Aboriginal woman dies undertaking mandatory NT alcohol rehabilitation program

This is revealed the same day as protesters in Brisbane gather for a rally against black deaths in custody.

republished from abc.net.au

An Aboriginal woman has died while taking part in the Northern Territory’s highly contentious mandatory alcohol rehabilitation program.

It is the first death linked to the scheme that was introduced by the NT Government 18 months ago in the face of warnings from experts that it would target Indigenous people and punish alcoholics.

The woman died last month in the Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programmes Unit (CAAAPU) treatment centre in Alice Springs, but the NT authorities have not made news of the death public until now.

Her family is now asking questions about the care she was given and how she died.

The woman’s sister, Elizabeth Raggette Naparula, speaking from her remote central Australian community of Papunya, said she had been worried about her sister’s health and was willing to give the treatment a chance.

“I thought they were going to keep her to get better, to eat lots of good food,” she said.

“I wanted them to look after her properly so she could get healthy and not have so much grog.”

Key points of NT’s mandatory rehab:

  • The legislation came into effect in the Northern Territory on July 1 2013
  • Anyone taken into custody for drunkenness three times in two months is assessed for treatment
  • Means some alcoholics are forced into three months of rehabilitation
  • Treatment occurs at rehabilitation facilities in Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs
  • Draft legislation heavily criticised by Indigenous groups, medical bodies and justice advocates
  • Critics argue it criminalises drunkenness

She said she was informed of her sister’s death by a relative last week.

“All my grandchildren are crying every night for her,” she said.

“When I cry, they cry too. I can’t understand what happened, I don’t know what happened.”

She wanted to know what medical services were in the CAAAPU treatment centre, and whether her sister had medication for her seizures.

“I never went to see her at CAAAPU, I thought everything was alright,” she said.

“When I last saw her she was looking in the best of health. I can’t understand what happened.”

The NT Health Department said the next of kin had been told but would not give any more details.

Death in mandatory rehab ‘not a death in custody’

Under the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment (AMT) program, anyone picked up by police for being drunk three times in two months is forced into alcohol treatment.

Legal and health groups have warned the untested program would target Indigenous people and cost millions while doing little to treat addiction.

I thought everything was alright. When I last saw her she was looking in the best of health, I can’t understand what happened.

Elizabeth Raggette Naparula

Even though people are detained against their will in AMT, the woman’s death will not be treated as a death in custody, authorities say.

Instead, it is being treated as a death in care and is now before the NT coroner.

NT Criminal Lawyers Association president Russell Goldflam said the public was usually informed about deaths in custody.

“In my experience, whenever there’s a death in custody or a death after some sort of engagement with police, the police are very quick to put out a statement,” he said.

“It’s pretty obvious why, if they didn’t they would be accused of trying to cover things up.”

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) chief executive Priscilla Collins was highly critical of the NT Government’s failure to make the death known publicly.

“The worst thing is we’re only hearing about it two weeks later; why wasn’t this brought up two weeks ago?” she said.

She said it was indicative of the secrecy around AMT.

She said her questions about medical staff levels, costs and success rates had gone unanswered.

“What we’ve always questioned is how many people go through the program?” she said.

The worst thing is we’re only hearing about it two weeks later; why wasn’t this brought up two weeks ago.

Priscilla Collins, NAAJA chief executive

“How many people successfully complete the program and what is the cost per person? We just don’t get those answers.”

The ABC’s AM program put a number of questions about the death and the care at the rehabilitation centre to the NT Health Department.

The department would only confirm there had been a death.

It said the coroner has been informed and it was not appropriate to make further comment.

The CAAPU treatment centre where the women died did not return AM’s calls.

AMT safer than life on the streets: Elferink

When the AMT legislation was being debated in Parliament in June last year, Attorney-General John Elferink said people would be safer in rehab because they were not on the streets.

“Currently, they are dying because they are staggering out in front of cars and getting run over,” he said.

We do not get to see about them in the newspapers because they often go unmarked and unnoticed in their deaths. Their deaths represent the end of an unremarkable life awash with their drug of choice.

John Elferink, Attorney-General

“[They are] dying of diseases such as pneumonia because they are sleeping out unprotected in winter in Alice Springs, and dying because they have renal collapse.

“One example I can cite is of a fellow who was drunk and asleep on railway tracks and was run over by a train. They are dying now, and in large numbers.

“We do not get to see about them in the newspapers because they often go unmarked and unnoticed in their deaths. Their deaths represent the end of an unremarkable life awash with their drug of choice.”

He said in order to “protect the community” the Government would accept the risk people could die in AMT.

“It is a political risk we engage in,” he said.

“Unfortunately, when you are in a position where you take people into custody that is a risk you take.

“However, if you are so adverse to that risk, police would take nobody into custody and [Correctional Services] would hold nobody in prison.

“The mental health authorities, who also have non-judicial incarceration, would not take people into custody. Why do we do it and accept it so readily in those environments?

“The reason is we need to protect the community and/or the people themselves.

“We take the risk.”

Absconding from AMT no longer criminal

Last month the NT Government announced it would no longer be a criminal offence to abscond from the a treatment facility, while also allowing doctors to refer chronic drinkers to AMT.

It also meant people excluded from AMT because of charges resulting from drinking would be eligible to access the treatment.

The reform was welcomed by Australian Medical Association NT president Dr Robert Parker, who said it “made sense” that referral to AMT was done through a therapeutic tribunal process rather than a legal one.

“I am very happy to see that being removed from any sort of criminal act,” he said

CAAPU is a not-for-profit organisation that also administers part of the AMT scheme for the NT Government in Alice Springs.

It was established in 1991 to assist Aboriginal people with alcohol and drug rehabilitation.

A $6.1 million AMT treatment centre in Katherine was canned this month following community outrage about its industrial location.

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