"Miss Dhu" did NOT die because of unpaid fines
The claim below that she did is totally dishonest. She died from the complications of a bashing she received from her partner. Aboriginal men bashing their women is a sadly common occurrence. I have seen it myself and it can be very severe. Only a greatly enhanced police presence in Aboriginal communities might help the women concerned. The claim below, by contrast, ignores all that, simply making cynical use of her case in order to get fines waived for Aborigines.
And the authorities were not negligent. Seeing that she was ill, they took her to hospital several times. The doctors however had difficulty finding what was wrong, not because of ill-will but because of the characteristic difficulty Aborigines have in communicating with whites. For instance, it is a reflexive custom for Aborigines to say what they think their questioner wants to hear. So a question such as "Are you OK now?" would get a Yes reply even if such a reply were inaccurate.
And it does appear that her repeated unsuccessful visits to hospital had made the guards impatient and suspicious, which is why they were a bit rough with her towards the end but which is also an understandable response in the circumstances.
Clearly, nobody was aware of the difficulties that communication with Aborigines can pose. So if there are any lessons to be learned it is to improve that understanding, either by employing experienced Aboriginal intermediaries or by having all staff trained by people who really know Aborigines and their culture well. It really is an art.
I note in passing that the doctor who saw her was from India. That could well have amplified the communication difficulties. One often hears of problems arising from a "communication breakdown" but this would appear to be a particularly unfortunate example of it
Miss Dhu died in police custody in excruciating pain, all because she couldn’t pay her fines.
IMAGINE this. You’re 22-years-old, and you should have your whole life ahead of you.
Instead, you’re stuck in a violent relationship, using drugs and facing legal troubles. The bills are piling up, and so are the fines you’ve been ordered to pay by the courts — $3622.
That’s the situation a young Yamatji woman, known as Miss Dhu for cultural reasons, found herself in when she paid the ultimate price, a West Australian coronial inquest has heard.
Miss Dhu died in agonising pain in police custody last year — all because she could not afford to pay her fines.
The case has prompted calls for WA laws to be overhauled, so that vulnerable Australians who cannot pay their fines do not meet the same tragic fate.
Family members who filled the courtroom when a two-week inquest into Miss Dhu’s death opened yesterday gasped and cried while watching security footage of her time in custody at South Hedland Police Station, in the Pilbarra.
Security footage showed a male police officer entering Miss Dhu’s cell and trying to lift her up by her arm, before she slumped back and hit her head on the concrete floor.
The footage showed police dragging and carrying her limp body from the cell to a divvy van. One officer was heard telling Miss Dhu to “shut up” as she moaned.
Less than an hour later, she was dead.
A lethal combination of pneumonia and septicaemia killed Miss Dhu, who the court heard had suffered broken ribs at the hands of her violent partner.
The inquest heard she had repeatedly complained in custody of pain and having difficulty breathing. Miss Dhu’s father Robert testified she had told him her boyfriend had “flogged” her and broken her ribs.
She was taken to the Hedland Health Campus hospital twice in two days, and each time doctors deemed her fit to remain in custody after giving her medication, including diazepam and paracetamol.
On the third day, Miss Dhu could not move her legs and her body was numb, so police carried her to the van and took her to hospital again.
But one officer believed she pretended to faint when they placed her in a wheelchair.
Dr Vafa Naderi told the court Miss Dhu kept changing her story, which made it difficult to characterise the nature and location of her pain.
“Dr Naderi’s impression was that she was withdrawing from drugs or had behavioural issues,” counsel assisting the coroner Ilona O’Brien said in her opening address.
Miss Dhu’s mother Della Roe told the coroner her daughter was family-oriented and bubbly, but that changed when she started dating a much older man and using drugs.
On one occasion, Ms Roe noticed her daughter had a black eye, but when she asked whether her partner had hit her, Miss Dhu replied: “Oh mum, don’t worry. It’s an old one, it’s going away.”
Miss Dhu’s father said he was concerned his daughter was treated cruelly and like a dog in custody. “They should not treat anybody like that,” he said.
Outside court, Ms Roe sobbed while describing the depression, grief and sleepless nights she suffered as a result of her daughter’s death. “I still have no answers; I still don’t know how or why she died,” she told the ABC.
“These emotions I go through is like a temperature gauge, the pressure is high and I don’t know where I should stand. I want answers for myself, my family and for friends that knew my daughter.”
Miss Dhu’s family is campaigning for changes to WA laws for people who cannot pay fines, with the help of the Human Rights Law Centre.
In the state, recipients of fines can elect to spend a day in jail for every $250 worth of fines, a policy that has been blamed for the high number of indigenous people in WA jails.
Shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt has called it “a terrible way to operate a justice system, a terrible way to operate the finances of the state”, and unfairly targeted the poor.
Lawyer Ruth Barson said about 1000 people were jailed every year because of unpaid fines. “Miss Dhu was a young woman without any money in a domestic violence situation. She was locked up because she had not paid her fines,” Ms Barson told the ABC.
“Even though Miss Dhu tragically died over 12 months ago, the Western Australian Government is yet to change the laws that allowed such a vulnerable young woman to be locked up ... Western Australia urgently needs a fair and a flexible fines system like that in New South Wales which differentiates between those who will not and those who cannot pay their fines.
“Vulnerable people like Miss Dhu who can’t pay their fines should not be locked up; rather they should be given the opportunity to rebuild their lives. It is time for the Western Australia to take action and rebalance the justice system.”
Back in 1987, NSW teenager Jamie Partlic was attacked and left in a coma for six weeks by another inmate at Long Bay prison, where he had been locked up for refusing to pay a parking fine.
The laws were then changed so that prison was no longer an option; instead, licences can be suspended, the Sheriff’s Office can confiscated belongings to be sold to pay off fines, and community service can be ordered.
Other legal reforms being debated in WA include a custody notification service like in NSW, where the Aboriginal Legal Service must be notified every time an indigenous person is taken into custody.
The WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee has urged that Miss Dhu’s death ought not be in vain, and is campaigning on Facebook for law reform.
Chairman Marc Newhouse told The Australian the case must not be overlooked as it “goes to the heart of the criminalisation of vulnerable women”.
Premier Colin Barnett fast-tracked the inquest after public outrage, which included rallies across Australia about deaths in custody.