Show the world how my daughter died

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Tim ClarkeThe West Australian
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The WA coroner has labelled police treatment of a young Aboriginal woman who died in custody in a WA lock-up as appalling, inhumane and unprofessional.

Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Yamatji woman, died in 2014 from septicaemia and pneumonia three days after she was locked up in South Hedland Police Station for failing to pay just over $3000 in fines.

The inquest into the young woman’s death was held more than a year after she died in South Hedland Hospital — the third time in three days she had been taken there by police.

VideoCoroner releases CCTV footage after inquest into the death of Ms Dhu in custody.
VideoCCTV footage of Ms Dhu's time at South Hedland Police Station. WARNING: Footage may be distressing.

Today, the findings of that inquest were handed down by WA coroner Ros Fogliani, who said that Ms Dhu’s symptoms had been disregarded by police, and prematurely diagnosed by hospital staff.

Outside court, Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, sad she did not think that justice had been served with the findings, saying they still wanted those at fault for her daughter’s death held accountable.

READ THE CORONER’S RECOMMENDATIONS HERE

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WA Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Eggington said that “enough was enough” when it came to indigenous deaths in custody, and said the coroner’s recommendations should be implemented swiftly.

Ruth Barson, director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said she was pleased with the recommendation to scrap WA’s system of fines payment with prison time.

“That is heartening and really critical ... and the introduction of a custody notification system similar to that in NSW is also critical,” Ms Bardon said.

“Categorically, Ms Dhu was treated in a cruel, degrading and inhuman way ... and once the nation sees this footage, that will become abundantly apparent.”

The Dhu inquest heard police who transported Ms Dhu — whose first name is not used for cultural reasons — to hospital had told medical staff she was “faking” her symptoms moments before she died.

FAMILY SPEAKS AFTER FINDINGS . . .

VideoMs Dhu family reacts to findings

The coroner also agreed to release CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s last living days, which shows her medical condition deteriorating — and then showed police officers drop her head-first onto a concrete cell floor and drag her out of the same cell while desperately ill.

The CCTV footage taken inside the lock-up showed Ms Dhu moaning in apparent agony, while a police officer asked her why she had not requested attention sooner, while telling her she was “not helping herself”.

Family members had originally objected to the footage being released but then argued that it should be handed to the media.

In her recommendations, Ms Fogliani said the Government should review the laws surrounding the paying of fines by spending time in prison, but there was no mention of recommendations of any censure or criminal action against police involved.

A relative holds a picture of Ms Dhu.
Camera IconA relative holds a picture of Ms Dhu.

During the inquest, Ms Dhu’s worsening medical state was outlined to the coroner, who was tasked with investigating the quality of the young woman’s care by police and medical staff before her death.

Counsel assisting Ilona O’Brien told how Ms Dhu made repeated complaints about pain, numbness and other symptoms to police, who took her to hospital on three successive days, recording their belief that the symptoms were due to drug withdrawal.

Doctors recorded that Ms Dhu had “behavioural issues” and twice discharged her back to custody with painkillers, despite her telling them she had previously suffered broken ribs.

In her opening statement, Ms O’Brien revealed that on the day she died Ms Dhu repeatedly complained of numbness in her legs and acute pain, vomited and hit her head three times on concrete floor after falling.

With no stretcher or wheelchair in the station, police officers carried Ms Dhu to the police van. When they got to the hospital they saw her go limp and her eyes roll back as they wheeled her inside.

A nurse who came to help reported that police told her Ms Dhu was “faking it” — but she was actually having a heart attack. She died an hour later.

Mr Eggington said that the family and the Aboriginal community had suffered enough.

“Ms Dhu’s death is a grave and cruel injustice. The Aboriginal Legal Service is here to support the family and the broader community. I hope the coroner gives the utmost consideration to the family’s wishes and their need for healing,” Mr Eggington said.

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