Behind the rolls of razor wire in a defunct adult prison, known as Don Dale youth detention centre, sits a teenage boy with profound cognitive disability.
The 17-year-old has served concurrent sentences in the Darwin detention centre while his complex behaviours have escalated into fights with other boys and guards.
Diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a condition that can affect physical, emotional and cognitive development, the boy was initially remanded to Don Dale at 13.
He is one of 15 children with a diagnosed disability in the territory’s detention centres, according to data from the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities.
Advocates say there are many more in detention with undiagnosed conditions, which are made worse by lack of appropriate treatment and inadequate staffing.
Nicole Hucks, the Northern Territory acting children’s commissioner, says environments such as Don Dale are terrible for children with FASD.
“We have most definitely got children and youth in detention here in the Northern Territory undiagnosed,” she says. “And whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, their behaviours and trauma are exacerbated by the environment.”
The Larrakia, Wadjigan and Eastern Arrernte woman says children who are incarcerated cannot receive the necessary level of care.
“[It] is quite different to what they would be engaged in out in the community.”
Her office found in 2021 some children spent 23 hours and 45 minutes a day locked in their cells due to staff shortages and rolling lockdowns at Don Dale.
‘This is not working’
The boy in Don Dale was arrested in 2019 for damaging a counter window and stealing lollies worth $10.
Months earlier his father had died from a drug overdose.
During sentencing, Justice Dean Mildren said the teenager was unsuitable for diversion programs.
“I think his level of understanding is low, I think his moral culpability is low because of that.”
He was released on a 12-month good behaviour bond, but a month later he was remanded to Don Dale for aggravated assault and driving unlicensed.
Court documents tell a story of a child with complex neurodevelopmental disorders, who over the course of four years received little support for his disability and was given medication as a form of chemical restraint.
All the while his mental health deteriorated and behaviours linked to his disability escalated into violence. In one hearing his behaviour is described as “desperate”.
In 2020, Justice Judith Kelly said in her sentencing remarks that an assessment provided to the court shows the teenager’s disability affected his memory, decision-making and impulse control.
“I accept that does reduce what we call your moral culpability … but it also means you are a danger to the public,” she said.
A year later the supreme court heard the boy was involved in 63 incidents while inside the detention centre.
When he appeared before Kelly for a second time in 2021, she said the centre had used “antipsychotic medication to decrease [his] violent impulses”, but not for “any psychosis”.
The documents reveal he built good relationships with some youth justice officers, struggled to engage with NDIS support services, and a rapid turnover of clinical staff interrupted his engagement with psychologists.
“This is not working for you,” Kelly told the boy. “You have begun, apparently, to self-regulate by self-isolating … asking staff to leave you alone in your cell … and doing your schooling isolated from other detainees in your own space.”
Withdrawn from his peers and disability services, the boy has now been sentenced to more than four years in Don Dale and is not likely to be released before his 18th birthday.
An outside problem
June Riemer, a Dunghutti woman and First Nations Disability Network’s deputy chief executive, says she has heard many similar stories from across Australia.
She asks: “When are we going to stop incarcerating disability and criminalising children for what is a health condition?
“Once you’re in that system, it’s very hard to move from it … he’ll be incarcerated on and off for the rest of his life … and his disability needs still never met.”
The problem begins outside the detention system. Across the NT, more than 500 children are in need of a neurodevelopmental assessment but the sector remains critically underfunded.
Dr John Boffa, the chief medical officer for the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, says it takes six weeks of interviews and observations to make a formal diagnosis.
FASD assessments require a multidisciplinary team of clinical experts, including speech pathologists, occupational therapists, neuropsychologists and paediatricians.
Congress received $18.4m in the last federal budget to expand FASD services in Alice Springs, but in Darwin it is a different story.
Danila Dilba, which provides primary healthcare to young people in Don Dale and across the greater Darwin region, receives just $140,000 per year from the NT government for FASD services.
Its chief executive, Rob McPhee, says the greater Darwin region needs a multidisciplinary FASD assessment service with no out-of-pocket costs.
Currently only children in the foster care system can access assessments, he says.
“In addition to a community team, Don Dale needs a dedicated neurodevelopmental disability assessment service, coupled with specialist support for those clients who receive a diagnosis or have existing NDIS plans.”
In July, the Alice Springs youth detention centre will undergo renovations and the children there with FASD who receive support from Congress will be moved to Don Dale.
Hucks says there is no way the children in Alice Springs being transferred to Darwin will be able to receive the same level of disability support.
“I will be advocating for those children to stay in Alice,” she says.