The Australian Government established a new Royal Commission yesterday tasked with examining the failings of the Northern Territory’s child protection and juvenile justice systems since 2006.

This new Royal Commission is one of many recent public inquiries in Australia with a focus on child protection issues. It will operate alongside the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which, in September 2014, examined the mistreatment of many Aboriginal children between 1945 and 1980 at the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin.

Background to the new Royal Commission

The new Royal Commission is the Australian Government’s response to a Four Corner’s investigation televised on the ABC on Monday evening. The program included footage from 2014 of the tear gassing and other mistreatment of children and young people as young as 10 held at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre located just outside Darwin.

The mistreatment included:

  • Isolation in solitary confinement for over 72 hours;
  • Deprivation of water;
  • Tear gassing in confined spaces;
  • Use of mechanical restraints and cuffing;
  • Offensive conduct by officers.

All of these methods have been prohibited by law in juvenile detention centres in New South Wales since 1987.

What also material is the fact that 95% of children and young people held in juvenile detention centres in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

But despite two previous inquiries into the incident, why did it take so long for Australia to see this type of response, which has included the sacking of former Commissioner Ken Middlebrook and a police investigation into the treatment?

What will the new Royal Commission examine?

The Australian Government issued the Royal Commission’s terms of reference yesterday.

Specifically, the Royal Commission has been asked to examine:

  1. failings in the child protection and youth detention systems of the Government of the Northern Territory since 2006;
  2. the effectiveness of any oversight mechanisms and safeguards to ensure the treatment of detainees was appropriate;
  3. cultural and management issues that may exist within the Northern Territory youth detention system;
  4. whether the treatment of detainees breached laws or the detainees’ human rights; and
  5. whether more should have been done by the Government of the Northern Territory to take appropriate measures to prevent the reoccurrence of inappropriate treatment.

The Royal Commission will also make recommendations about legal, cultural, administrative and management reforms to prevent inappropriate treatment of children and young persons in detention, and what improvements can be made to the child protection system.

What might we hope to see happen? 

We already have the evidence base to substantially change the corrections and juvenile justice systems in Australia, but particularly in the Northern Territory. We also know that a holistic response is required, one beyond the corrections and juvenile justice environment. What we need now is the political will and leadership to implement change.

We can only hope that Australian Governments implement the recommendations of this Royal Commission, rather than ignore them to the detriment of children and young people, as was the case with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that took place in 1987.