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"If the CNS has saved lives in NSW and the ACT year after year and assisted thousands of individuals in their direst hour, then why isn’t this service national?" ~ Gerry Georgatos

WHEN SOMEONE is arrested and detained, all of a sudden, they are at seriously elevated risk to life-threatening levels of anxiety.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at much higher risk than the rest of the population after the distrust and racism soaked up from the waves of generations of racism and marginalisation.

Deaths of detainees in police watch houses led to a Royal Commission (1987 to 1991).

Several recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody screamed for the enabling of immediate support to detainees through highly skilled advocates. Today, this support exists through the Custody Notification Service (CNS), but only in NSW and the ACT.

With nearly half the nation’s arrests comprising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it is unjustifiable that the rest of the nation has not implemented this service.

The CNS was implemented in NSW in 2000, through the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) and funded by the State Government. Since then, for 16 years till recently, there had not been a single death of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in a police watch house. On July 19 this year, 36-year-old Rebecca Maher died in the Maitland Police watch house but the police failed to contact the CNS advocate. 

It is beyond exasperating that right-mindedness has been sidelined for so many years by one government after another and, in turn, many lives lost. It is not only the tragedy of lives lost but of human beings who have been stranded in seriously high levels of distress, who have been hit with further charges, compounded into a constancy of multiple and composite traumas — with some individuals degenerating from broken, to ruined lives, to irreparable damage.

Let me describe to you the CNS.

The CNS is a 24-hour legal advice and RUOK phone line for Aboriginal and Torres Islanders who have been taken into police custody. Under NSW legislation (Powers and Responsibilities Act 2005), the police must contact the ALS whenever they detain an Indigenous person. The detainee is subsequently provided with support — prompt legal, health and welfare advice.

This has not just led to lives saved but because anxiety levels have been reduced, has also led to less Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders convicted in NSW than the rest of the nation where there is no CNS. Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia convict Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at amongst the world’s highest rates.

One in six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Western Australia and the Northern Territory have been to prison, with one in eight in South Australia. One in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Nearly 90 per cent of the Northern Territory’s prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples (Source: ABS).

The ALS lawyer is trained in identifying suicidal ideation, in de-escalating anxiety, in psychosocially validating people. It is when we are in our direst need that we need other people. As a suicide prevention researcher, I know firsthand that threats of self-harm and suicide are common and authentic.

In NSW, the CNS responds to nearly 16,000 annual calls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – or 300 people on average per week – who have been taken into custody. The CNS costs only $526,000 per year — that is it! One coronial inquiry can cost as much.

If the CNS has saved lives in NSW and the ACT year after year and assisted thousands of individuals in their direst hour, then why isn’t this service national? The death of 22-year-old Ms Dhu in a Western Australian police watch house should have led to the immediate establishment of the CNS.

The memory of Ms Dhu has been betrayed by the Western Australian Government. It is my firm belief that a CNS advocate would have seen to the hospitalisation and proper treatment of Ms Dhu. Diabolical institutional racism and classism cost Ms Dhu her life, with prejudicial presumptions of the Yamatji woman casting vicious slurs. A CNS advocate would have pressed for Ms Dhu’s health and welfare rights in addition to her legal rights.

What is little known is that one of the police officers who was at the watch house received ongoing psychological support and was, for a time, on suicide watch. The CNS relieve police officers of the burden of health and welfare judgments.

One police officer said to me,

“We do not want to be making these decisions. We do because we are given no choice. If it works in NSW, [the CNS] will work here too.”

It has to be understood that every workplace is blighted by racism and that it is a fact that the racism gets in the way of what should be good judgment. All anti-discrimination, anti-racism and cross cultural training teaches to recognise that every workplace is tainted by racism and discrimination. Only with the first port of call in recognising this can there be striving in managing and reducing the racism and discrimination.

As a profession, police officers are among the most elevated risk groups to suicidal ideation and it is about time that police commissioners and police unions come clean with public support for the implementation of the CNS. Police officers and police unions have contacted me to continue advocating for the CNS. However, if they went public with the call for the CNS, this service would be implemented without delay.

Recently retired NSW Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas once told me during a discussion about the "Forgotten 300" that the CNS should be a "must-do", or as some say, it’s a "no-brainer".

Famed Mabo barrister, Greg McIntyre implores for 

“... a custody notification service as an important measure in preventing deaths in custody."

If police commissioners and police unions want to get it right for their officers and for society as a whole then they should stand up and speak out in the way they have asked of me. There is no place for silences. Going public often galvanises change where the dividend has not been extracted through ‘diplomacy’.

The CNS has been championed by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion. We have had a number of conversations about the CNS and he gets it — he understands the need for it to be rolled out nationally. When the NSW Government deplorably defunded the service and when Scullion’s colleagues disgracefully failed to support the funding of the service, he did not cave in to the poor decisions of his colleagues. He saved the CNS in NSW and the ACT by funding it to mid-2019, pulling together1.8 million – out of his portfolio – even though it was the responsibility of other portfolio holders. 

The CNS has also been championed by Western Australia’s Senator Sue Lines, who knows how desperately her home state needs it. The Western Australian State Labor Party has committed to implementing the CNS when elected. It is time every state and territory does the right thing here and implement the CNS. There is no greater legacy than to save lives, than to help people.

I will wrap up with the words of members of Ms Dhu’s family.

Uncle Shaun Harris said:

“We do not want this to happen to anyone else. Our families are heartbroken and the pain has not left us.”

Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe said,

“My daughter should be with us today. Her loss haunts me each day and it will remain but it will give me at least an ounce of peace to see the CNS implemented.”

Gerry Georgatos is an adviser for Humanitarian Projects, Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights (ISJHR), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) and Wheelchairs for Kids charity. He is also co-editor of The Stringer. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

 

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