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Appointment of mental health expert to reform Banksia Hill welcome, but much work to be done

Giovanni Torre -

The appointment of former Mental Health Commissioner Tim Marney to put into effect a new model of care for children at WA's Banksia Hill Detention Centre is welcome but is a first step among many that are needed, a leading justice expert says.

Noongar human rights law expert and member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Hannah McGlade, said she welcomed the "long overdue" announcement on Tuesday.

"I encourage Mr Marney to engage appropriately with Aboriginal people. The principle of Aboriginal self-determination and culturally appropriate care requires a partnership approach that means Aboriginal people are given a seat at the table," she said.

"We also need to hear the voice of the youth affected."

The WA government said Mr Marney joins the Department of Justice to execute a "comprehensive change management plan" at Banksia Hill aimed at giving detainees "the care and services they need".

While working at management consultancy Nous Group, Mr Marney led the development of a new operating philosophy and service model to guide how Banksia Hill functions.

The state said on Tuesday that the new model is founded on best practice in youth justice in Australia and overseas, "focusing on rehabilitation and reducing re-offending behaviour through a trauma-informed, therapeutic approach, in turn enabling the safety of all staff".

The Department commissioned Nous Group to develop the model over 2021 and 2022 to overhaul Banksia Hill's practices.

Mr Marney was Western Australia's Under Treasurer from 2004 to 2014 and then led the Mental Health Commission for five years. He served on the board of Beyond Blue for nearly 12 years, is Chair of the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and Richmond Wellbeing and is a board member of Reconciliation WA.

"In bringing in the model of care, our focus will be on affecting longer-term changes to provide security, safety, care and support for the young people and staff at Banksia Hill," he said.

"The drivers of change will be the staff who are there on the ground every day. My role is about empowering people and giving them the tools, capabilities and competencies to successfully achieve their goals.

"Importantly, I'll also be spending quite a lot of time listening to staff, young people, families and stakeholders. This endeavour is far too important for me just to deliver a report and then walk away. I really wanted to be part of seeing it through."

Indigenous children are radically over-represented in Banksia Hill and WA's youth justice system more broadly. The majority of Banksia Hill detainees suffer from developmental or other cognitive impairments and most have experienced significant trauma.

Dr McGlade said the state of Western Australia must proactively begin to address youth incarceration and "realise the so called 'tough on crime' approach fails us all, it especially fails Aboriginal children from marginalised background".

"We need to repeal the mandatory detention laws found to be racially discriminatory by the UN Committee on Race Discrimination, and raise the age to 14 years as advised by the UN Committee on Children," she said.

"These laws are a violation of our human rights commitment and explain why we have the highness level of Aboriginal youth being imprisoned in Australia, including now in an adult prison.

"We can and must do better, breaking the cycle of incarceration which can be deadly for children."

Banksia Hill has been criticised by a range of law and human rights experts, including current and former Inspectors of Custodial Services, current and former Children's Court presidents, the prison staff union, and many others.

A class action by hundreds of former Banksia Hill detainees is currently underway.

In the face of a long-running community campaign to improve conditions in Banksia Hill the WA government last year announced $88 million in funding for upgrades including building a Crisis Care Unit, the creation of an Aboriginal Services Unit, and expansion of mental health and support services.

On Tuesday WA Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston said Mr Marney brings to this task "a wealth of experience in delivering government, professional and mental health services".

"His skills in implementing major reform projects, change management, cultural change and service delivery as well as dealing with vulnerable groups mean he is ideally suited to tackling the challenges in youth detention," he said.

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