Have you heard about Dylan Voller? As an 11-year old he was beaten and humiliated at the hands of Alice Springs detention centre staff. Forced to sleep in his own piss, denied food and water and toilet breaks, restrained and beaten at regular intervals and racially abused and threatened with sexual abuse. Later, he was covered in a hood, beaten and spat on, tear gassed by federal government guards at Don Dale Correctional Center in Darwin, all by the age of 14.
I was his youth worker from 2008 to mid-2010 in Alice Springs when Dylan – an indigenous kid – was 10-12 years old. He was a tough kid, and an even tougher kid to handle. He had problems. An abusive, chaotic and transient upbringing, he’d been diagnosed at an early age with ADHD and other behavioural problems. But he also loved animals, his family, footy, cars and music.
When Dylan came onto my radar, I was new in town and every other agency had already washed their hands of him. He’d been expelled from every school in Alice on the grounds of his ADHD and his refusal to take Ritalin, a drug which made him nauseous and gave him sweats and kept him awake at night. At school he’d get into fights, abuse teachers and was easily triggered. Bad yes, but not terminal. Especially when it came to getting an education.
Alice was poorly equipped to deal with high needs aboriginal kids. I felt Dylan was thrown into the too-hard-basket and basically left there until he became the state’s problem. The idea seemed to be, leave the kid with no choices, engagement or hope in life and wait for him to inevitably break the law and get shipped to Darwin under detention.
Dylan and I connected immediately. Where many just went by his reputation and saw him a lost cause, I saw a cheeky kid with a shit childhood behind him and potential ahead of him. He had just turned 11.
How can any child, and make no mistake he was a child, be written off by various departments and agencies?
Through Family and Child Services Northern Territory (FACS) and my organisation, I’d secured some funding for Dylan. Riding for the Disabled, where he’d learn all about keeping horses and riding them, School of the Air where he could graduate primary school more on his own terms in an environment away from his reputation and personal shame that went with that, where he could remain engaged.
We were also doing things with his diet. I’d noticed eating certain foods would trigger episodes which were tough to talk him down from. Preservatives, additives (like 202, 224 and anything with blue colouring in it) that are commonly found in anything fast or processed were replaced with more wholesome home cooking – which Dylan was learning to cook for himself.
Dylan reminded me of a kelpie I owned prior to moving out to the red centre. If he ate good, and got to run his shit out each day – particularly on a footy field in Dylan’s case, he’d be a pleasure to be around. I wouldn’t have hesitated in bringing him home where my then pregnant partner and three-year-old daughter lived.
Dylan was on an upward trajectory. His homelife still needed some major overhauling and stability, but Dylan was eating well, living pretty healthily and had even started talking about his future, maybe playing footy hard and getting outta town with that. He was a good footy player and I knew people at Port Adelaide that coulda taken a flyer on him and slotted him into an academy down south.
Then at a routine funding meeting for Dylan, he was late to show. He hated those things. Stuffy, small government rooms which would trigger his claustrophobia. Inflammatory lines of questioning rubbing his nose in the past like a misbehaved puppy which were more about getting a reaction from him, than serving an actual benefit to him, and more than all of that, shaming him.
Shaming him about past infractions in minute detail. Basically, fishing for a negative reaction almost as if they wanted a reason to deny his funding. And on this day, with Dylan’s anxiety palpable, they got it.
Dylan arced up.
He swore at the head government facilitator and question asker – a suit flown in from Adelaide with no previous contact with Dylan, who’s attitude from the outset was that of someone who didn’t want to be in Alice Springs.
Dylan made threats, baseless ones, which are classic of the Oppositional Defiant Disorder he was diagnosed with. The committee of government workers in the room that day, rather than treat and manage Dylan as someone with disorders, chose to needle away and antagonise him further. I could see fault in Dylan’s response, but when you’re familiar with Dylan and take into account his various disorders, and the fact he was only fucking 11-years old; and these were grown arse – allegedly – full functioning adults throwing him to the wolves, it was hard to take. I was livid and so to was my supervisor who was also present that day.
In the wash up that afternoon, all of Dylan’s funding was withdrawn. No more school hour care (since he wasn’t allowed to go to school unless he took their drugs) and no activities like riding with the disabled, no more footy training, shopping and cooking lessons or anything positive. Instead his money was diverted to a half way house that would care for him should the moment come he was too tough to deal with for his mum and/or broke the law.
Essentially, they were not just setting him up for failure, they were actually paying money to ensure it. And as history would dictate, from this meeting onwards, my contact with Dylan would be limited. With no school, an unstable home life and nowhere but the streets and much older kids doing things he was yet to be exposed to, to engage with; Dylan declined rapidly.
Just days later, he was locked up at Alice Springs detention Centre for breaking into an unlocked car and stealing the change in the ashtray. This would be the commencement of the abuse ranged against him which would later be the subject of a high court royal commission, which found in Dylan’s favour and was the precursor to an entire overhaul of the youth detention system in the NT.
Read more about Dylan and his exposure to systemic abuse here: