Death of baby in Katherine sparks calls for police to protect kids if arresting parents

Key points:

  • On June 7, a five-month-old baby died while her mother was in police custody
  • Police are not treating the death as suspicious and are preparing a report for the coroner
  • NAAJA lawyers say if police are arresting a parent, their children's welfare needs to be considered

Police need to make sure children are being appropriately cared for if one of their parents are arrested, says North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) CEO Priscilla Atkins.

"When they are taking someone into custody, they need to be aware of who else is involved with that person — if they have young children, if they have babies, and they should be responsible to place those young children into the care of a responsible adult who can care for them properly," she said.

Ms Atkins' comments come less than a week after a five-month-old Aboriginal girl died while her 21-year-old mother was in police custody.

The ABC understands police were called to the unit, in Katherine East, after reports of quarrelling on Sunday, June 7.

They left the woman's two children, a five-month-old baby and a five-year-old girl, in the house with their father and grandfather, who had been drinking.

The five-month-old baby died while her mother was with police.

NT police have declined to respond to questions about the death. They said they were not treating the death as suspicious and were preparing a report for the coroner.

The town of Katherine, Northern Territory
The ABC understands police were called to the unit, in Katherine East, after reports of quarrelling on June 7.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

'There were a lot of options'

David Woodroffe, principal legal officer at NAAJA, said police had broad powers to remove a child from circumstances which were unsafe.

Under the NT's Care and Protection of Children Act, a police officer can, without a warrant, "remove a child from any place if they believe the wellbeing of the child is at immediate risk".

Mr Woodroffe said while he was not blaming anyone in this situation, the baby's death raised a lot of questions.

"One would think the wellbeing of the child, leaving a five-month-old child in an environment of drinkers and lack of adequate supervision or care, would be a major issue and particularly when police have the ability to remove the child," he said.

"One would assume there were a lot of options that could have happened and should have happened and will be investigated."

Mr Woodroffe said if police were arresting a parent, their children's welfare also needed to be considered.

NT Police insignia on mud-splattered car door.
The five-month-old baby died while her mother was with police.(ABC News: James Dunlevie)

"Police have the power and the responsibility and the duty — always — and I would consider in this case as well, about ensuring the safety of children," he said.

"That means when taking a parent into custody their children should be placed in the safe care of a person — it can be family, but one would think: 'Is it entirely appropriate to place them with family members who are intoxicated?'"

Mr Woodroffe is hoping police and Territory Families will review some of their procedures after the baby's death.

"It would be of concern if this isn't a terrible, terrible isolated case, whether this is a general practice," he said.

NT Police was asked to provide details about the policy or procedure if a parent was arrested but declined to comment.


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