January 22, 2014
Anger in NT community after circumcision rite ends with three boys airlifted to hospitalby Norman Hermant and Alison McClymont
There is still anger in a remote Northern Territory community after three teenage boys had to be medically evacuated following an Indigenous initiation ceremony which went horribly wrong.
The boys were part of a group of about 20 who were circumcised two days before Christmas near the small Gulf of Carpentaria town of Borroloola, 700 kilometres east of Darwin.
They were so badly cut during the procedure that they had to be taken to Darwin for urgent treatment.
Local ambulance driver William Miller arrived at the ceremony to find his 17-year-old grandson Bryce severely injured.
"I took one look at him and he was sitting in a pool of blood ... and that really hurt me, that did," he said.
"I wasn't happy at all, with the whole people who done the job."
Bryce Miller, who had to be airlifted to hospital, had pushed his grandfather to allow him to participate in the ceremony.
"When I got cut, and I seen the blood squirting through on the wrong side, it was bad. Squirting out bad ... heaps. And losing a lot of blood," he said.
The ABC understands instruments from the local health clinic were used in the ceremony and have regularly been supplied in the past, in line with Health Department guidelines.
Nurses and doctors from the clinic have also attended previous ceremonies, but were not present at last December's ritual.
Some of the clinic's health professionals have told the ABC they were appalled by the injuries they saw. But none is willing to speak publicly for fear of dismissal.
Investigators say injuries do not constitute child abuse
The Northern Territory Government says it is aware of the case, and so far its investigators have found the injuries do not constitute child abuse.
The NT Child Abuse Taskforce received two notifications about the incident, leading to an investigation by two police officers and the Department of Children and Families.
But their enquiries found that the children had not been harmed as defined by the Care and Protection of Children Act.
[Huh? Why not?]
The Department said it would continue to conduct enquiries into the wellbeing of the young men.
NT Attorney-General John Elferink said any suggestion of child abuse was taken very seriously.
"A more fulsome investigation was done in this instance because of the sensitivities involved," he said.
"No abuse was found to have occurred and in the absence of that and in the absence of criminality ... it's a parental decision on how to bring up the kids."
Mr Elferink says he has lived and worked in remote communities and understands how traditional practices occur.
But he believes there should always be checks for child abuse.
"There are number of cultures that operate in the NT and even more Australia-wide - Islamic cultures, Christian cultures, Aboriginal cultures, other religions and other cultural practices," he said.
"So long as those practices don't amount to child abuse, there is no role for the state. So long as those practices don't amount to criminality, there is no role of the state. It's called a free country."
Elders say ceremony a critical cultural step for young men
The circumcision ceremony dates back thousands of years and is common practice in traditional and remote communities across northern Australia.
Elders say the ceremony is a critical cultural step where boys become men.
The elders who supervised the circumcision said the injuries were likely caused by a visiting family member who is still learning the ritual.
"I think some place he make mistake, some place he don't, you know?" said traditional Garrawa elder Keith Rory.
Mr Rory said he had been conducting the ritual for 20 years.
"This ceremony is really strong. It goes back, way back to the old days when it first started," he said.
"People used different sort of stuff with young men ... these days we get it from the clinic but in those days they used stone and stuff they made it themselves.
"It is traditional stuff and it's sacred stuff."
Borroloola's former doctor, Dr Peter Fitzpatrick, says it is not the first time young men have needed medical care after initiation.
"They're doing lots of young men and it's a remote area and I've seen and evacuated young men myself," he said.
Dr Fitzpatrick, whose own sons have been initiated, says with any surgical procedure there are sometimes complications.
"These events occur in remote areas... they're not actually occurring within cooee of an A&E department, and people live in remote areas, that increases the risk," he said.
"The ceremony is very, very important to Indigenous communities.
"As long as there's some procedures and understanding and harm minimisation is there then its maybe at an acceptable level to the community."
Injured teenager has 'no regrets' over ritual
Bryce Miller has recovered from his injuries and says he has no regrets participating in this initiation into manhood.
His grandfather William, on the other hand, says no other family members will ever take part again.
Others in the community, including Garrawa man Gadrian Hoosen, say the ceremony will continue.
"[There's] no point talking about our ceremony because that's not going to stop us from carrying that culture," he said.
"We're going to carry it on."