Ms Dhu’s family consider action after appalling jail death

The family of a woman who died an “inhumane” death in custody in Western Australia is understood to be considering civil action against the State as a peak Aboriginal group said it would write to all State and Territory leaders pleading for uniform custody notification systems across Australia.

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairman Mervyn Eades said this week the family of Yamatji Nanda/Bunjima woman Ms Dhu were looking at civil action for lack of duty and care.

He said his organisation, which is based in Perth, would assist them.

Meanwhile the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy group, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, will write to State premiers and Territory chief ministers asking them to implement custody notification services.

Under the services, already in place in NSW and the ACT, Aboriginal legal or medical staff would be contacted when an Aboriginal person was being held by police and could check on their wellbeing.

The moves came as the fall-out from a coronial inquiry into 22-year-old Ms Dhu’s death continued to reverberate across Australia. Ms Dhu was taken into police custody in South Hedland in WA’s north for three days in August 2014 for unpaid fines of $3662.34.

CCTV footage from inside the lockup showing her near lifeless body being dragged across the floor by police officers before she was taken to hospital has shocked the State.

Last Thursday, WA coroner Ros Fogliani found that Ms Dhu died from septicemia and pneumonia — she had been sick before she was taken into custody — and that she also had a bone infection and fractured rib.

But she said the young woman’s life could have been saved if doctors at the Hedland Health Campus, where she died on August 4, 2014, had properly diagnosed her.

Ms Fogliani said the police behaviour towards the dying Ms Dhu had been “inhumane”

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Rod Little said this week that prosecutions should flow from the coroner’s findings.

At the very least he said an independent inquiry should be held into negligence by police and hospital staff. “If it means prosecutions then so be it,” he said.

Mr Little said he was concerned Ms Dhu’s death would be swept under the carpet.

“We’ve had many deaths in custody, assaults on Aboriginal people, reports after Coroner’s reports and we don’t seem to have any final justice for the families,” he said. “In today’s day and age it’s unacceptable.

“It’s only happening to Aboriginal people as far as we know.”

Following Ms Dhu’s death — she is only known by her last name for cultural reasons — WA police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said police would no longer arrest fine defaulters unless there was room for them in a prison.

During the inquest, the court heard that Ms Dhu was loved by her family and her death had left them heartbroken.

Two of her ribs were fractured in April, 2014, when her partner threw her to the ground in an altercation. One of the ribs became infected.

The infection entered her bloodstream when Ms Dhu injected herself with amphetamines. From a bone infection it spread to cause septicemia.

Coroner Fogliani found that antibiotics on August 2, when police took Ms Dhu for the first of three visits to the hospital, would have been lifesaving.

Wendy Caccetta 

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