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Govt under fire with kids 'suffering' in watch houses

Laine Clark -

Stories have surfaced of children being sexually abused while others tell of kids being deprived of food or kept in solitary confinement.

Advocates are now adamant that children in Queensland's adult watch houses are "suffering".

"It is an abysmal place for young people," legal and social support service Youth Advocacy Centre's CEO Katherine Hayes said.

There are fears Queensland watch houses have become "overwhelmed" with juveniles, along with detention centres, with no relief in sight.

Amid a crime outcry, the Queensland government this week redrafted a Youth Justice Act clause and scrapped detention as a last resort.

Premier Steven Miles said he made the change to keep Queenslanders safe.

Some say he has only made things worse.

"It will only result in more people being locked up," Ms Hayes said.

Adult watch houses in the state are already "brimming with children" as young as 10, Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) says.

"In a Cairns watch house for example, we have up to four kids sharing one cell sleeping on plastic mattresses," QCOSS CEO Aimee McVeigh said.

"We hear stories of sexual abuse, of children being deprived of food ... and being detained in solitary confinement."

Queensland currently has 80 juveniles in watch houses - 56 are Indigenous children.

A 14-year-old Indigenous boy has spent 31 days in a watch house to date, Ms Hayes said.

"We've also had young kids brought down from Aurukun to Caboolture, over 2000km away from their home," she said.

"(They were) kept in the Caboolture watch house ... for 30 days (with) no fresh air, no sunlight.

"That young person will come out in a worse state than he went in."

Ms Hayes said it wasn't just the children being affected by their watch house plight.

"The police are already complaining about young people in the watch houses, the psychologists who go into the watch houses don't want to go," she said.

"They see young people's mental health decline within 24 hours."

Children are leaving watch houses and detention centres "angry", she said.

Yet many are expected to return, again and again.

"We know that detaining children in these types of circumstances leads to further crime in the future," QCOSS' Ms McVie said.

"We also know that the younger children are when they have contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to go on to reoffend."

Queensland has the highest rate of youth detention in the country according to March's Child Death Review report.

There are three youth detention centres in Queensland, with two more to be built.

"We have never had more children in our watch houses. There is no more room," Queensland childhood expert, PeakCare CEO Tom Allsop said.

"Detention centres can't be built fast enough because there is no investment in early intervention and prevention."

In August 2023, the Queensland government overrode human rights laws and pushed through amendments to allow children to be held in watch houses.

Nine months later the Youth Advocacy Centre accused the government of failing to protect children in watch houses, saying they were considering legal action.

Premier Steven Miles announced the Youth Justice Act would be redrafted two days later.

After months of pressure, he said the clause "detention as a last resort" would be amended to read children should be detained in custody where "necessary".

It is part of a $1.28 billion community safety plan.

Ms Hayes warned Queensland was not meeting its obligations under international law by removing detention as a last resort.

"The (safety) plan is all about police. It is just looking at how to arrest more young people and more criminals," she said.

"They haven't done anything that actually makes the community safer. They've only made decisions that benefit themselves politically."

Mr Allsop said the state government had to stop focusing on detention as a solution.

"By only responding to the consequences of crime what we are doing is we are putting our children ... (on a) pipeline to prison, not a pathway to prosperity," he said.

"Our youth justice system ... (is) gravitational - the more you have contact, the more that you're drawn into them."

Mr Allsop backed prevention and early intervention, saying the key was providing support for kids and families especially during "those crucial 0-5 years".

He said families were crying out for support in early childhood health and education, especially in regional and remote areas.

Rather than tweak, the LNP opposition's main promise ahead of the October state election has been to remove the "detention as a last resort" clause entirely.

It has ensured both major parties have come under fire in Queensland's ongoing youth justice debate.

"This is wannabe macho men fighting over who can be the toughest when actually we need cool heads," Ms McVeigh said.

"We have an epidemic of violence against women and children in this nation and our focus ... should not be on children. 

"It should be on men perpetrating violent crimes. Those crimes ... are a direct cause of youth crime."

 Laine Clark - AAP

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