Her babies taken, this Indigenous woman died alone in a police cell — the victim of a problem Australia can't seem to fix
Updated 0145 GMT (0945 HKT) April 10, 2021
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned this story contains images of people who have died.
Brisbane (CNN)Rebecca Maher didn't get to hold her youngest child.
Australian child protection services took him away as soon as he was born, according to Tracey Hanshaw, from Indigenous rights advocacy group Justice Aunties.
He was the third child Maher lost to officials, who intervened as she fought a drug addiction that started in her teens and ended with her death in a police cell at the age of 36. "Although Rebecca's children were not living with her at the time of her death, it is clear to me that she was always a part of their lives and loved them very much," said the coroner's report.
Maher is one of more than 455 Indigenous Australians who have died in prison, police, and youth custody since 1991 when a Royal Commission published its damning report into Aboriginal deaths in custody, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology's latest report.
An unofficial count by the Guardian's Deaths Inside database puts the current total at 474, including five in the past five weeks.
Stories like Maher's show the depths of disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people, many of whom are swept into the justice system at an early age, depriving them of an education and jobs, perpetuating social problems passed from one generation to the next.
"It's a symptom of the ongoing and devastating colonial system in this country," said Greens Sen. Lidia Thorpe. "It started more than 200 years ago but our people are still being killed."
Thirty years ago, the Royal Commission found Indigenous people weren't dying at a higher rate than non-Indigenous people, but those who died in custody were the victims of gross overrepresentation in the justice system. That's still the case today.
Indigenous people only make up 2.4% of the population aged 20 and over but over the past 10 years have made up more than a quarter of all adult prisoners.
"Our people are being demonized in this country, even though we're the oldest living continuing culture in the world," said Thorpe.
The Royal Commission sought to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody with 339 recommendations, including many that sought to keep First Nations people out of the justice system and improve their health and welfare. Critics say few of the recommendations have been implemented.