Families.

Maddy’s parents were separated, and the child protection services received their first report about Maddy and her family when she was 18 months old. The concerns reported at the time were excessive alcohol, drug consumption, and domestic violence.

Her criminal behaviour began early and continued until she was placed on remand in 2010 at the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre facing 27 criminal charges.

Maddy admitted to smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and sniffing deodorant cans. She stated that she felt like hurting herself and on one occasion had cut herself with a knife and on another occasion considered hanging herself.

She was 13.

She was declared in need of protection.

In the four years that she was in care, Maddy had 26 placements, and absconded from her placements on 63 reported occasions, sometimes for days in a row.

The coroner concluded: “Short of restraining her in some way it is clear that if Maddy made a decision that she was going to leave, there was very little that could be done to change her mind.”

Placements with her family were not successful. Maddy had alleged she was exposed to domestic violence when in her father’s care, and that from the age of eight an older male cousin sexually abused her and that this continued for several years when Maddy was living in the care of her grandmother and mother.

The coroner concluded: “It is clear that a safe family placement was simply not possible.”

The opinion of a psychologist was that Maddy required “one-on-one support and access to a fulltime youth worker”.

Maddy’s family submitted that the department did not address “reunification” or her “cultural needs”. The coroner disagreed.

He found that significant efforts were made to place Maddy with family, all of which proved entirely inappropriate.

The coroner found significant failings on the part of the Department of Communities and Families, however,

“Maddy (was worried) about what was to happen to her when she turned 18, and the protection order came to an end.”

It seems that Maddy was afraid to leave the system, despite its inadequacies.

The protection and detention system did not fail Maddy, her family did.

Prime Minister, you should consider this question. If every troubled youth, especially those of Aboriginal descent, were granted a social worker would it solve their problems?

Prime Minister, you should consider that ex-nuptial births to Aboriginal mothers are 87 per cent and paternity is not acknowledged in 18 per cent of ex-nuptial births to Aboriginal mothers.

The Aboriginal teenage fertility rate is more than four times as high as the overall teenage fertility rate.

Teenage females who live in remote and very remote areas are more than five times as likely to give birth as their peers in the city.

Neither constitutional recognition nor a treaty can help these youths.

The protection and detention system is not at fault.

Poorly socialised families and welfare dependence create each generation of troubled youths.

Contraception for youths and adoption for at-risk children are better than social workers.