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Countless reports but no action: NT probe

AAP logoAAP 10/10/2016 Lucy Hughes Jones

Australia has an 'inquiry mentality' that substitutes real action when it comes to the Northern Territory's juvenile justice system, the royal commission into youth detention has heard.

Darwin's Supreme Court on Tuesday heard there's been more than 50 reports already undertaken with relevance to youth detention, but there's been no real change.

Senior counsel assisting the commission Peter Callaghan SC questioned whether governments allow investigation "as a substitution for action and reporting is accepted as a replacement for results".

"(It's) suggestive of a persistent failure that should not be allowed to endure," he said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the royal commission after shocking footage of boys being tear gassed at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014 was aired on national television earlier this year.

One of those boys was Jake Roper, who was encouraged by Mr Callaghan 's opening statements, his solicitor John Lawrence SC says.

"I genuinely believe that this is capable of being the breakthrough moment but I can well understand the elders and the families being disillusioned and pessimistic," Mr Lawrence said.

"The obvious compelling feature in all of this is that we're dealing with Aboriginal people, who notoriously and historically have been treated like second-class citizens."

The national children's commissioner Megan Mitchell told the inquiry that when she visited Don Dale in May, two years after the gassing incident, children's human rights were still being routinely breached.

She said boys were locked up for extensive periods of solitary confinement, force was regularly used, and some detainees were concerned about retribution by staff members if they complained.

"When I asked the young people how they felt in that environment, some of the words they said were 'depressed, angry, sad, like a caged animal'," she said.

"And if you go to that maximum security area you will understand why they feel like that."

Former NT ombudsman Carolyn Richards said she discovered a huge backlog of possible abuse that was effectively ignored while conducting her 2011 report on the previous Labor government's child protection system.

She said reports of abuse and neglect which were not addressed within three months because of understaffing were written off as "unsubstantiated".

Ms Richards told the inquiry she decided to launch her own investigation in 2010 after the horrific story of a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl who died in foster care.

An autopsy revealed Deborah Melville died of severe blood poisoning - she had a festering bone infection that was the worst one doctor had ever seen.

"The death was tragic and the inquest resulted in significant public controversy and calls for a government inquiry," Ms Richards said.

"Public announcements by the government were to the effect that no such inquiry would be held."

Mr Lawrence admits history suggests he shouldn't be confident about what the royal commission can achieve.

"But that's purely a political issue," he said.

"If the government of the day hasn't got the heart and will and decency to follow recommendations that will no doubt prevent such outrages occurring again, then this country is in extremely deep trouble."

The new NT government has already paid more than $57,000 for sacked corrections minister John Elferink's legal costs at the probe.

The inquiry being led by co-commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda continues on Tuesday.

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