The death of a young Aboriginal woman, Julieka Dhu (left), has been surrounded by controversy, as indeed are many Aboriginal deaths in custody. While it may be considered ‘good news’ that Aboriginal people in custody are less likely to die than non-Aboriginal people, the fact that police and hospital staff were deemed by WA Coroner Rosalinda Fogliani to have provided less than ideal care for Ms Dhu has drawn outrage – and rightly so. However, I would have liked to see some of this vehemence directed at social circumstances that led to her being in police custody and in Emergency. Consider these three questions:
- To prevent tragedies like this one, when is the best time to intervene: at the point of contact with the justice and health systems, or much earlier?
- Where should responsibility for preventing such a death primarily lie: with the police and hospital staff, or with the individual, friends, and family?
- Based on available statistics, are Aboriginal people more likely to be harmed by other Aboriginal people or by non-Aboriginal people?
I will state upfront that I think that the best way Ms Dhu’s death (and others like hers) could have been prevented was to intervene long before drugs, domestic violence, and unpaid fines occurred. An ABC report states: “Ms Dhu had suffered two broken ribs after her partner threw her to the ground in April 2014, but one rib never healed properly and became infected. The coroner found the infection entered her bloodstream more than once when she was injecting herself with amphetamines.” Based on this, it should be apparent that the best way to prevent deaths like Ms Dhu’s is to focus on creating safe living spaces, free of violence and drug abuse. This what most non-Aboriginal Australians take for granted.
Even had she been afforded better care after her arrest, how long before she would have been back in the system? What must her life have been like at home? Consider that a recent report by the Telethon Kids Institute states that Aboriginal mothers are 17.5 times more likely to die from homicide than non-Aboriginal mothers. Or consider this headline: “Indigenous women committing crimes to escape violent partners, Senate inquiry hears.” Let’s not kid ourselves on the risks to Indigenous women outside of custody. In the case of Ms Dhu, her father, Robert, testified she had told him her boyfriend had “flogged” her and broken her ribs.
To suggest that the best places for intervention are hospitals and police lockups is like saying that the best way to help people with obesity-related illness is better methods of liposuction, for such has been the media focus on ‘the system’ in determining responsibility for Ms Dhu’s death. Why is it that we, as a society, entertain and excuse lower expectations for Aboriginal people? Consider News.com’s reporting of the story, “When unpaid fines mean paying with your life, the system is broken.” An alternative title could have been “When friends and family are unable to help a vulnerable loved one, something is terribly wrong.”
Preventable deaths of Aborigines are common, with high incidence of violence well documented in government statistics and some Aboriginal-specific social media. However, with few exceptions this is a topic that many find deeply uncomfortable. Why is that? Because we can’t talk honestly about victims without also considering perpetrators. If a white perpetrator can be implicated in the harm to an Aboriginal person, ‘blacktivists’ and their white supporters will shout from the rooftops. Members of the victim brigade will rant, claiming that Aborigines are under the white man’s heel yet again. But when the perpetrator is Aboriginal — a far more likely occurrence — then the silence is deafening. In the case of Ms Dhu, her boyfriend, Dion Ruffin, the man she was quoted as accusing of fracturing her ribs, was reported as being twice her age and twice her size, with a history of domestic violence. He has received comparatively little attention. Ms Dhu’s grandmother is reported as believing the turning point for her granddaughter was in 2013 when she started living with Ruffin.
Working with the Aboriginal Population
Focusing on what police and the hospital might have done to help Ms Dhu is a valuable exercise, as such an examination might lessen the risk of future unnecessary deaths. But is such a ‘downstream’ approach the best way to go? Is this the strategy used for preventing deaths of non-Aboriginal women? The deplorable state this young woman was in before she ended up in jail was so bad that The Australian newspaper reported: “Some close to Ms Dhu believed her stint in custody could have been a circuit-breaker for a young woman in the grip of drugs and in a spiralling, abusive relationship.”
So how did she get into such a state? Why wasn’t assistance provided much earlier? Though it may be seen as an insensitive question, it is worth asking if the friends and family of Ms Dhu could have done anything more to help or how they themselves could have been better supported to provide her with assistance? Had an ‘upstream’ approach been in place, we likely would not have had a downstream problem. Isn’t it time we started shifting our attention upstream?
Yes, a higher standard of care could have been provided to this woman when she came into contact with the police and health systems. But it is always easy to look back and reflect on how things could have been done better. In a perfect world, those in helping professions would be free of prejudice, would not be overworked, would be respected and rewarded appropriately for their efforts, and would always make sound decisions – even when working with members of groups who are often rude, drug affected, and disrespectful. But we don’t live in such a world. Humans will at times make wrong decisions and may not be impartial. There is always room for improvement. Ways to improve the capabilities of the helping professions include more training, better work conditions and greater employer support.
All people in need should be treated the same. But are all people the same? Some groups are more vulnerable and carry greater risks. So what is it like working with vulnerable, at-risk populations like many Aboriginal people? In the same article in The Australian mentioned above, a senior officer with more than 20 years’ experience in regional watch houses is reported as saying: “The complex health problems of many Aboriginal people, even young ones, should terrify police who are required to care for them.” Do any of those who have protested Ms Dhu’s death care to volunteer for the job?
I mentioned to a friend that I was writing this article. He is a man with a lot of experience with Aboriginal people, as well as having Aboriginal children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. His response was:
What happened to Ms Dhu could quite easily happen to one or more of my family over here. It’s a real tragedy. However, I don’t blame police or medical authorities. They aren’t social workers & never will be. They face a lot of abuse & soon become hardened. The rest of the world won’t turn around for the rat-bags in my family, nor for anyone else.
It’s very sad, but the easiest way to avoid becoming a death in custody is still to keep away from grog (and these days, drugs) and keep your hands off other people’s gear. That’s the way I see it and what I teach my children.
I pray that for the family of Miss Dhu, in time their sadness will be replaced with happy memories. But much more than this, I pray that other lives in the future are saved and do not die under similar circumstances to that of Miss Dhu. That is my motivation for writing this article.
The Dhu tragedy, an exchange
Aboriginal affairs commentator Gerry Georgatos has written more about Ms Dhu than anyone I know. I therefore thought it appropriate to exchange questions in the interests in maintaining some balance to this important discussion. Here are his questions and my answers:
1. A police officer picked up Ms Dhu by her arms while unconscious in the police cell, then dropped Ms Dhu and her head hit the concrete. Police failed to apply CPR and instead dragged an unconscious Ms Dhu along the cell floor and out into the corridor, where she was subsequently carted to the pod of a police van. No one accompanied Ms Dhu in the van’s pod. Health personnel had failed to take her temperature, had failed the most basic health assessments. Should these personnel remain in their jobs? Should they not be prosecuted?
I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that they should lose their jobs (unless you and your buddies are prepared to take their place; Are you?), but certainly stiff consequences should be applied. But that is not the best solution for preventing tragedies like this from happening in the future. I will address this in part 2 of this article. Briefly, a better solution will mean individuals and minority groups adopting some changes (e.g., stop spitting and abusing) that are more likely to promote good relationships with service providers. But of course that brings on the ‘blaming the victim’ mantra.
2. In your article you state that there should be preventative interventions for Aboriginal peoples who are affected by various acute aberrant behaviours? What would these preventative interventions be and how would individuals and families be reached and how would they be applied?
Not so much “preventative interventions” but social stability interventions. A preventative intervention in this context, much like a suicide intervention, is only slightly better than a band aid approach. The focus should be on jobs and education (which sometimes means relocation) and quitting the BS excuse making (e.g., “We’re suffering from racism and colonisation”). When this happens, a reduction in drugs, DV, and crime will be a natural outcome.
3. You have stated that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should strive for ‘high expectations.’ I agree but how are high expectation goals achievable in the far too many Aboriginal and Torres Islander communities which are denied an equivalency of services and social assets when compared to non-Aboriginal communities?
Great question. Good role models help lift expectations among the people. As referred to in my second answer, if remote communities are dysfunctional, then sometimes we need to look at relocation to where they will have ready access to the services and social assets you mention – which is typically where the good Indigenous role models live. And we need to change the narrative of “special ‘culturally appropriate’ services must be the rule” to “special ‘culturally appropriate’ services should be used only where there is demonstrated reason for doing so.”