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Police still failing Aboriginal women



A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time trawling through the lists of women who had died as a result of men's violence and compiling my own list of the Aboriginal victims. Often, the women I listed required my educated guess work.

Silhouette of woman with slumped headThey had no names so I would include them on the basis of location and situation — where crimes were committed in areas where there was a high population of Aboriginal people, it was likely that the unnamed victim was an Aboriginal woman. Unfortunately, I was also able to count on the lack of interest shown by the press as being a sure-fire sign of the victim's heritage.

After a couple of years of compiling these lists, I stopped. As well as showing the exorbitant rates of Indigenous victimhood (seven times parity in both years), it ended up being an exercise in proving just how little society cared about these women. Not only did this work barely get picked up elsewhere but many unnamed victims remained unnamed for years, if the press ever followed up at all. Aboriginal women victims just did not appear to matter at all to broader society.

In recent times, two previously unnamed victims have been identified in the media. This was not, however, due to a public outpouring of sympathy marked by tears and vigils. Nor was it because some form of justice has prevailed for their deaths. In both cases, the victims' names (or at least culturally-sensitive versions of such) have made the press because police bungled the investigations so much that it is highly unlikely there will ever be justice for either woman.

Last week, a coronial inquest report laid bare the sheer lack of care and competence the Tennant Creek police had while investigating the death of Kwementyeye Green in 2013.

Not only had the police theorised she had killed herself leading them to destroy crucial forensic evidence which could have proven otherwise, but they released the man suspected of killing her without charge and without securing the crime scene, therefore potentially allowing him to tamper with further evidence. An ABC report stated that the director of public prosecutions has found there is now not enough evidence to lay charges.

This case had eerie similarities to that of Kwementyeye McCormack, an Aboriginal woman who died in Alice Springs in 2015, also due to bleeding out from an injury to her thigh. She was initially identified in the press due to her case being reopened following a coronial inquest which had proven police incompetence in the initial investigation.


"No matter how many times coroners state that institutional racism is not a concern, the fact that justice is continually denied for the deaths of Aboriginal women due to shoddy investigations states otherwise."


Police records showed that although Kwementyeye McCormack had called for police assistance for domestic violence on 32 occasions over a 12 year period, police failed to properly investigate the avenue of domestic homicide. They still failed to investigate properly when her partner's story kept changing. Yet ten months after the investigation had been reopened, there had still been no arrests. The lack of coverage since makes me wonder if there will ever be justice for her.

It keeps happening yet surprisingly, the coronial inquest into Kwementyeye Green's case denied that institutional racism was a factor. How is it then that Northern Territory police can continually fail Aboriginal women? Considering the incredible rates of incarceration in the NT, it's not as if the police have an issue with criminalising Aboriginal people. They do, however, clearly have problems recognising when Aboriginal women are victims of crime and acting accordingly.

If this were a phenomenon limited to the NT, then it would be easier to tackle. Yet it's not. If it hadn't been for the perseverance of family members alongside the work of influential Aboriginal women, there would never have been any justice for the death of Lynette Daley. Twice the NSW director of public prosecutions dropped the charges against the two men who brutally raped her and did not intervene as she bled to death, stating that there was not enough evidence for the case to go to court. When the case did finally go to court following the push to get it heard, the jury took just 32 minutes to deliver guilty verdicts.

Or what about Linda? For a couple of years now, journalist Amy McQuire and senior advocate Martin Hodgson have been delving into the case of Kevin Henry — an Aboriginal man from Toowoomba who has been imprisoned for 26 years for Linda's murder but who has always maintained his innocence.

Their acclaimed podcast on this case has not only uncovered a series of shortcomings in the police investigation including evidence of a coercive confession, but ultimately points to the fact that police cared so little about the victim that they failed to investigate the circumstances of her death properly. In this case, there have been two miscarriages of justice — one for Linda and one for Kevin. Despite this, there has been almost a complete lack of public outcry.

No matter how many times coroners state that institutional racism is not a concern, the fact that justice is continually denied for the deaths of Aboriginal women due to shoddy investigations states otherwise. How many more times are we going to see people get away with murder because police all across this country fail to value the lives and liberties of Aboriginal women enough to ensure they do their jobs properly? Will everyday Australians ever care enough to pressure these systems for justice for Aboriginal women, or will they continue to allow Aboriginal women to disappear from our societies — unnamed and unaccounted for?

At the end of the day, it seems that there is more fear around accurately labelling police operations and justice systems as racist and sexist and working to repair them than there is around the mounting tally of dead Aboriginal women for whom there will never be justice. Aboriginal women are mere collateral damage in the maintenance of the status quo. How many more of us are going to be allowed to just disappear without justice before anything changes?



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, violence against women, Aboriginal women



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Existing comments

Maybe the killers and perpetrators of domestic violence are the ones who need to change, Celeste. Maybe the majority of killers of Aboriginal women are Aboriginal men. Maybe the problem demands action from the Aboriginal community itself in the first instance. Maybe the police are at a disadvantage because of failure of the Aboriginal community to cooperate.

john frawley | 25 June 2018  

Thanks Celeste. This sets out with clarity what constitutes structural racism in the field of murdered First Nations women in a way I hadn't grasped yet. The tendency to downgrade or dismiss what would be taken very seriously if it was a white woman. I've been following the podcast for the last few months & again, had failed to see that by going through this in such forensic detail might, not only get the poor man released, but serve as a case study of structural racism. So heartening in my old age to be seeing young ones bringing such power, clarity, & vision to tackling injustices I could not grasp for all my good intentions. I know I have been hearing it all these years but not getting it. It does the heart good.

Bev henwood | 25 June 2018  

Thanks Celeste! We all need to do all we can to counter racism when we find it! And to acknowledge and remove any racism that is part of our being! Ours is still a racist society and I think many/most of us have been socialised into racism to some degree!

Grant Allen | 25 June 2018  

Thank you for keeping the flame of justice burning. The failure of the coroner to see racism is due to his own prejudice and misunderstanding of racism.

Felix Hunter | 25 June 2018  

Thank you SO much Celeste for beginning the process of getting justice for murdered Aboriginal women. Your account is a nationally-important comment on a sickening hiatus in Australian police work and criminal law. Currently, these women are surely the 'Disappeared' of our nation. I'm surprised that Amnesty International is not yet involved in campaigning for a turn-around in this dereliction of duty by our government. There should be a web-site that records (without infringing cultural sensitivity) each known case: in terms of the age of the victim, her marital and motherhood status, place and cause of death, police and legal response, conviction or lack thereof of the murderer. Public access to the data will make a difference. Maybe others can suggest further means to address this truly iniquitous situation. I'm thoroughly ashamed to read that this 'crime-upon-crime' has going on in Australia unseen by most of us.

Dr Marty Rice | 25 June 2018  

Perpetrators of domestic violence do need to change, John Frawley, but that doesn't excuse the police and other authorities of their responsibility to do their jobs properly when violence against Aboriginal women occurs. Nor does it excuse the rest of us from holding those authorities to account when they fail their duty to Aboriginal people. It doesn't excuse those who deny Aboriginal communities a say in how to address the problems that beset them then blame them when top-down solutions don't work. Many people complain that the police said "they couldn't do anything" for a variety of crimes. When it's a white person complaining about a property crime, the complaint is not questioned and many agree with them that the "police are useless". When it's Aboriginal families spending years pressing for justice for a crime of injury or murder, it's somehow the fault of the Aboriginal community and the victim for "not cooperating".

D Smith | 25 June 2018  

I hope you continue campaigning, Celeste. Some time, police forces and public prosecutors will have to take seriously their responsibilities towards Aboriginal women, Aboriginal men and Aboriginal children. If you ever stop campaigning, there will be one less voice in an already small contingent.

Ian Fraser | 26 June 2018  

It seems to me that the Police are "piggy-in-the-middle" of an almost impossible social mess; whatever they do will get criticised. This is fundamentally a problem for the Aboriginal community itself to sort out, albeit with Police help.

Eugene | 26 June 2018  

Celeste, let's assume for a moment that John Frawley is correct. Let's also assume that you are correct and there is a wide range of significant violent crime perpetrated by indigenous men against their mothers, sisters, wives and aunties. Let's assume that the sisters in the indigenous communities unite and cooperate and prosecute the sons, brothers, fathers and uncles at an increasing rate for perpetrating violence. The result of this initiative will see incarceration rates of indigenous men rise again and these communities will be even more disproportionately represented in the prison system. Is this the way forward? Is this your proposed solution? Maybe the incarceration rates within these communities have to get monumentally worse before they can improve ? It was reported in the last few weeks that an indigenous woman confronted an indigenous community leader accused of raping her daughter. After accepting his summary denial she went out drinking with him.

Patrick | 26 June 2018  

It is a tragedy that some lives are considered less valuable and therefore the deaths less worthy of being properly investigated. Maybe Coroners throughout the country should be sharing information to confirm institutional racism. Cases looked at individually may not show a pattern and therefore a need for a central data base or approach to such deaths should be considered. Thank you Celeste for bringing this to the fore.

E. Mulhearn | 26 June 2018  

Appreciation again Celeste for your perseverance and logic. You are not likely to be discouraged by some predictable responses. Well answered by D Smith. I agree it's astonishing how the Aboriginal community are expected to be miraculously capable of controlling the behaviour of every person. There seems to be no acceptance either, of the many cases - including those cited in the article- where family and /or community have struggled for years to get justice done.

Michele Madigan | 26 June 2018  

The police prosecuting violence against aboriginal women in remote communities and the judiciary adjudicating the evidence to substantiate the bringing to justice to the perpetrator are bound by the laws of evidence. When the victim lives in the same community with the alleged offender and then members of that community for various reasons put pressure on the victim not to proceed with her complaint, either by changing her story or fleeing the community and failing to appear to give evidence on behalf of the prosecution, the crime of violence inevitably goes unpunished. It is perplexing and painful to see this sad state of affairs being branded as Racism. I believe John Frawley's comment is valid and from my own experience the most vexing problem in authorities addressing violence perpetrated against women in the indigenous community

Terence Cobby | 26 June 2018  

@ Patrick | 26 June 2018; and @ Terence Cobby | 26 June 2018. Gentlemen, have a heart! PATRICK: I'm sure you didn't appreciate what you wrote: "We will let the murders loose in the community, whilst filling our brutalising gaols with children and people who cannot pay traffic-offense fines. We'll cover this with rhetoric so no one recognises our genocidal intent." Are not 'the evils of the past' still soiling our "young and free" nation? TERRENCE: is it not a shameful generalisation to stigmatise Aboriginal families as protectors of murderers? This phenomenon is also evident in peoples of other races in Australia. Why don't we broaden our minds a bit? Government should have long ago recruited Aboriginal men and women into the police and justice system (maybe in a separate section to avoid persecution by established personnel). The racist argument that Aborigines are unsuited has long been rendered vacuous by the great distinction of Aboriginal service men in our armed forces (when we really needed them). In this scandalously conspicuous lack, the least that white police/judicial officers can do is to assiduously study Aboriginal cultures and languages; then involve themselves, heart and soul, in providing grass-roots justice for all.

Dr Marty Rice | 27 June 2018  

Dr Marty Rice. You ask Terence, "Is it not a shameful generalisation to stigmatise Aboriginal families as protectors of murderers? Could I suggest that the answer is not simple and is definitely different for different communities. I have worked in Aboriginal communities ( three of them and all very different) and treated horrific injuries in Aboriginal women, all of whom were terrified that they faced another belting if they told the doctor anything about how the injuries were sustained and by whom. When a woman was brought to the hospital by the police, not an infrequent event, the reluctance to provide any information to the police was even greater. As Terence stated, prosecution depends on evidence that can be corroborated in the court. Perhaps the police are acting justly when they do not bring a prosecution forward because of a lack of evidence. They are not in that circumstance failing to act as a result of some sort of racist conspiracy against the Aboriginal people as implied by this article and some commentators. You are right when you say we need to broaden our minds a bit. Such broadening, amongst other things, requires that both we and the Aboriginal community face the truth. Compassion is essential, but useless if born of naivety and fear of facing the consequences to either the Aboriginal or non- Aboriginal communities that might come from facing the truth.

john frawley | 27 June 2018  

In order to better protect women from violence, we always need to know who is at risk from whom. We should be unpacking aboriginal family violence to find out what we need to know to effectively protect women at risk and that includes unmasking the perpetrators. I’m not sure that allegations of police, legal system and community racism and indifference will take us very far apart from overcrowding our prisons. What works best in grappling with urgent and complex social problems are carefully targeted programs that get to the source of the matter. I was heartened to read Warren Mundine’s recent article in the Koori Mail on the success the Community Development Program (CDP) in remote aboriginal communities. CDP has supported more than 23,500 participants into jobs since July 2015. Such programs that directly provide men with purpose and self-respect go a long way in reducing community violence.

Mike | 27 June 2018  

Thanks Dr John Frawley. Your position and interpretations are abundantly clear. The question is how much should our understanding be coloured by anyone's personal interpretation of spouse abuse incidents? There is a larger picture here (already well canvassed but evidently not yet integrated into your nor Patrick's nor Terrence's unchanging views). If the police and judicial administrators were relating appropriately to Aboriginal communities e.g. by themselves being qualified and experienced Aboriginal officials; or, if non-Aboriginal, having a thorough familiarity with and empathy for local cultures and languages, violent incidents would (as in all other such properly-mediated situations) dramatically fall. Surely you'd be willing to concede that Aboriginal people are still discombobulated by post-colonial cultural shock. We, who have gained a continent from their loss, have a clear obligation to take measures to heal the gross hurt we inflicted. A physician comprehends well the healing of bodily hurts but, in the fullness of humanity, must not fall short in sensitivity to psychological and cultural realities. As a Catholic Christian Aussie it's truly shocking to read people advocating neglect and implying that Aborigines are hopeless cases. Effective therapies are to hand; with appropriate care Aboriginal communities will flourish; and, we'll all benefit.

Dr Marty Rice | 27 June 2018  

@ Mike | 27 June 2018: In the midst of our tumultuous conversation, you've given us good news of great hope. Thanks, Mike. Also, thanks again, Celeste Liddle. Your article has opened-up this awful situation, so that controlling motivations and attitudes have come into the light. Apostle Paul was inspired to understand the necessity of this, as in Ephesians 5:13. To me, this kind of journalism, and the willingness of all the different commentators to engage, is a holy work. One that has immense potential for bettering Australia and, also for the betterment of our international example.

Dr Marty Rice | 28 June 2018  

Hear! Hear! Mike. But be cautious or you might earn the redneck label in some quarters. We saw similar benefits to the CDP in five Aboriginal communities as a result of the trial pilot programs in communities where work for the dole was implemented. Alcoholism and domestic violence were significantly reduced (by 30-50% and more) and school attendance of the children increased. The men took to the work programs in significant numbers and the Aboriginal communities welcomed the changes. Despite that, many of the concerned non-Aboriginal advocates opposed the scheme which threatened not the Aboriginal community but their own raison d'etre. The same plagued the cashless card initiative and the attempt to deal with child sexual abuse in the NT in the somewhat flawed Howard intervention. We are now seeing how little these programs with initial success have succeeded in the NT in relation to child and women abuse. Some non-Aboriginal meddlers often do more harm than good and patronise the Aboriginal people rather than co-operate with them. The problem is soluble but requires the Aboriginal people to lead and the do-gooders to back off rather than continuing to tilt at windmills in their Quixotic aspirations.

john frawley | 28 June 2018  

The vulnerability of Aboriginal women cant be underestimated. A woman called Charmaine (my name too) was murdered by her ex a block from me. Released from Goal he caught a plane from Vic to WA, then a bus to her town. All the way verbalising that he was going to kill her yet no-one warned her or the police. Within 24 hours that's exactly what he did. Stabbed her to death in her home. If just anyone heeded his threats and intervened she would be alive today. This includes black and white members of the public. Black women have perilous life experiences yet society neither takes this reality seriously or in some cases care.

Charmaine | 28 June 2018  

Good morning, Dr Rice. When you speak of the Aboriginal people taking juridical responsibility for their communities you are advocating a separate system for the Aboriginal people. Such would be accomplished in part, if not in whole, by a treaty, something which I support. However, after 200 years of colonial oppression followed by non-recognition, a treaty may be nothing more than a piece of parchment, a non-productive pipe dream. Fortunately, we have seen in recent times a great increase in secondary and tertiary education for Aboriginal students form Aboriginal communities due in no small part to the availability of scholarships for Aboriginal boys and girls which originated predominantly in private Catholic schools. For many years, we have seen Aboriginal people who have grown up in non-Aboriginal communities entering the professions through the universities. In time (perhaps another generation or two), this must translate into progressive improvement for the Aboriginal people. I believe increasing educational standards are the key to progress for any community, something which is still some way off in the light of the stats for Aboriginal school attendance. Noel Pearson also is an adherent to that belief and a vocal critic of a welfare dependency system that demands no sense of responsibility from the dependents regardless of whether they are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. My experience in WA where I removed a spear head embedded in an 18 year old boy's shoulder as a result of local Aboriginal law and amputated an old man's paralysed leg burnt in a fire in the belief that the leg had been inhabited by a snake, led me to believe that there is some way to go and that we should be wary for the sake of some Aborigines of Aboriginal juridical administration. You say 'effective therapies are to hand". These have escaped me and many others to date. We would benefit if you would be kind enough to outline them for us. I also wonder why the "effective therapies" don't appear to be helping those Aboriginal women and children who are still being abused in unacceptable numbers.

john frawley | 28 June 2018  

john frawley | 28 June 2018: Thanks for the long response. Re: effective therapies, please google 'Aboriginal Success Stories' for a swag of examples of the way forward. The other matters have been covered already - if comments on Celeste's article are read with attention and open mind. Dear John: I must admit to being troubled when a senior medical person cites two highly derogatory examples (that should, anyway, be subject to professional confidentiality) as damning and defining evidence against an ethnic group. Are those not the sort of stories that racists love to pedal? Do you think that no contemporary white people exercise brutal physical punishments; or, that none of them engage in gross, superstitious mutilations? If that's what you really think, John, you need to travel a bit more! At the personal level, I empathise. None of us are perfect but experience shows that once a person contracts the meme of 'expert prejudice', they'll fight tooth-and-nail to prove they're not racially biased. About 300-years-ago, faced with the same issue, John Newton fessed up and sung: "Was blind but now I see." Truth truly can set us free. Not a big deal. Respects and blessings from Marty.

Dr Marty Rice | 28 June 2018  

Dr Rice. l have not breached professional confidentiality in citing two cases neither of then identified in person or in place. I can assure you I am fully aware of my professional obligations. You seem to have missed my acknowledgment of the significant achievements of many of our Aboriginal people in recent times through education. You say "Truth truly sets us free". Unfortunately, the truth hurts and thus is ignored by many, particularly if the truth runs contrary to opinion, raison d'etre or personal comfort. Celeste is writing about the physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and children by Aboriginal men but in failing to face that unpleasant truth attributes this non to a problem with Aboriginal men but to some white racist conspiracy acted out through the intercession of the police. So perhaps I am not alone in needing to broaden my horizons, good Doctor. By the way, the two cases cited represent a miniscule part of my experience, good, bad, both elevating and depressing, in caring for Aboriginal people from birth to death and everything in between - so I do have a little first hand knowledge of the problems albeit probably inadequate compared with some. When it comes to expressing the truth it seems that the truth-sayers will forever tilt at windmills in a fruitless quest unless joined by others willing to accept the truth.

john frawley | 29 June 2018  

john frawley | 29 June 2018: Dear John, it's always disappointing when someone chooses to take umbrage and act self-defensively, rather than empathically engaging in truth-based conversations. I feel certain that many people honour you, John, for your unselfish medical ministry and charity. However, you may be wrong about the matter of professional confidentiality, in that it would be quite easy for some people, including Aboriginal communities to identify the two patients you referred to. I do hope you'll read my previous message carefully and honestly concede there's work to be done. All the best and every blessing from Marty

Dr Marty Rice | 30 June 2018  

Celeste Liddle's cry for justice here is loud and clear. The question remains of how to address it. It seems both individual case-investigation and system- analysis are necessary starting points for reaching desirable outcomes.

John | 07 July 2018  

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