Neglect and abuse in detention

KAREN KISSANE   The nurse whose allegations sparked the furore over the Woomera Detention Centre, Barbara Rogalla, was appalled by conditions there from the day she arrived. Its razor wire and perimeter patrols reminded her of a concentration camp.

What she says she found inside the fence appalled her, too. Ms Rogalla speaks of sexual assault claims covered up, doctors pressured to avoid carrying out expensive tests on sick detainees, and suicidal people dressed in canvas shifts and locked in a bare concrete cell.

Ms Rogalla says she first took her concerns to Woomera management in June. She then complained to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney. They referred her back to the local managers to develop a policy for dealing with suspected child abuse.

Ms Rogalla says she then contacted the department that oversees child protection in South Australia, Family and Community Services, but her calls were not returned. She spoke to police in August.

Ms Rogalla also has copies of letters she says she sent to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in September and to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock in October. She says: “We have got to have a judicial inquiry, it’s as simple as that.”

Ms Rogalla worked at Woomera for two six-week stints this year. From January to mid-February she was a general nurse and from June to July she handled psychiatric issues.

In her second stint, a fellow nurse told her of the day in March when four guards had brought to the medical centre a 12-year-old boy. Ms Rogalla says: “He was hanging on to his bottom and he was crying … The guards said: `This boy’s been f—-d’.”

Ms Rogalla was told guards had suspected for some time the boy was being raped by his father and others men. Their response had been to “monitor” the situation.

“Had this been an Australian child, child protection would have been alerted immediately. What happened at Woomera was that the guards became determined to catch the father out and would barge into the dormitory without knocking.

“But these men knew what the guards were doing and they had their own little look-out and warned each other when the guards were approaching. (The monitoring) was all totally inappropriate. It should have been handed over in the first place to people who are skilled in this kind of investigation.”

Ms Rogalla says the nurse to whom the boy was brought was later pressured by management to water down her written account of the incident. She was discouraged from reporting it to outside authorities, and the boy was never examined.

Ms Rogalla says that, after the incident, the boy’s file disappeared for several weeks. When it reappeared, she saw it made no mention of suspected sexual assault.

Ms Rogalla later initiated an assessment of a 15-year-old boy who had psychiatric symptoms and said he was being woken at night by a man touching him. She says management sent the boy back to the same dormitory but removed the offender to a different compound.

An adult woman also reported that she had been sexually assaulted and initially refused to press charges because she feared being stoned to death by fundamentalists in the camp. “A man was later charged,” Ms Rogalla said.

The Sydney office of Australasian Correctional Management referred requests for comment to the Department of Immigration, which yesterday issued a statement saying the allegations were “just that: only allegations”, and pointed out there were now three inquiries examining different aspects of the claims. It said detainees were not kept in isolation except for health reasons or when their behavior put themselves or others at risk.

First published in The Age.