00:57, March 30 462 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-30 00:57:03
'Limited' mental health programs at Don Dale even after death of 15-year-old, inquiry hears

More than a decade after the death in custody of a 15-year-old boy at Darwin’s Don Dale youth detention centre, mental health programs were “limited” and there was no formalised program established despite clear recommendations by the coroner, the Northern Territory royal commission has heard.

The 15-year-old Aboriginal boy, who died at Don Dale in 2000, was serving a 28-day period of mandatory detention after stealing stationery worth less than $100.

Barrister John Lawrence SC, who acted for the boy’s family during a 2001 coronial inquest into the death, told the commission the teenager had taken his own life after being locked down in a room on his own.

The boy had been moved to a “cell placement” to calm down and officers were supposed to check on him every half hour.

A subsequent coroner’s inquest in 2000 produced recommendations that all staff receive regularly updated formal training in recognising risk factors and behaviours in young people, and in recognising signs of mental illness.

Michael Yaxley, the former assistant general manager of the Don Dale centre, told the commission the first recommendation was followed through and continued on “as a very strong focus” in at-risk procedures. He said such procedures during his time were followed “stringently” and there had been no further deaths in custody.

However, the second recommendation he “considered as not being as strong”.“The department of health would have had a lot of input into that, I believe,” he said.

There were “some” applied intervention programs attended by staff, and mental health first aid, “but if you want me to make comment on an overall conception of mental health procedures and introduction to Don Dale centre, then there wasn’t a formalised, continuous growing program for that,” he said.

During his tenure there was some reliance on private practitioners, including using psychologists contracted to the adult jail. There were “limited” after hours mental health services, Yaxley said.

The commission has also previously heard evidence about the inadequacy of training among staff.

Yaxley said the minimal response and restraint training officers undertook prior to 2010 was appropriate at the time because the level of aggression among detainees at the time was limited. “As time progressed and we got into the latter parts of 2010 the restraints for [the training program] at times were not to a point that allowed for effective restraint of larger boys, more aggressive boys, and that created more assaults on staff.”

Yaxley also gave evidence of programs which he had managed to get up and running in the centre and which he resulted in great improvements. He said the upfront cost of appropriate programs was likely to lead to massive savings in the future, but many were defunded.

Previous witnesses have spoken of tensions in the centre exacerbated by a lack of activities and programs for detainees.

Yaxley identified the Past Present Future program, which ran for about a year until the end of 2014 under grant funding, and a bridge program taught by an elderly woman. He said there was a need for permanently funded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural programs.

An artist program ran for many years, and included a fence painting initiative working alongside the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency which saw about a dozen youth, all from different areas of the NT, decorate a panel representing their area “from the desert to the sea”.

“They were totally impressed. It was just an amazing experience,” said Yaxley. He also said he identified a “huge gap” in care – available through Naaja for pre and post detention – for children on remand. “There needs to be something. That percentage [of children on remand] has just been too high forever.”

The commission continues in Darwin.

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