posted on August 01, 2016 10:41
By Cathy Kezelman
The brutalisation of youth in the Northern Territory's Don Dale Detention Centre has shocked Australians. The footage of degrading physical violations and extreme punishments by the prison officers was reminiscent of the torture and dehumanising abuse of prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, images of which sparked global outrage in 2003.
The scenes parallel the systemic institutional barbarity which the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been forensically examining since 2013. We are now in 2016 and yet it appears that we have learnt nothing. How can we as a civilised Western society sit back and allow the indiscriminate use of "tear-gas", handcuffs, "hooding" and solitary confinement in what appears to be a system of state-sanctioned torture?
The quick action of the Turnbull government in calling a royal commission is to be applauded. It seems, however, that some politicians and political systems only act when the voice of public outrage becomes loud enough for them to fear for their political lives. The irony is that the techniques for "managing" incarcerated and often disenfranchised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Don Dale Detention Centre are the antithesis to a rehabilitative process.
It would appear they were designed to not only threaten but also invoke maximum fear, powerlessness, helplessness and submission. We need to seriously examine how apparently state-sanctioned systems can so readily transgress basic human rights, how those in a position of power can collude to abuse the power vested in them, and how those in positions of authority can turn a blind eye to human rights violations occurring on their watch.
Those of us who work in the trauma field are championing an approach within all human service systems which is trauma-informed and based on the principles of safety – physical and psychological, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment, respect for diversity and the inclusion of culture. While sceptics may say that this is a detention system and these principles don't apply, nothing could be further from the truth.
Trauma results from events, real or perceived, which are threatening, and invoke fear, helplessness and powerless threat – precisely the formula for the acts perpetrated on youth in the footage. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth have experienced layers of trauma. Some have suffered from the trauma of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, family violence and neglect within their home, family or community. As a population, Aboriginal peoples have been subject to the multi-generational traumatic impacts of colonisation, forced removals, and dehumanising government policies.
The gross over-representation of Aboriginal youth in the NT's detention system is telling and reflective of those layers of trauma. Dislocation from culture, land and spirituality, coupled with fragmentation of kin, family and self, coupled with discrimination and oppression fuel violence, substance abuse, crime and incarceration.
If we are to see real change we need to work with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth, and listen to their stories. Find out what happened to them and what it is they need. Support them to feel and be safe. Build trust and develop a culture of true collaboration which breaks down abusive power imbalances and de-escalates heightened situations as they occur. This will not happen overnight and will require a whole new system of cultural and philosophical change.
Generations of distrust and disaffection have spawned powerful emotions of anger, grief and loss and they are spilling out into generations of disaffected youth. Just as the royal commission has listened to survivors' stories, so we must genuinely listen to the compounded traumas of incarcerated Aboriginal youth, hear them, and work with Indigenous peoples to build systems which are culturally attuned, trauma-informed and humane. Without them violence, resentment and unrest will continue to escalate as will incarceration and recidivism rates.
Dr Cathy Kezelman is president of Blue Knot Foundation, a national organisation working to improve the lives of 5 million Australian adults who have experienced childhood trauma and abuse.
Article published here http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/why-are-we-further-traumatising-our-abused-youth-20160729-gqgece.html