Her babies taken, this Indigenous woman died alone in a police cell — the victim of a problem Australia can't seem to fix
Updated 9:45 PM ET, Fri April 9, 2021
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned this story contains images of people who have died.
Brisbane (CNN)Rebecca Maher didn't get to hold her youngest child.
Australian child protection services took him away as soon as he was born, according to Tracey Hanshaw, from Indigenous rights advocacy group Justice Aunties.
He was the third child Maher lost to officials, who intervened as she fought a drug addiction that started in her teens and ended with her death in a police cell at the age of 36. "Although Rebecca's children were not living with her at the time of her death, it is clear to me that she was always a part of their lives and loved them very much," said the coroner's report.
Maher is one of more than 455 Indigenous Australians who have died in prison, police, and youth custody since 1991 when a Royal Commission published its damning report into Aboriginal deaths in custody, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology's latest report.
An unofficial count by the Guardian's Deaths Inside database puts the current total at 474, including five in the past five weeks.
Stories like Maher's show the depths of disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people, many of whom are swept into the justice system at an early age, depriving them of an education and jobs, perpetuating social problems passed from one generation to the next.
"It's a symptom of the ongoing and devastating colonial system in this country," said Greens Sen. Lidia Thorpe. "It started more than 200 years ago but our people are still being killed."
Thirty years ago, the Royal Commission found Indigenous people weren't dying at a higher rate than non-Indigenous people, but those who died in custody were the victims of gross overrepresentation in the justice system. That's still the case today.
Indigenous people only make up 2.4% of the population aged 20 and over but over the past 10 years have made up more than a quarter of all adult prisoners.
"Our people are being demonized in this country, even though we're the oldest living continuing culture in the world," said Thorpe.
The Royal Commission sought to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody with 339 recommendations, including many that sought to keep First Nations people out of the justice system and improve their health and welfare. Critics say few of the recommendations have been implemented.
"The ones where you have to roll your sleeves up and get a little bit dirty and do some hard work, they are the recommendations that are still outstanding. And they're the recommendations that would make an enormous difference to our people's lives in this country," Thorpe said.
A chain of events
When British settlers claimed Australia in the late 1700s, so began the "deliberate and systematic disempowerment" of the country's Indigneous people, "starting with dispossession from their land and proceeding to almost every aspect of their life," the 1991 royal commission found.
The commission examined the lives of 99 Indigenous people who died during the 1980s and found that all had existed on the "margins of society." Their health ranged from "poor to very bad" and their economic position was "disastrous."
Today, their problems often begin in childhood. Almost half of detained youth on an average night are Indigenous, despite only making up just 6% of 10-17 year olds, according to government statistics.
"We see people are criminalized while they're still children often for the most minor of issues that really relate to lack of services in their communities," said Martin Hodgson, who works with Aboriginal people in the justice system as a senior advocate for the non-profit Foreign Prisoner Support Service.
"Once someone has entered the prison system, for so many that sets off a chain of events in terms of the stress and impact on their mental health, impact on their physical health."
As a volunteer, Hanshaw speaks with young Indigenous people who need support.
"I had a 17-year-old last night tell me that his dad and uncles have all been in jail, and 'They'll be really proud of me once I get there,'" said Hanshaw.
Maher didn't aspire to go to prison. She loved animals and wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, her mother told her memorial service. The coroner's report says Maher first came into contact with police in 1995 — the year she turned 16. Hanshaw says Maher's problems started when she reported a rape to police but wasn't believed.
"She went to numb that pain, I guess, went off the rails a bit and turned to drugs," Hanshaw said.
Maher was 16 when she had her first baby — a boy — then another son, 11 years later. By then, she was being prescribed methadone, a treatment for drug dependency, as well as benzodiazepines "to manage symptoms of heroin withdrawal," according to the coroner's report.
Two more children followed — a girl, then a boy one year later. By the time Maher was 34, three of four children had been taken from her.
Black Lives Matter
Last year, thousands of people turned out for Black Lives Matter marches in Australia, a show of unity after the police killing of George Floyd in the United States. However, rights campaigners say there's little public outcry in Australia when an Indigenous person dies in custody, whatever the circumstances.
"When we do see concern for Aboriginal people in the last five or six years, it's been on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States," said Hodgson.
The high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin over Floyd's death is being closely watched by the Indigenous community in Australia, where no one has ever been successfully prosecuted over an Indigenous death in custody.
That lack of accountability has angered the Indigenous community, whose members say they feel the system is stacked against them.