Content warning: this piece contains the names and images of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
Apryl Day remembers her mother, Tanya, as an advocate for families whose loved ones had died in police custody. But in December 2017, the 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman suffered this same fate – something her family could never have imagined would happen to their own staunch and caring mother.
Since her death, Tanya Day’s story has been told and retold: in the media, in a coroner’s court but mostly powerfully by her family, including Apryl, who have worked to keep her memory alive and push for police accountability.
Tanya was riding on a V/Line train in December 2017 from her home in Echuca to Melbourne, where she was going to support her pregnant daughter, Kimberley. Day had been drinking on the train and fell asleep. When awoken by train conductor Shane Irvine, dazed and confused, she was unable to produce a ticket.
Rather than issuing a fine, Irvine decided to have Victoria Police called to the next stop in Castlemaine. Police detained Tanya under Victoria’s archaic public drunkenness laws and held her in a cell. Without sufficient checks on her wellbeing, she hit her head five times, and was showing clear signs of partial paralysis. The coroner found the fatal blow caused bleeding in her brain.
This was established by the inquest into her death, during which harrowing CCTV footage of her time in the cell was shown. I still remember the collective gasp that echoed around the Coroners Court. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, was some of the evidence heard, including that of one Victorian Police officer who told the court despite what had happened, they wouldn’t change their actions taken while Tanya Day was in their care.
Four years on from Tanya’s death, Apryl has started the Dhadjowa Foundation, continuing her mother’s work supporting the families of those who have died in police custody. Dhadjowa means “sunshine” in the Yorta Yorta language.
“After experiencing everything with Mum, and going through the coronial inquest, and realising how difficult the process is in terms of grieving, healing, advocating and the procedural stuff behind it, it just really highlighted the flaws in the system and how families could fall in between the cracks,” says Apryl.
When a community member dies in custody, their family experiences excruciating and often debilitating pain. Despite this trauma, families are expected to go through a process most others in this country will never have to experience or deal with – coronial inquests, the media and financial stress, all while mourning and trying to maintain cultural values when forced to give them up in the name of justice. To display the face and say the name of a deceased person goes against cultural protocol, but we must do that in order to achieve justice.
Every year on January 26, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people march through the same streets, screaming the same slogans, demanding the nation’s attention. Placards with the faces of those who have died at the hands of the government are held high above the crowd for all to see.
Already this month, there have been four Indigenous deaths in custody. Two happened in the first week of March in New South Wales – a woman in her 50s who was held at Silverwater Correctional Complex, and a man in his 30s at Long Bay – but both were only made public when the commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, Peter Severin, was questioned in state parliament. A third Aboriginal man died in Ravenhall Correctional Centre in Melbourne on March 7. On March 18, Anzac Sullivan, a Barkindji man, died in Broken Hill during a police pursuit.
One sunny Autumn day in the middle of the inquest into their mother’s death, Apryl and her siblings walked out the sliding glass doors of the Coroners Court of Victoria into a sea of Aboriginal community members and supporters, who had shut down Melbourne in support of Tanya Day and her family.
The silence, in the midst of the city’s high-rise buildings, was haunting, and the overwhelming support something Apryl will never forget. Now with the establishment of the Dhadjowa Foundation, she wants to work to and ensure every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family who loses a loved one in police custody has access to the level of grassroots community support that she and her family had.
“Seeing how the community rallied behind us, and how lucky we were, and how we had really great media attention… Then just watching other families not get that same support really bothered me,” Apryl says.
Aboriginal controlled peak bodies such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) and its state-based counterparts play a vital role in supporting families and advocating for a variety of measures to be implemented at a government level, as well as offering one-on-one legal support.
Those organisations also back calls from families for change. For example, throwing support behind Apryl’s advocacy to abolish the archaic public drunkenness laws in Victoria. Last month, Victoria’s parliament voted in favour of decriminalisation – almost 30 years after it was recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
NATSILS has provided support for the establishment of the Dhadjowa Foundation. The two groups will work together to bridge the gap between professional care and grassroots care, unlike many other government-funded organisations.
“If you have a look at government-funded organisations, they always have the influence from the government, they always need to toe a certain line, and the government is a part of the problem,” Apryl says.
“Systemic racism is embedded throughout and is unsafe and dangerous for Aboriginal people. We need to be able to create something that is just for us by us. The self-determination behind that is really important because we as Aboriginal people know what we need.
“The Dhadjowa Foundation is grassroots, it’s got absolutely no government influence. It’s governed by families, so it’s family-led, by the people that have been directly impacted. We know more than anyone what our families need because we have been through it before.”
At the end of 2020, and as part of the Australian Communities Foundation’s Reimagining Australia program, Apryl pitched the Dhadjowa Foundation and was able to raise $160,000 for its establishment.
Since then, she has selected the board, made up of four other Aboriginal families with lived experience of having a loved one die in custody. Members include Samara Fernandez-Brown, cousin of 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker, who was shot by the Northern Territory police in his home; Makayla Reynolds, the sister of Nathan Reynolds, who at 36 died having an asthma attack while in custody; Aunty Carolyn Lewis, who has sadly had many of her precious family members die at the hands of the system; and Troy Brady, the nephew of Aunty Sherry Tilbaroo, who last year died in Brisbane Watch House.
Brady is a proud Kuku Yalanji and Birri Gubba man and was appointed family spokesperson shortly after the death of his aunt. He knows firsthand the importance of grassroots community-led care.
“The anecdote or the solution should be taking a holistic approach, to be engaging our people back to the country with language, community and stuff, but that’s been my argument for a while,” he says.
“Until something like this actually affects you and it’s your own mob, your own Aunty and stuff, it’s just like man oh mighty, this is harrowing, this is inexplicable to go through a process like that.”
As part of the Dhadjowa Foundation, he is looking to help other families as his family was helped in a more structured and organised way.
“This is coming from a community, family, grassroots perspective and the fact that the other board members that have been involved have been through that process, we’ve been through it. It’s just a matter of just being present, representing the families where you can, and supporting them in every facet of what they’re dealing with,” Brady says.
“I think the No. 1 factor is making sure that their sorry business is upheld in a culturally appropriate manner. So, they can lay their loved ones down and just sort out the other stuff that comes after it.”
On Saturday next week, the Dhadjowa Foundation will finally launch at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community has again come together in support, with almost every aspect of the day being donated – from people’s time, to people’s artwork, which is to be auctioned off.
“All of those funds go straight to the foundation, so it’s a really special thing that’s happened, just seeing the community support, and it’s a lovely thing for families to be able to know that they’re supported in that sort of way,” Apryl says.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 27, 2021 as "Days of reckoning".
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