The law

Nobody cares

Ms Dhu came into contact with lots of people while in custody. Four nurses, two doctors and eleven police officers of varying ranks all had interactions with her before the final time she was brought to the hospital, already in cardiac arrest. All these people related to her in their capacities as carers of a sort – health practitioners or custodial officers. When you are taken into custody, you are taken into the care of the state. The state has a duty of care and the public officials that pick you up and watch over you enact that care.

For three days, Ms Dhu tried to get the attention of someone who would care for her. The only person who did was the triage nurse on her first visit to hospital. After that, nobody did.

The police officers that arrested Ms Dhu with her abusive partner did not care that her grandmother had warned police he was in town in an effort to keep her safe. The officers at the lock-up who did a health check of Ms Dhu in the presence of her violent partner did not care that she might have been assaulted by him before their arrest. The nurses who failed to take her temperature on her second visit to the hospital, when she would have been in the grip of sepsis, did not care that she might have a fever. The doctor who failed to take a chest X-ray did not care that without this, he would not be able to find the source of her pain.

The doctors who wrote ‘behavioural issues’ and ‘drug withdrawal?’ on Ms Dhu’s medical notes did not care that these impressions of her emotional state directed attention away from her physical health. The same doctors who signed the fit-for-custody forms did not care that they were discharging Ms Dhu without an actual diagnosis. The nurses who failed to ask Ms Dhu if she had presented to hospital in the last 48 hours did not care that her condition had not gone away, and had in fact worsened. The police officers who failed to pass this information on to hospital staff did not care that it might make a difference to her treatment. The nurse that gave her a triage score of 4 instead of 3 or 2, indicating fever or chest pain, did not care to ask Ms Dhu how often she used drugs and assumed she was suffering withdrawal.

The detective in the coronial investigation unit who gave the go-ahead for the autopsy on Ms Dhu’s body did not care that he had broken a promise to Ms Dhu’s grandmother that it would not start before she got there. The internal affairs inspector who laughs when he says to court that he probably should have looked at the 36 minutes of CCTV footage from the time Ms Dhu was dragged out of her cell until the scene was secured, does not care that Ms Dhu’s family are in the room to hear him. The coroner, who asks those who cannot contain their emotions to leave the courtroom, does not care that the CCTV footage of an unconscious Ms Dhu being dragged out of the cell is distressing to watch. The counsel assisting the coroner, who scheduled all the witnesses into two weeks only to find that at the end of the first week they were running over time, does not care that it will be another four months that the family has to wait before getting any answers, if then. When the inquest resumes in March 2016, we are going to hear testimony from police officers trying to hide the fact that they did not care for Ms Dhu. They did not care for her in life and they do not care for her in death.

The coronial inquest is all about procedure. And procedure does not care. The process of witness examination and cross-examination and presentation of evidence is meant to be ‘objective’. These are the facts. And facts do not care. Permeating the coronial process is the same indifference of the police and health staff interactions with Ms Dhu. The coroner’s role is to assess the quality of care Ms Dhu received. But care didn’t even make an appearance.

Police cannot act as carers. Care is an act that requires compassion, and compassion requires empathy. How can you feel empathy for someone while punishing them at the same time? Lack of care is not an absence but a presence in which there is vast capacity, if not intent, to do harm. Ms Dhu was struggling against this presence all the while she was in custody.

One morning, on my way to the inquest, I saw two police officers on bikes approach an Aboriginal woman walking through Northbridge. She had been singing and talking loudly at customers of a cafe but did not loiter. About two hundred metres away from the cafe, the police caught up with her and told her the cafe had complained. They asked her name: she didn’t give it but they already knew it. They asked her address: she had none. She had already moved on but they issued her a move-on notice anyway. The woman wasn’t allowed to come back to the Northbridge area for twenty-four hours. If she did, she would be arrested.

The police did not care to check that she understood. They did not care that if arrested, she likely wouldn’t be able to pay a fine. They did not care that if she could not pay her fine, she would end up in the lock-up or in prison. And they would not care if they were the ones charged with caring for her while in custody. They did not care that she was no longer creating a ‘disturbance’ and thought they may as well issue her a pre-emptive move-on notice for the benefit of the cafe owner and customers.

This is how it begins. Mistreatment starts with a police imperative to remove from view the people who might draw attention to their presence, who poke the bubble of the eaters and drinkers, the ones who participate in public life as it is advertised. And we have to ask ourselves, for whose supposed benefit are Aboriginal people put away?


Image of Pentridge Prison cells, courtesy of Nickinator.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Kelly Somers is a freelance copyeditor and writer based in Perth.

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  1. Thank you Kelly Somers for telling it like it is. In my mind procedure would protect the people and provide safety. I feel that we are still at the stage of having to walk the public service through their duty of care. Then who are they to argue the burden of responsibilities on Indigenous people or on citizens? Do your duty first!

  2. Over 2oo years, and nothing has changed for Aboriginal people. Western Australia is a police state, always was and always will be unless massive change is put in place.

  3. I also was denied care and compassion ,the police ignored a handicapped sticker a cover letter from a doctor and was booked and dragged through this so called judicial system ,I was in hospital having a heart attack whilst the voltures threw the book at me,what happened to duty of care ,,letters have been sent to the minister of health and disability services that initially tried to pass the buck ,I am just wondering how they are going to weasel around this ,one thing I am sure they will find they did nothing wrong

  4. Thank you Kelly. Your summation of this tragedy speaks to the heart of the matter. Your words resonate with empathy and I appreciate your very readable piece. Well done.

  5. It’s sad that people still think that the best way to help Aboriginal people is at the point of crisis. This women was drug dependent, had unpaid fines, and was in a DV situation. What were her friends and family doing to help her? Why did they let it get to that stage? So much easier to blame the ‘white system’.

    • You are the same vile, twisted person stating these same disgusting lies & attacking the family on multiple articles. Your questions re “what did the family do to help” are pretty much your ugly personal signature at this point.

      So I’ll just keep repeating the truth while you wallow in your lies.

      You’ve been told REPEATEDLY that she WAS NOT AN ADDICT. The reason drug withdrawal is mentioned is ONLY because ignorant police & medical staff made STUPID ASSUMPTIONS – & of course, you’d know all about ignorance & stupid assumptions because YOU continue to do this even in March 2016 when police & medical staff long ago conceded THEY WERE TRAGICALLY WRONG.

      As for her family doing nothing – that’s nothing more than assumptions and LIBEL from you AGAIN. You get a real kick out of twisting the knife into this family. You’ve continued to do it despite countless people, including family themseIves explaining the facts to you & even giving you links for proof.

      It is beyond wrong for you to attack like this. Your behaviour is VILE. You didnt even READ THIS ARTICLE before commenting!! It quite clearly tells you her grandmother went to the trouble of calling police LONG BEFORE the assault ever took place, to warn them this violent man was back in town & her granddaughter was at risk.

      & what did those police YOU hero worship do about that? Nothing. Nothing at all. They waited until she’d been assaulted & then they looked for & found an excuse to take her in too.

      & what of those fines that you consistently use to paint her & her family in a negative light? Considering the amount of swearing & vicious abuse that was directed AT HER by these “upstanding officers” it warrants looking at the reasons she was fined & locked up to begin with – one of her fines was for swearing.

      You’ll only hear swearing & aggressive language from POLICE during her time in custody. Officers testified that despite her instense pain & terrible distress, she never once became rude or raised her voice. She remained polite & respectful at ALL times – but we’re supposed to believe she deserved the fines that gave police the excuse to lock her up in the first place.

      You need to find a new hobby. This current one of taking swipes at grieving families via death in custody articles is NOT NORMAL & rest assured I will hunt down every comment you’ve made & set people straight on your lies & agenda.

    • As I read this piece, WA leapt into mind, not a compliment WA is is!! Northbridge is the most overrated place to go for any social life in Aus!!! I feel such sympathy for the
      First Nations people of WA.

  6. I cannot believe that this has been let happen in this day and age. Sometimes I’m ashamed to say I WAS A NURSE when these things happen….have seen a few eye opening scenarios in my travels that have made me think “DO THESE PEOPLE REALLY WANT TO BE NURSES,,,,,,,POLICE OFFICER,,,,AMBO…..WHOEVER” or they just there for the money…..shame job

  7. @Tony Williams: It was not drug dependency, unpaid parking fines or domestic violence that killed Ms Dhu.

    Criticising Ms Dhu and her family for the less than ideal aspects of her life, in no way diminishes the responsibility of the Corrections staff, Police, Doctors and Nurses who failed in their duty of care.

    Ms Dhu deserved better than to die in agony of an infection which should have been treatable in a developed, first world country. Her family deserve our compassion, not callous disregard.

  8. Thanks for setting the record straight E.W., the responsibility for Ms Dhu’s death lays squarely with the people charged with her care – doctors, nurses, police. And did @TonyWilliams miss the part about her grandmother seeking protection from domestic violence for her.
    Kelly Somers, thanks for your eloquent summary and for keeping the story alive. I was shocked to the core when I read first reports of Ms Dhu’s treatment, as I was when a man died in a police wagon at extreme temperatures as he was transported to Perth. It’s a story I don’t want to forget, shocking as it is, because it speaks of a need or drastic culture change in the WA police and medical services.
    So often these stories seem to arise in WA, though other states are not beyond reproach in understanding the indigenous community. Why do we forget our humanity when engaging with Indigenous people? Would we find it acceptable for our own family members?

  9. Great article. Thank you for sharing. I am white, a first generation female migrant.

    I have had “nobody cares” experiences from having been stalked and harassed by an ex-colleague whom I never dated (would not not date to save my life) for six and a half years in Melbourne, Victoria, since 2009.

    My “nobody cares” experience included a GP treating me like I was a raging lunatic because I mentioned to her that I have been stalked. This GP made assumptions too, she did not ask a single question. The GP is not my regular GP, I went to her because she is bulk-billing and I wanted to save money. Money is tight because I had to quit working due to the severity of harassment from the stalker ex-colleague. His entitlement to treat women as objects to abuse all he happens to feel like override all my human rights. I am a woman, and we live in Australia.

    I am highly educated and my English is good. I know my rights. I have submitted a formal complaint against the GP and I am demanding her DE-registration.

    We cannot expect the Police to be carers as well as punishers. Unless people are educated in English, know their rights and speak English well, they will always be vulnerable to the extreme.

    We can only eradicate the “nobody cares” norm, if we can articulate what the failings are and put up a coherent, intelligent, sustained fight for change.

  10. From the International Council of Nurses, Australia is a signatory; The role of nurses in the care of prisoners and detainees:

    “Nurses who have knowledge of ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners must take appropriate action to safeguard their rights.”

    When has any Australian nurse ever met this obligation, especially as it applies to Aboriginal people’s?

    This notwithstanding a royal commission. Australia and it’s nursing professional bodies have much for which they are answerable, if not from any inquest, then from their international obligations…

  11. These professionals are continuously involved in the catastrophe that is life. No excuses ever. Your points are succinct to what we are experiencing in many feilds of employment,where at times the wrong people have the wrong job.Our fragility as a life is overlooked by the condescending and patronising,it sneers indifferance into the suffering of others.History has reminded us of our heritages and how the brutality and merciless acts inflicked on peoples for generations. It is the same way convicts,the poor ,the orignal inhabitants of many a land mass have been systematically brutally harassed,intimidated,beaten and murdered. It has all been inflicted by a Royal Family who with there hench men and women scoff at there duties,paid duties,well rewarded duties.To impose there harshness and distain at the mass population of subjects that we are.Only an international Criminal court can save us from their evil deeds. We are the serfs and slaves and convicts. We pay 50 cents in evry dollar and more for the privilidge of been killed. It is global.It is Criminal and it has never ceased in all of human history. 2016 the time is now and each and every one who falls at the merciless feet of our oppressors,deseves nothing less than the proper care,that our fathers and grand fathers and great grand fathers demanded and sacrificed for.

  12. This is a United Nations eugenics program. It happens in the USA as well. If you are too poor to pay taxes, or a senior citizen, the assault starts at the doctor’s office, hospital or wherever they have “concern” about the elder’s wellbeing. Then Adult Protective Services gets a call. The object is to get the elder out of their own home into a living facility. That is where the extraction of savings and assets start. When the elder is drained dry by recurring facility based infections and lack of care, then the starvation and dehydration begins. This soon results in death. Family members are banned from seeing loved ones, as my brother is currently. The family has no power to help the loved one, as this is an international New World Order, Agenda 21, eugenics program of population reduction. Minority patients such as Ms.Dhu have it even worse. This problem exists in every UN Nation, and it is scripted. I hope people wake up and realize that this can happen to anyone, as one’s age advances and the state targeting begins.

  13. They did not and do not care. Worse still this behaviour is the norm…. thus your example of the woman in Northbridge illustrating that point. It was evident in the death of John Pat, Mr Ward and so many others. Custody procedures are either ignored or inadequate due to systemic failure to implement RDIC and previous Coroner recommendations. It isn’t just a top down change that’s needed though. Yes we need to tighten duty of care responsibilities but untimely we need to honestly address racism in this country. Whilst the denial continues little will change. I’m afraid in this case the Coroner may well be conflicted as others before have been. The system of human rights abuse protects itself in a circular fashion.

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