The Coroners Court of Victoria is not a place where any family wants to find itself.
Those who walk through the doors of the building in Southbank are usually grieving the loss of a loved one, often in traumatic circumstances.
It can be especially painful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, many of whom have seen courts play a role in separating their families, denying their sovereignty and disregarding their culture over generations of colonisation.
But Yuin man Troy Williamson (Butler) is working to turn that around, as the first Aboriginal family engagement coordinator to a coronial court in Australia.
Mr Williamson, who took on the job at Victoria’s coronial court after a 16-year stint in federal social services roles, says he sees it as his privilege to fight for the cultural strength of Aboriginal people to be represented in the court’s work.
“[My aim was] to bring culture into this business and ensure that our sorry business, but also our Aboriginal culture, was respected and was a driving force for change and implementation,” he says.
For many Aboriginal families in Victoria confronted with a sudden loss, Mr Williamson is among the first people to reach out to them.
Part of his job is explaining the legal imperatives of the Coroners Court of Victoria to grieving families — but also the cultural needs of Aboriginal families back to the court.
While the word “death” has a legal meaning for the court, Mr Williamson has encouraged the use of the word “passing” when communicating with families.
“Our spiritual beliefs are that we’re in the living to move through to the Dreamtime and guide and be an ancestor and guide those in the living, so we’ve replaced the word death with passing,” he says.
He also works to ensure the process of an autopsy is as culturally safe as possible, with the gender of the pathologist and the goal of returning the body to country for sorry business front of mind.
“To really implement culturally significant processes that reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture but also show that organisations and our Aboriginal culture can come together, can work together and be respected,” he says.
Upholding culture in an hour of grief
When Mutti Mutti man Kutcha Edwards hears the word ‘court’, a shiver runs down his spine.
His first experience with a court was at 18 months old, when he and his siblings were forcibly removed from their parents.
“So courts haven’t been kind to me or my family,” the Stolen Generations survivor, advocate and songwriter says.
But he speaks highly of the recent experience he had inside the Coroners Court as Mr Williamson supported his family after the loss of a sibling.
It started with the first phone call, notifying the family of his brother’s passing.
“We lost, and I hope my family understands that I speak about our lost family members with the utmost respect, but we lost a brother last November,” Edwards says.
“Troy gave me a call and he said, ‘Uncle Kutcha, I have Uncle here,’ and he didn’t say his last name.
“And that’s part of the respect that I have for this man, Troy. Is that he didn’t mention this man.
Mr Williamson presented Edwards and one of his brothers with a possum-skin cloak when they arrived, which was wrapped around the elder brother in keeping with cultural customs.
Edwards was then given the opportunity to sing to his brother in the Mutti Mutti language.
For Edwards, the gesture created space to mark his brother’s passage into his Dreaming, the “beautiful place” where people’s spirits travel when they pass, from which they continue to offer support to their descendants.
“I’m sure he would have been between those two worlds and heard his big brother Kutcha sing to him and he would have come back and he would have sat there and [said]: ‘Thank you my brother, I’m hearing you, I’m listening to you,'” Edwards says.
“And just let him know to go and be with our mother and our father and his brothers and his sisters and don’t be frightened of that.”
Above the support offered to Edwards at the time, he says the cultural safety created by Mr Williamson honoured Aboriginal ways of respecting a person’s life.
“My understanding is on my birth certificate, my birthdate is a certain month, a certain day in the year 1965,” Edwards says.
“That doesn’t make me 54 years old. That makes this, the vehicle, 54 years old. We carry the spirit of our ancestors which is millennia. So I don’t really look at the fact that I’m 54 years old. I’m 60,000 years old.”
Upholding a family’s culture in its darkest time
The death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in police custody was one of the most significant cases to come before the coroner in recent years and ended in a referral to prosecutors of possible charges — charges which Victoria Police later announced it would not pursue on the advice of the Office of Public Prosecutions.
For Ms Day’s daughter, Belinda Day, the trauma of her family’s pursuit for accountability over her mum’s death through the Coroners Court was made a little easier to bear due to the respect given to the family’s culture.
“The ability to be able to have that table set up with mum’s stuff and to look at that throughout the process and I guess our ability to have the smoking and the welcomes certainly did make it a safer place,” she says.
“It’s still a horrible thing to go through, but you sort of focus on those smaller things.”
Despite this, the court’s limitation to issuing non-binding recommendations means the family didn’t see all the outcomes they sought.
“It was all good and well to get through the coronial process but we understand that everything that’s come out of that are recommendations,” Belinda Day says.
While the family are “devastated and angry” at the decision not to lay charges, Ms Day says they will continue to hold the Victorian Government to account on its pledge to repeal public drunkenness laws, something that was recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody nearly 30 years ago.
“For us it’s about honouring Mum and making sure that she gets the justice that she deserves,” she says.
The Government says an expert reference group including Victoria’s peak Aboriginal health and legal groups is finalising its advice on a recommended “health-led model” to replace the laws.
With cultural safety, more families are identifying
Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English says Mr Williamson’s work has “absolutely transformed” the court’s response to Aboriginal families.
As well as helping the court integrate Aboriginal cultural processes such as smoking ceremonies and respectful language, she says Mr Williamson’s deep community connections have vastly improved the court’s ability to identify Victorians who have passed as members of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community.
“I think that the identification of those families [as Indigenous] has more than doubled so that’s been quite extraordinary,” she says.
She and others also credit Mr Williamson’s extraordinary empathy as a key part of the role’s success so far.
“They do call him the walking hug, but that was obviously before the pandemic,” she says.
Mr Williamson says the key has been making sure the community feels safe “and aware that identifying [as Indigenous] is something they should be proud of because it is something that will be respected by our court”.
New suicide reporting aims to empower Aboriginal communities
Mr Williamson has also been instrumental in setting up annual reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides in recent years, in a bid to help community-controlled organisations across Victoria tackle one of the community’s biggest issues.
The first report in the project, released earlier this year, found the suicide rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria were twice that of the state’s non-Indigenous population, with younger Indigenous Victorians most at risk.
“Often we’re the last ones invited to the table, as Aboriginal people, we’re the last ones to get the report about our people. Being able to shift this and make sure that this information is getting to our community on the ground levels … is vital,” Mr Williamson says.
Ms English says providing detailed information to Aboriginal communities about suicides is an important part of the court’s work in identifying deaths which can be prevented.
“We can look at themes, we can look at potential hotspots, we can look at the influence of socio-economic factors and therefore I suppose provide the raw data for future policies and hopefully solutions and prevention measures,” she says.
A ‘big responsibility’ for a growing team
The team has recently expanded, with the addition of an Aboriginal woman to support women’s business and offer more cultural choice to families, while a practice direction launched by the court this week has formalised the new ways of working.
It’s all part of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement, a state response to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Mr Williamson hopes the court’s work demonstrates what’s possible when Aboriginal people aren’t just consulted, but included in decision making.
“I want us to make sure that we’re showing every state and territory that by listening to Aboriginal people and putting Aboriginal health and Aboriginal issues into the hands of Aboriginal people, resolutions can be gained, outcomes can be achieved,” he said.
For Kutcha Edwards, the importance of upholding and enshrining a culture that Australian governments have attempted to erase in the past cannot be overstated.
“We gave Troy that responsibility and he stood up and he did it with an open spirit and a knowledge that what he was doing was that fine balance between the Victorian state government protocols and our protocols of millennia,” he says.
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