On the 10th of October 2016, aunties, uncles, students, academics and supporters gathered to listen to the perspectives of Joanne Voller, Dylan Voller’s mother and Kirra Voller, Dylan’s sister, one day before the Royal Commission into abuses in the Northern Territory juvenile justice system. They were joined by Lynda-June Coe, a teacher and activist with the Canberra Aboriginal Tent Embassy and a representative of Fighting in Solidarity Towards Treaties (FISTT), Roxanne Moore, a human rights lawyer and campaigner in Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights team and Murri activist Uncle Ken Canning. The panel was moderated and organised by Bundjalung woman Evelyn Araluen-Corr, a core member of SSAC.
As Evelyn explained the audience of over 150, “Whilst this is footage for the people of Australia, this is a daily reality for Aboriginal mothers, fathers about what’s going to happen in these institutions that they are far more likely to be pushed in to than other kids.”
Joanne bravely shared how the Australian education and welfare system failed Dylan from age 11, setting him on a path towards incarceration. As Joanne and Kirra explained, the root of the incarceration of Black kids in detention and the abuses they suffer is a colonialist welfare system that actively breaks Black families apart, separating mothers from babies, and children from their culture and community. “That was the start of when he’d go out onto the streets, it was when he was in Family and Community Services care,” Joanne says. Kirra spoke about the way in which social workers work long shifts intended to supervise children under state control, but sit around on their phones letting the kids wander and get into trouble. She shared how Dylan would get into trouble for breaking curfew because he wanted to be with his family.
As Kirra highlighted, it costs $270,000 per child to take children from their family and put them into a three bedroom house with shift-worker social workers. “That just blows my mind that you can put so much money towards putting kids in care, but they’re damaging them more, and it’s still meant to be their family’s fault. It’s just not fair.”
Kirra illuminated the way in which Family and Community Services as well as the education system that failed him, lead Dylan to trouble with the law and his eventual incarceration. She explained how these institutions build criminal identities by repeatedly dehumanising inmates, “When you’re told for six years that a person isn’t a person, it sort of starts to sink in … After seeing all the footage, I can understand the person that he is and the things he’s done.”
Uncle Ken spoke about his experiences as a Black kid in detention, speaking of atrocities so monstrous as being confined to a small cage-like prison for over three years and countless brutal bashings. For Uncle, the violence against children in detention is used to create docility and control, unlike adult prisons where drugs and drug-dependence is rife. As a Bidjara man who has been witness and victim to these abuses, Uncle saw parallels between his life and Dylan’s, “It never leaves you,” he said. “You tend to think the bad old days are gone, then all of a sudden there it is in front of your eyes again – and, in some instances, only worse. I’m 64 and, you know, I can see where this boy’s life is at. It’s not a good place.”
Uncle Ken’s reflections demonstrated the cyclical effect royal commissions have on Black lives. As he explained, after the royal commission, people get a slap on the wrist, things quieten down for a while and then spring back up worse than ever because the commissions continually fail to address structural violences within the juvenile justice system as well as actively consult Indigenous communities and use culturally appropriate forms of healing. “In our culture, we never had jails,” says Uncle. Joanne spoke about Dylan’s experience with Elders who visited Don Dale and how bringing their culture to his healing process prompted him to connect to family, and incited remorse and reflection in Dylan. Roxanne and Linda both stressed the importance of culturally appropriate support and cultural safety in protecting young Aboriginal people. “Just that one moment of connection with Elders made Dylan want to connect with his family again and want to change. It’s not the tear gassing, it’s reaching out with love and hope,” says Joanne.
Kirra Voller recited a moving poem about the injustices her brother faces, and a young member of FISTT, Harry, shared a powerful poem before bringing everyone together for a photo, showing strength through unity and love.
What was clear from the autonomous panel was that despite the violences black children face regularly and the systematic breaking up of Aboriginal family and culture, Aboriginal people will continue to speak out and will come together in solidarity to stand for what is right and just for their people.