Five years since the NT royal commission into youth detention and child protection, there is hope, disappointment and fear

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Every Friday, a crowd of protesters gather on the side of the road outside the now-infamous Don Dale youth detention centre on the industrial outskirts of Darwin.

WARNING: This story includes racist and offensive language.

Some have children or grandchildren held inside the facility, an old adult jail condemned years ago as fit “only for a bulldozer”.

More children and young people are now held in the still-operating centre than when a royal commission recommended its closure five years ago today.

Documents leaked to the ABC show the number of young people entering Don Dale and its Alice Springs counterpart had increased 94 per cent towards the end of last year.

The spike was the intended result of “tougher than ever” changes to youth bail laws made by a Labor government elected on promises to reform the Northern Territory’s “broken” youth justice system.

A man in a navy suit with blue tie speaking at a lecturn, two seated people watching in background
Then-Chief Minister Michael Gunner vowed to implement the commissioners’ ‘expert advice’.(ABC New: Che Chorley)

When the royal commission handed down its final report in 2017, then Chief Minister Michael Gunner said its findings “will live as a stain” on the territory.

“For this, I am sorry,” he said.

“But more than this, I’m sorry for the stories that live in the children we failed.”

The royal commission — and the ABC Four Corners investigation that triggered it — made headlines around the world.

Boy huddles against the wall of his room as two men approach him
In 2016, Four Corners exposed the shocking mistreatment of young people in youth detention. Image used with permission.(Supplied)

Other Australian states were put on notice of “wider implications for all jurisdictions” and Mr Gunner vowed that his government would follow the commission’s “expert advice”. 

When she heard that, Larrakia woman and then-social worker Nicole Hucks said she was hopeful — even optimistic — about the promise of change.

A woman sitting in a boardroom looking at the camera
Nicole Hucks told this week’s Four Corners she has been shocked by the complaints still being made about Don Dale.(ABC News: Jano Gibson)

She is now the NT’s Acting Children’s Commissioner.

“Five years on, I have to say, I’m still quite disappointed and disheartened at the progress, or lack of progress, that has been made,” Commissioner Hucks told the ABC this week.

Instead of improvements, her national counterpart, Anne Hollonds, said there was a youth justice crisis across the country that was not making communities safer.

“Australian kids as young as 10 are still locked up. Bail laws are tougher so new children’s prisons are being built to meet the demand,” she wrote on Twitter.

“I fear we have lost our way.”

Don Dale is still open, closure set to be delayed again

After years of delays, the NT government quietly revealed this week that construction of the new youth detention facility to replace Don Dale now looks unlikely to be finished next year.

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