The Guardian 15 June, 2005

Deaths in custody: Waiting for answers

Simon Luckhurst

Rose Hancock is a softly spoken woman, but her voice becomes firm and hard when she describes what happened to her in October last year. The experiences of that long weekend which led to the death of her daughter, Wendy, are something she wants no other family to go though.

Wendy Hancock was the second eldest of a "Brady Bunch" sort of family which consisted of her mum, stepfather, brothers and sisters.

Rose describes her daughter as having a carefree childhood. The family lived and worked on farms near Collarenebri, in north-western NSW. The kids enjoying the country life, with plenty of picnics and fishing trips.

Wendy’s life was so appealing that often kids from "Collie" would join the Hancock family for weekend-long sleepovers.

Wendy didn’t mind school, although she preferred art and sport over more formal lessons.

After Wendy entered the workforce at 16, she chipped cotton, drove tractors, mustered stock and helped out on properties with whatever needed doing.

Rose says Wendy was "a loving and kind person with a very hearty laugh which came from the heart, who would share her last with you".

Wendy’s sister Elizabeth remembers "Pop" (as Wendy was known) as a caring woman.

"She always worried about the underdog and the wrong done to them. Sometimes she would get angry about these common occurrences", she said.

Moments to cherish

"She always sent cards on your birthday, and even though she was unhappy, when you talked to her she would always sound happy. Her laughter would bellow deep inside and you knew she was genuine. As a sister, most memories were funny ones. The path between Sydney and Narrabri is dotted with moments I’ll cherish forever."

Wendy moved out of home and drifted to Lightning Ridge, trying to find some work. She participated in CDEP [Community Development Employment Project], but she stopped after she became involved in a relationship.

Rose loved her daughter, and could only watch with sadness and helplessness as she saw Wendy begin to drink and take drugs. She’d do what she could to give her a hand when she needed one.

Wendy would occasionally return to her mother’s new home in Narrabri to dry out for a while. Something always lured her back to "the Ridge", however, and once there she would return to the yarndi (marijuana) and the grog — and all too often other relationships which were as abusive as the first.

With the drinking and the drug-taking came inevitable interactions with the police. In 1993 a house was burnt down, and Wendy was charged with arson. Despite a number of witnesses testifying against her, after many court appearances she was acquitted of the charge.

Rose had heard of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and knew some of those involved in the cases it investigated. She had never thought of them in connection to her own family.

Recommendation 1:

That having regard to the great input which has been made to the work of the Commission … it is highly desirable … that the implementation of (its recommendations) be carried out in a public way as part of the process of education and reconciliation of the whole society …

Rose was usually informed by Legal Aid when Wendy was in trouble with the law. She’d drop what she was doing to attend court or visit Wendy in jail. Wendy had been out of trouble for most of 2004, and the first Rose knew that Wendy had been arrested again was when Wendy called her home in Narrabri from Mulawa jail, in Sydney, on Thursday, September 30.

Recommendation 168:

That Corrective Services effect the placement and transfer of Aboriginal prisoners according to the principle that, where possible, an Aboriginal prisoner should be placed in an institution as close as possible to the place of residence of his or her family …

Rose was surprised to hear that Wendy had been taken into custody three days earlier, and that she’d already appeared in court in Walgett, prior to being transferred to Bathurst and then Sydney. She didn’t find out then what Wendy had been charged with, but thought her daughter sounded happy enough. Wendy joked about being back in jail, and arranged to meet Rose in Walgett for her next appearance at court on October 6.

Recommendation 147:

That police instructions should be amended to make it mandatory for police to immediately notify the relatives of a detainee who is regarded as being "at risk" …

What Rose didn’t find out until some time later was that Wendy had been classified as having the potential for self-harm. Wendy was placed on "suicide watch", in a cell only a metre from the desk of a guard who had full view of her. In addition there was 24-hour video surveillance.

Recommendation 144:

That in all cases, unless there are substantial grounds for believing that the well-being of the detainee or other persons detained would be prejudiced, an Aboriginal detainee should not be placed alone in the police cell …

Rose was at home the following afternoon at 5.30 when the phone rang. She had friends and her son around, and was in a good mood when she took the call. It was an Aboriginal liaison officer from the jail, who told Rose that Wendy was very ill and had been hooked to a machine in hospital and could Rose get down to Westmead Hospital "ASAP". Rose was not told what had happened to cause Wendy to be ill, nor was she told the nature of equipment that Wendy was connected to. As it was too late to catch the train to Sydney that afternoon, she decided to travel down to Sydney the next day. It was only when she had a call from a doctor later that night who told her that Wendy’s condition was "becoming serious" that she began to fell some sense of urgency. She rang around, and her friend Jill Collis agreed to take her to Sydney the next day.

Recommendation 147:

That police instructions should be amended to make it mandatory for police to immediately notify the relatives of a detainee who … has been transferred to hospital …

The roads were crowded for the first day of the long weekend, and the trip took longer than usual. Rose didn’t know exactly what to expect when she arrived at Westmead Hospital about 7.30pm. She was met by Elizabeth, another daughter who lived in Sydney.

"Mother, you’re going to get a fright when you see her", Elizabeth said. "She’s got tubes coming out of her all over the place."

Rose’s heart sank. In Wendy’s room the prison governor was present, as were two prison guards, another daughter Mary, and the still, quiet form of Wendy.

Rose knew other Aboriginal families were meeting up at the football knockout at this time, preparing for a time of reunion and fun. It was different for the Hancock family, however, who were in the process of realising the serious nature of Wendy’s condition. She was connected to a life-support machine, the first time Rose had heard the term used in regard to her daughter’s condition. Rose was also told that Wendy’s injuries had been self-inflicted. While still trying to come to terms with this news, she was taken aside and asked to consider turning off the machine that was keeping her daughter alive.

It had been less than 30 minutes since Rose arrived at the hospital, and now she was hearing that Wendy could not recover, that part of her brain had been deprived of oxygen for so long that it could no longer function. There was not the slightest chance Wendy could come back to them.

Rose couldn’t make the decision immediately. She didn’t want to make it at all. She felt she was being rushed, that there was pressure on her to say "OK".

She finally consented the morning at around 11 o’clock. A minister was called, and hospital staff began removing tubes from Wendy’s body. At 12.35 on Sunday, October 3, the machines that were keeping her daughter alive were turned off, and Rose knew that as her daughter was dying, part of her was dying as well.

Rose was devastated.

Inconsolable. Angry.

The following day she went with Elizabeth to Mulawa to visit the cell in which Wendy had been kept. The governor was present, as was a local detective and an Aboriginal liaison officer from the prison. Rose was not asked if she wanted to bring a legal representative, and in her shocked state had not thought to do so herself.

Recommendation 20:

That the appropriate Aboriginal Legal Service be notified immediately of any Aboriginal death in custody.

She thought the cell looked OK, quite clean and comfortable (for a prison cell.) She was shown bars in the cell that it was claimed Wendy had used as a suspension point.

Recommendation 165:

… the Commission recommends that … Corrective Services authorities should carefully scrutinise equipment and facilities provided at institutions with a view to eliminating and/or reducing the potential for harm … steps should be taken to screen hanging points in police and prison cells.

It was alleged that Wendy had put her underpants around her neck to hang herself with from the bars which were less than a metre off the ground. Rose now knows that hanging deaths can occur from such a low height. What she couldn’t understand was why there were bars in a cell, designed for those at risk of suicide. Rose also saw how near the supervisor’s desk was to the cell, so close she felt it would take only seconds for someone to reach a person in trouble. If Wendy was "at risk" where was the person who should have been watching her? How had her daughter been left unattended long enough to cut off the oxygen to her brain, something Rose had been told at the hospital took 20 minutes?

In the weeks that followed, Rose visited Walgett Courthouse, and finally found out why Wendy had been detained. She had been charged with destruction of property and assaulting police officers, presumably those who had come to arrest her for the damage she had caused — a broken window.

Recommendation 92:

That governments … should legislate to enforce the principle that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction at last resort.

It has now been over six months since Wendy’s death, and it’s still something Rose thinks about every day. She has received support from her community and Aboriginal Legal Service while she waits for the announcement of an inquest, which she understands is mandatory. She knows a detective travelling in north-west NSW gathering information for the case. She hopes he researches the lives of the prison guards she believes were supposed to keep watch over her daughter as thoroughly has he’s investigated Wendy’s background.

Peter Bugden, a principal solicitor for the Aboriginal Legal Service, can’t tell Rose when Wendy’s inquest will be. He knows that such things can take a long time, sometimes not occurring until a year after the person’s death. He hasn’t seen the police brief of evidence on Wendy’s case, so he can’t comment specifically on the matter. In general, however, he wants to see a decrease in the numbers of deaths in custody, but feels the challenges presently facing the Aboriginal Legal Service are not necessarily going to ensure this happens.

As a tender process to provide legal services for Aboriginal people is currently being rolled out nationally by the Federal government, Mr Bugden feels that those whose bids are accepted will not necessarily have an adequate knowledge of Aboriginal people. Rather than being driven by compassion, or a need for social justice, successful tenderers may only be interested in making a profit, something Mr Bugden finds "horrendous" and unlikely to instigate the changes he feels are needed in the justice system.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ran from 1987 until 1991 and cost more than $20 million. It made 339 recommendations, and $400 million was pledged to implement them.

Elizabeth Hancock feels her sister was "too fragile for this life".

She adds: "Wendy will be forever loved. We will make sure of it."

Rose Hancock hated Mothers Day this year. She waited, broken hearted for Wendy to ring — always knowing she wasn’t going to. Rose hopes to find the truth in Wendy’s case, and wants the system changed to prevent other deaths occurring in police stations and jails. She wants no other family to go through what hers has — and knows it’s an impossible hope. She wonders if the Royal Commission achieved anything at all.

Recommendation 339:

That all political leaders and their parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided.

Simon Luckhurst is the author of Eddie’s Country, a book on the
Eddie Murray death-in-custody case, to be published by Magabala Books later this year.

The Koori Mail

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