Aboriginal kids singled out in police custody

Yoorrook Justice Commission has heard police mistreatment of Indigenous children is rooted in racism.

Yoorrook Justice Commission has heard police mistreatment of Indigenous children is rooted in racism. Photo: AAP

Aboriginal children are being routinely strip-searched in “state sanctioned violence” a defence lawyer has told Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission.

Kurnai Legal’s Tessa Theocharous said the constant mistreatment of Aboriginal children by police was rooted in racism.

They are routinely subjected to racist slurs, excessive force and over-policing, the inquiry heard.

Routine strip-searches, unnecessary use of tasers and stricter bail laws were some examples cited at Wednesday’s Yoorrook hearing.

During a strip-search, a person is forced to remove their clothing, stand with their legs apart and bend over in full view of prison guards.

‘State-sanctioned violence’ claim

“Children can be subjected to, it’s effectively state-sanctioned violence,” Ms Theocharous said.

“It just occurs constantly and all the time. I know from speaking to other lawyers and talking about their experiences with their clients … they find it really confronting when we speak about the experiences our First Nations clients have with police.”

She added the issues are state-wide and said an independent body was needed to monitor and help improve police conduct.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight, a proud Yorta Yorta woman, said systemic racism was prevalent within Victoria Police.

“Racism is also particularly prevalent in Victoria Police, mostly in the actions of individual officers and systemic racism permeates police practice,” she said.

Summons, rather than arrests, ignored

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said police were not always aware of legal provisions that could ultimately lower the rate of arrests.

“There is a legislative provision – section 345 of the Children, Youth and Families Act – which states that police should presume that children should be proceeded with by way of summons rather than arrest and across the board we see that provision completely not being applied,” principal lawyer of the Wirraway Practice Sarah Schwartz said.

Aboriginal young people aged 10 to 17 years are nearly six times more likely to be processed by police as alleged offenders than their non-Aboriginal peers.

They are also nine times more likely to be detained in youth justice custody.

Mandatory awareness training

In December 2021, Victoria Police issued a new policy outlining oversight requirements when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in police custody requiring officers to document their custody decisions and provide supervisors with greater visibility of these decisions.

“Already we are progressing important change including the rollout of mandatory Aboriginal cultural awareness training to help our employees understand the role police have played in past government policies and practices, break down barriers and strengthen relationships between police and the Aboriginal community,” Victoria Police said in a statement.

The state government said it welcomes any recommendations from the commission.

“We know that more needs to be done to address the over-representation of Aboriginal Victorians in the child protection and justice systems – that’s why we’re implementing a range of reforms with self-determination at their core,” it said.

The truth-telling inquiry is the first of its kind in Australia, with its public hearings coming as Victoria embarks on a process towards treaty.


Topics: victoria
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