If We’re Serious About Domestic Violence, We Need To End The Policies That Kill Aboriginal Women

Australian institutions routinely and catastrophically fail women in danger. Ms Dhu is the latest in a long line.

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Today is White Ribbon Day. Across the country, politicians, businesses, public figures and media outlets are making solemn declarations of their willingness to combat violence against women, wherever and whenever they see it.

This is a good and necessary thing to do, but it’s also very easy — almost everyone believes that violence against women is a bad thing, and that it’s a problem. What’s much harder is recognising the myriad ways our most powerful institutions routinely and catastrophically fail women in danger, and acknowledging that entrenched policies and prejudices not only prevent us from effectively tackling violence against women, but are making the problem worse.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in society’s treatment of a group uniquely vulnerable to domestic violence: Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from injuries relating to domestic violence than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, and any efforts to reduce this disparity in a meaningful way are hopelessly hamstrung by government policies, justice systems and police practices that are demonstrably placing them in harm’s way.

A case that has been unfolding in Western Australia for the past fifteen months offers an illuminating and deeply frightening look into how Australia is ignoring and endangering Aboriginal women who are already at risk. If Australia’s political elite are serious in their declarations to stop violence against women, this might be the place to start.

“Oh, Shut Up”: The Humiliating Last Hours Of Ms Dhu

On Monday, a Perth coronial inquest began into the death of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Yamatji Aboriginal woman who died in police custody last August. Multiple members of Ms Dhu’s family have testified that she was a victim of domestic violence at the time of her arrest. According to Ms Dhu’s mother Della Roe, the septicaemia which eventually led to Ms Dhu’s death was caused by broken ribs she sustained in an altercation with her partner, Dion Ruffin.

But Ms Dhu was not killed by her partner, at least not in the sense we commonly understand when we think of women dying through domestic violence. Her injuries were serious, but they were treatable. Her death was not inevitable; in fact, it was easily preventable. But instead of receiving the support she urgently needed, and that all victims of domestic abuse deserve, Ms Dhu was maltreated, incarcerated and belittled by the very services supposed to help her, even as she lay dying.

There are many things to take away from the case of Ms Dhu, not least the sickening treatment she suffered at the hands of police. According to counsel assisting the coroner Ilona O’Brien, Ms Dhu — who was being held at South Hedland police station in WA’s Pilbara region — was shuttled back and forth between the police lock-up and Hedland Health Campus several times after complaining of feeling unwell.

On the first two occasions, doctors dismissed her complaints as “behavioural issues” and released her back into police custody, unaware that she was dying of pneumonia and septicaemia. The inquest heard that shortly before Ms Dhu went into cardiac arrest, police officers told a nurse they thought she was “faking it”.

Footage played to the court showed that on the day she died, a near-comatose Ms Dhu was physically dragged out of her cell along the floor by a police officer, before being carried by her arms and legs and loaded alone into the back of a police cruiser while handcuffed. After hearing her moan from inside the cruiser’s cab, one officer is heard to remark: “Oh, shut up”. Ruffin, who was in the cell next door, alleged that officers laughed at Ms Dhu as she lay on the floor of her cell choking on her own vomit.

This is not an isolated incident. Writing for New Matilda, Amy McQuire highlights the disturbing parallels in the case of Nita Blankett, an Aboriginal mother of five who died in police custody in 1982 after suffering an asthma attack that went untreated for more than three hours. Blankett’s case was one of 99 examined during a 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, which went on to recommend that “police and prison officers should be instructed to immediately seek medical attention if any doubt arises as to a detainee’s condition”. That recommendation, along with most of the Commission’s 338 others, remains unimplemented and ignored.

Stories like these profoundly undermine the ability of Aboriginal women to seek help when they most need it. An Australian Crime Commission report from 2011 found that fear of police and the justice system, the prospect of not being believed, and culturally inappropriate responses from authorities are major reasons domestic violence is chronically underreported in Aboriginal communities. As Celeste Liddle has noted for Daily Life, the contempt and disbelief with which officers treated Ms Dhu in her final hours indicate that “Aboriginal mistrust of police and the justice system is sadly well-founded”.

Given Australia’s history, it’s also extremely unlikely that any police officers will be held properly accountable for what happened in South Hedland. Ms Dhu’s death was the 340th Aboriginal death in custody since the final Royal Commission report was handed down in 1992. Of those 340 deaths, not one has been found to be from the actions of a police officer.

Punished For Being Poor: WA’s Barbaric Incarceration System

What makes this situation even more tragic is the fact that Ms Dhu shouldn’t have been behind bars in the first place. The ‘offence’ which landed her in the South Hedland lock-up was negligible; specifically, unpaid fines of around $3600. In most jurisdictions this would never lead to incarceration — no one has been imprisoned for unpaid fines in NSW since the late 1990s — but in 2009, Western Australia introduced imprisonment as a way for people with outstanding fines to “clear” their debts through jail time, with disastrous results.

WA’s policy towards unpaid fines has overwhelmingly targeted WA’s most vulnerable people, including Aboriginal women and victims of domestic violence. 1,300 of WA’s 5,300 current inmates are serving time for unpaid fines, almost half of whom are Aboriginal. Jail time for unpaid fines almost entirely accounts for the explosion in WA’s prison populace — from 3,748 in 2008, to 5,360 in 2014. In 2013, one in every three WA women who entered the prison system did so solely to clear fines. Aboriginal women make up an astonishing 51 percent of all women in custody in WA.

In this willingness to imprison Aboriginal women for minor offences, we again find the 1991 Royal Commission being ignored. Recommendation 92 states that “imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort”, while in several Australian jurisdictions it is increasingly being used as a means of first resort. The Northern Territory government has rolled out so-called ‘paperless arrests’, allowing officers to detain people for things like public drunkenness without a warrant. Speaking last month on the death of 59-year-old Aboriginal man Kumanjayi Langdon in a Darwin watch house, counsel assisting the NT coroner Peggy Dwyer said paperless arrest laws would “undoubtedly lead to more deaths in cells”.

Given the shocking condition of WA jails, it’s hard to refute her reasoning. Largely thanks to the spike in imprisonments for unpaid fines, the state’s prisons are massively overcrowded. Bandyup Women’s Prison, WA’s only women’s jail, was described as “the hardest and most neglected prison in the state” in a review last year, and “health and mental services are [still] severely stretched” one year on. Temperatures in WA prison cells are frequently recorded at over 30 degrees Celsius, and can reach up to 50 degrees. An unnamed 50-year-old Aboriginal woman died in Bandyup in July.

Compounding the wrongheadedness of WA’s approach is the severe financial distress experienced by many women in abusive relationships. Australian of the Year Rosie Batty says that “economic pressures are one of those obstacles that make it very overwhelming” for women seeking to escape a violent partner, who often has control over the relationship’s finances. Rather than receiving help and support to leave a dangerous environment, Ms Dhu and many women like her instead face the prospect of being locked in jail by authorities over a fine their circumstances leave them unable to pay. “Most women in prison have experienced family violence. Prison is not the place for women. Separating families and punishing vulnerable women is not the answer,” Ms Dhu’s mother Della Roe said in a statement earlier today.

The abject failure of WA’s policy has begun to be acknowledged; in March, Premier Colin Barnett indicated support for a federal plan that would see unpaid fines recouped through reduced welfare payments to offenders, rather than jail time, and in June he talked up an intention to combat the disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal prisoners by “introducing legislative and policy measures to avoid incarceration in appropriate circumstances for low-level offenders”. But when it comes to policy, the Barnett government is making the problem worse; in a state where Aboriginal children are 53 times more likely to be jailed than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, WA has become the only state in Australia that imposes mandatory jail sentences on children who collect three separate offences.

Words are easy. But these are the profoundly uncomfortable and disquieting realities we must grapple with if we really wish to “commit” to ending domestic violence in Australia. We must acknowledge that women do not only face violence from their abusive partners; for women like Ms Dhu, just as deadly is the deeply ingrained institutional violence meted out to them by our police forces, our chronically broken justice systems and our governments.

Feature image via NITV.