Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
Earlier this year a documentary into the Bowraville murders, which covers the cases of three Aboriginal children who separately went missing from the same small Australian town in the early 1990s, was released.
The film tells the story of a 30-year battle by the families of those children (two of whom’s bodies have been found) to seek justice after being let down by the police during their search for answers.
More than three decades on, advocates say there is still a huge disparity in how cases of non-Indigenous and Indigenous missing children are dealt with.
This issue has been raised recently in light of the efforts and eventual discovery of a missing four-year-old Cleo Smith who had disappeared from her family’s tent in remote Western Australia.
While there was overwhelming relief and celebration across the country when she was found alive 18 days later, many on-lookers noticed a marked difference in the approach to this case of a white child to that on Indigenous children.
Community members and advocates Bundjalung woman Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts and model Jesinta Franklin, who is married to AFL player and Noongar Whadjuk man Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, shared their views on social media.
“Happy that Cleo was found But where is the same energy for Blak children missing. Where’s the advocacy? Advertisements? Response?” Turnbull-Roberts tweeted.
“Do not tell me racial disparities and hidden agendas don’t exist. The state will respond to criminalising Blak children over our babies missing.”
Our staunch communities continue to collectively fight, grieve, use our own resources.
A yt child goes missing, funds are raised, media is keeping tabs and reporting everyday, state detective units provide the epitome of care and response.
But if you are a Blak child!
— Nessa Turnbull-Roberts (@TurnbullVanessa) November 2, 2021
“Without taking away from the joy of finding a missing child alive and well, I can’t help but think about the disparity that exists in this country between missing children who are white and Indigenous children when it comes to the visibility and coverage of the case,” wrote Franklin.
“I have read so many heartbreaking stories of missing Indigenous children that garner hardly any media coverage… I have no doubt the widespread broadcasting of information in regard to the case assisted the phenomenal efforts of the WA police force in locating this beautiful little girl and reuniting her with her family.”
The mother of two may have since deleted the comments but experts and advocates say the sentiment holds true.
Nyoongar human rights lawyer and academic Hannah McGlade said missing Aboriginal children don’t receive the public or police response seen in this recent case.
“Aboriginal children frequently go missing from the care of the department as they have been removed from families at high levels,” she said.
“In some tragic cases they have actually run away from care facilities and killed themselves.”
Dr McGlade said it did not matter if the children had run away or if they were teenagers, every case should be treated as high priority.
“They are at risk as vulnerable children – from dangerous people, potential risk of self harm, of course this situation needs to be given increased attention.”
Dr McGlade said where Aboriginal people are involved in a case, racial bias often comes into play.
“We haven’t tackled racism in this country, it is systemic and structural, it is widespread, it is not declining.”
Dr McGlade pointed to the case of 10-month-old-Charlie Mullaley who was murdered by his mother’s abusive ex-partner, Mervyn Bell, in 2013.
Police were called to a domestic violence incident in Broome after Tamica Mullaley was violently attacked by Bell, who had since fled the scene.
However when officers arrived and an altercation took place between Mullaley and an officer, it was her who was arrested.
Police took her to the hospital and her young son remained behind with bystanders but he was later taken by Bell.
While Mullaley’s father went to the police station about midnight to report that Bell had taken Charlie and threatened to kill him, police didn’t contact any person who had been at the house he’d been taken from for 10 hours.
Dr McGlade said the way police dealt with the case was an example of racial bias, an issue for which she said she does not believe WA Police are tackling.
“I don’t believe that they are doing that training and I have tried to raise the issue of human rights training with the West Australian police for some years now to no avail,” she said.
WA Police were contacted for comment, however did not respond before time of publication.
A Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) report following the death found a collective failure by police to deal with the incident as it should have been dealt with but found there had been no serious misconduct.
About 45,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an coronial inquest or Parliamentary inquiry into the matter and asking for an investigation into why the CCC’s investigation failed to focus on why WA police did not take steps to ensure that baby Charlie was left in a safe place and was safe from harm.
The Mullaley family has requested a coronial inquest into Charlie’s death but have been denied on both state and federal levels.
National Justice Project director George Newhouse said the same resources that were directed at Cleo’s case should be directed to cases of missing First Nations children.
“I am so happy for Cleo and her family but why is it that so many resources were thrown at her case but not the others?” Newhouse said.
“Why is it that West Australians aren’t horrified and why is it not front-page news that the Department of Communities doesn’t know where 12 children in state care are located, what is different about those cases? How many police are dedicated to looking for those children?
“Premier Mark McGowan is talking about awarding medals for the police involved in Cleo’s case but no one in the WA government or the police force will even speak to the Mullaley family about why police failed to lift a finger to find a baby that was abducted by a violent man.”
In the case of the three Bowraville children, family members of Evelyn Greenup and 16-year-olds Clinton Speedy-Duroux and Colleen Walker-Craig say racial bias has led to flawed investigations and these flawed investigations have impeded the justice process.
Colleen Walker-Craig’s remains have never been found.
By Aleisha Orr