Revisiting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

It’s common to talk about the ‘trilogy’ of reports into the history of the institutionalisation of children in Australia: Bringing Them Home (1997), Lost Innocents (2001) and Forgotten Australians (2004). Years before these inquiries was the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), established in October 1987 and delivering its national report in April 1991.

Reading the reports from the deaths in custody Royal Commission, there are many ideas which still resonate today – about access to archival records, about the intergenerational legacy of institutionalisation, about justice.

The reports from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are published online as part of Austlii’s Indigenous Law Resources: Reconciliation and Social Justice Library. They comprise a 5-volume National Report, 4 Regional Reports, an Underlying Issues Report, as well as Individual Death Reports from the 99 cases investigated.

The Individual Death Reports are harrowing reading (and the website contains a message from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation about the cultural sensitivity of issues and material in the reports, and asking that users be aware of this and of the sensitivities of the living relatives and friends of those whose deaths are recorded in these documents). This blog post does not include any detail about the circumstances of these tragic deaths.

The report about Malcolm Charles Smith (1953-1982) does not read as a bureaucratic or legalistic document, although it contains information taken from police, juvenile justice, Aboriginal Welfare Board and child welfare files. The report opens with a quote from Kevin Gilbert’s book Living Black (1978):

“The real horror story of Aboriginal Australia today is locked in police files and child welfare reports. It is a story of private misery and degradation, caused by a complex chain of historical circumstance, that continues into the present.”

Malcolm Smith spent years of his childhood in institutions in New South Wales: at Kinchela Training Home for Aboriginal BoysMount Penang Training School for Boys and The Institution for Boys, Tamworth.  Richard Frankland (who investigated Malcolm’s death for RCIADIC) made a documentary film in 1992, ‘Who Killed Malcolm Smith?

An extraordinary section of the report is titled ‘The Two Malcolm Smiths’. It draws attention to the impersonal, inaccurate and damning stories that official files can tell about children in institutions, and contrasts this with the stories told by Malcolm’s family, cellmates, and other people in his life.

There is an extraordinary contrast between the Malcolm Smith of real life and the Malcolm Smith of the official files. Everyone except those who sat down to write reports on his intelligence found him, despite his illiteracy, intelligent, talented, able to converse on many subjects, a natural leader, an outstanding sportsman and a person of generous spirit.

… Yet the official files, compiled by the experts who tested him or assessed him, show a person at best of low average intelligence and in the view of some, a mental defective. There appear to be a number of reasons for this – stereotyping, the use of inappropriate tests, the confusion of illiteracy with intelligence, the failure to recognise the effects of extreme emotional and intellectual deprivation, and Malcolm’s non co-operation with those whose attentions he apparently resented, ranging from outright refusal to be interviewed to outrageous leg-pulling with fanciful stories of his past or teasing of the interviewer, A lot of it was probably also due to simple uncritical acceptance and repetition of what was already on the files.

… The evidence provides a case study in the dangers of accepting ‘expert’ assessments at their face value.

Like the trilogy of reports into Care Leavers, the RCIADIC report stressed the importance of archival records to people’s sense of identity.

Access to knowledge can assist: to reinstate pride in family experiences; enhance a stronger sense of identity; re-establish contacts with family members; reaffirm interaction with broad family networks; revive and maintain Aboriginal traditions …; understand the historical background of contemporary personal issues …; re-claim ownership of material pertaining to family life; develop resources … and enhance research skills.
Patrick Dodson, cited in ‘National Report Volume 2: Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’ (1991), Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

The report also talked about the need for supported access to records and the ‘emotional hurt which can be caused’ when seeing your own files.

Recommendation 53 of RCIADIC was ‘That Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments provide access to all government archival records pertaining to the family and community histories of Aboriginal people so as to assist the process of enabling Aboriginal people to re-establish community and family links with those people from whom they were separated as a result of past policies of government’. Very similar recommendations about access to records were made in the subsequent trilogy of reports, although the full implementation of these recommendations has still not been achieved.