4 years since Ms Dhu's death - In her memory hurry up the CNS and end unpaid fines jailing
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On August 4, it will be 1460 days since the tragic passing of 22 year old Ms Dhu. I have never forgotten that day; I was phoned by Ms Dhu's family who poured out their pain. We know of the abominable circumstances Ms Dhu died in, and of the racism. But more than a 1000 days later the Western Australian Government has failed to put an end to the arresting and locking up in police watch houses and in jails of predominately impoverished people for unpaid fines. Furthermore, Western Australia, though it has committed to, has still not established the Custody Notification Service.
On August 2, 2014, South Hedland Police responded to a distress call for Ms Dhu but after a background check, instead of supporting Ms Dhu, they arrested her for unpaid fines. On August 4, Ms Dhu passed away.
To this day, Ms Dhu's memory has been betrayed.
No-one should be dying in police watch house custody. It is an abomination that anyone dies in police watch house custody, a day or two after arrested and locked up.
Nearly 100 per cent of deaths in police watch houses are of young Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. The Custody Notification Service put an end to this in the police watch houses of New South Wales. The Custody Notification Service should be rolled out nationally. Western Australia needs it more than anywhere else. Western Australia has the nation's highest toll of police watch house custodial deaths. The CNS is also needed in the Northern Territory and South Australia. We have been negotiating with Governments and they commit to establishing the CNS but drag their feet, playing with people's lives..
When someone is arrested and detained they are at an elevated risk to life-threatening levels of anxiety. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at much higher risk than the rest of the population because of the distrust that has developed from generations of racism and marginalisation. Deaths of detainees in police custody led to a royal commission that went from 1987 to 1991. Several recommendations from that inquiry called for immediate support to detainees through skilled advocates.
Today, this support exists through the Custody Notification Service (CNS) but only in NSW and the ACT. The CNS is a 24-hour legal advice and helpline for Aboriginal and Torres Islanders who have been taken into police custody.
Under NSW legislation the police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service whenever they detain an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. The detainee is subsequently provided with support, with early legal, health and welfare advice. This system has saved lives, and – because anxiety levels have been reduced – has also led to fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders convicted in NSW when compared with other states where there is no CNS.
Since the CNS was implemented in NSW in 2000, there had not been a a single death of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in a police watch house until recently. On 19 July 2016, 36-year-old Rebecca Maher died in the Maitland police watch house after the police had failed to contact the ALS advocate.
With so many of the nation’s arrests comprising of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, it is unjustifiable that the rest of the nation has not implemented this service.
It is beyond exasperating that right-mindedness has been sidelined for so many years by one government after another and in turn many lives lost. It is not only the tragedy of lives lost, but of human beings who have been stranded in seriously high levels of distress, who have been hit with further charges, compounded into a constancy of traumas.
Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia convict Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at among the world’s highest rates. One in six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in WA and the NT have been to prison, with one in eight in SA. One in 13 of WA’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Nearly 90% of the NT’s prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples.
The ALS lawyer is trained in identifying suicidal ideation, in deescalating anxiety, in psychosocially validating people. It is when we are in our direst need that people need people. As a suicide prevention researcher, I know first hand that threats of self-harm and suicide in detained people are common and authentic.
In NSW, the CNS responds to nearly 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been taken into custody. Therefore the CNS advocates respond to 300 people on average per week. The CNS costs only $526,000 per year – that’s it! One coronial inquiry can cost as much.
If the CNS has saved lives in NSW and the ACT, year after year, and assisted thousands of individuals in their direst hour, then why isn’t this service national?
The death of 22-year-old Ms Dhu in a WA police watch house should have led to the immediate establishment of the CNS in that state. The memory of Ms Dhu has been betrayed by the WA government. It is my firm belief that a CNS advocate would have seen to the hospitalisation and proper treatment of Ms Dhu.
What often isn’t taken into account is the psychological impact on police officers of being on suicide watch. The CNS relieves police officers of the burden of health and welfare judgments.
A police officer said to me, “We do not want to be making these decisions. We do because we are given no choice. If it works in NSW, [the CNS] will work here too.”
All anti-discrimination, anti-racism and cross cultural training teaches us to recognise that every workplace is tainted by racism and discrimination and only with the first port of call in recognising this can there be striving in managing and reducing the racism and discrimination.
As a profession, police officers are among the most elevated risk groups to suicidal ideation and it is about time that police commissioners and police unions come clean with public support for the implementation of the CNS. Police officers and police unions have contacted me to continue advocating for the CNS. However, if they went public with the call for a national CNS, this service would be implemented without delay.
Former NSW police commissioner Nick Kaldas once said to me during a discussion we were having about the “Forgotten 300” that the CNS should be a must-do, or as some say, it’s a no-brainer. Famed Mabo barrister, Greg McIntyre implores “a custody notification service as an important measure in preventing deaths in custody.”
The CNS has been championed by the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion. We have had a number of conversations about the CNS and he gets it, he understands the need for it to be rolled out nationally.
He saved the CNS in NSW and the ACT by funding it to mid-2019, pulling together the $1.8m out of his portfolio, even though it was the responsibility of other portfolio holders.
The CNS has also been championed by WA’s Senator Sue Lines who knows how desperately her home state needs it.
The Western Australian state Labor party has committed to implementing the CNS. It is time every state and territory does the right thing and implements the CNS. There is no greater legacy than to save lives.
Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, said, “My daughter should be with us today. Her loss haunts me each day and it will remain but it will give me at least an ounce of peace to see the CNS implemented.”
Ms Dhu should never have been arrested. But she was, in a very sick and distressed state, for unpaid fines. The Western Australian Government has told me that they will amend legislation to put an end the arresting of predominately impoverished people for unpaid fines but once again they're playing with people's lives when 1,000 days have passed and neither a moratorium or an end to the fine default arrests yet to occur.
On 27 September 2017 a single mother of five children, most of them aged less than five years and while also caring interim for her sister's six children, all of them less than 13 years of age, called police to assist with alleged disorderly behaviour from a visiting relative.
On the morning of the 27th police attended but instead of prioritising the mother's distress call, the attending police officers completed a background check on the mother. They found outstanding unpaid fines for traffic infringements and one infringement to do with her dog.
They arrested the mother.
The children were left in the care of the eldest; a teenager.
In 1988, the NSW Government outlawed the jailing of individuals for unpaid fines. In 1987 in a NSW jail an 18 year old fine defaulter was bashed to death. This led to the NSW Government having a good look at itself. On August 2, 2014, a 22 year old Western Australian woman, Ms Dhu, called police for help but was instead arrested after a background check found unpaid fines. She would die two days later in the South Hedland police watch-house, pronounced dead at the Hedland Health Campus. Following a coronial inquest, the Western Australian Coroner recommended that alternatives should be sought to the jailing of individuals for unpaid fines and for the consideration of the establishment of a Custody Notification Service.
A significant proportion of Western Australia's prison population is comprised of individuals who are unable to pay fines. The most disadvantaged and elevated risk group are Aboriginal single mothers who comprise one in six of the individuals incarcerated because they cannot pay the fines. The jailing of individuals for unpaid fines is classist and racist. It is damaging. No right minded society should be jailing individuals because they cannot afford to pay fines.
The Western Australia Government is yet to deliver upon its election promise to put to an end the jailing of individuals who have unpaid fines.
The mother was carted to Melaleuca Women's prison for 14 days but we were able to have her released after one night in jail following a frantic public campaign to raise the funds to pay her fines.
From 2006 to 2015, a total of 3,301 Aboriginal people were locked up for fine default - not including those who served short sentences in local police lockups.
In October 2017 a 40 weeks pregnant mother was threatened with jailing unless she immediately paid her outstanding fines. We stepped in and averted this but what of all the others?
We are supporting right now one impoverished family after another to avoid being criminalised, to not be locked up for the civil matter of unpaid fines.
If Ms Dhu's memory is to be respected then there must be an end to police arresting the poor for unpaid fines. I know that Western Australian Police want an end to they having to arrest the poor for unpaid fines but only the Western Australian Government can achieve this.
Last year, the Western Australian Attorney-General stated the jail-for-fine-defaulter’s system was "scandalous".
Mr Quigley stated, “I intend to introduce a package of amendments to the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA), the effect of which will be to reduce the number of people imprisoned for fine default alone."
“I have examined the approach taken in other jurisdictions in relation to jailing for fines and I will be in a position to bring forward a reform package to Cabinet before the end of the year.”
1460 days have passed since the harrowing, horrific, abominable death of Ms Dhu, and Western Australia still has not actually put in place the Custody Notification Service and is still arresting the poor, single mothers, young and older people for unpaid fines.
The Western Australian, Northern Territorian and South Australian Governments have no justifiable excuses, none whatsoever.
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