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Australia's 'systemic' failure to protect youth in custody is at crisis point, children's commissioner says

Giovanni Torre -

The National Children's Commissioner has called for urgent reform to address Australia's youth detention crisis.

In a speech at the launch of National Child Protection Week at Government House in Canberra on Monday, Commissioner Anne Hollonds said issues at youth detention centres across Australia showed governments where not prioritising child safety.

Ms Hollonds raised Western Australia, where some children have been moved to an adult prison, Tasmania and the Northern Territory as examples.

"The ongoing crisis in youth justice is national systemic failure to protect children and young people," she said.

"Policies and service systems are failing to provide children and their families with the support they need, leading to more children coming into the child protection and youth justice systems."

Ms Hollonds said children and their families had been let down for decades by governments which had failed to implement key recommendations from various inquiries and royal commissions.

She said while international evidence showed community-based early intervention was the best way to protect children.

"Our health, education and social service systems are fragmented and not fit for purpose for disadvantaged children and their families," she said.

"Many of these families have told me directly about their frustrations at being unable to access basic support services."

The speech came three days after lawyer Stewart Levitt, whose firm Levitt Robinson is representing former and current Banksia Hill Detention Centre in a prospective class action, urged WA Premier Mark McGowan to intervene in youth detention matters in an open letter.

"Together we should work to alleviate the immense suffering caused to egregiously disadvantaged children and youth, mostly afflicted with at least one disability, and overwhelmingly Indigenous, who have been consigned to prison in Perth," he wrote.

A spokesperson for Mr McGowan said moving disruptive children from Banksia Hill had improved conditions for remaining inmates.

"Moving 17 of the most disruptive detainees into a secondary facility has enabled the remaining cohort at Banksia Hill to return to normal education and recreational routines," they said.

"The 11 detainees currently held at Unit 18 have access to one-on-one support and care from a dedicated team of experienced psychologists, youth support offices, mental health workers and teachers."

The spokesperson said the State Government was investing $25.1 million to build a new crisis care unit and an Aboriginal Services Unit to provide culturally sensitive support at Banksia Hill.

"We are also undertaking considerable work to address long standing and systemic youth justice issues in Western Australia," they said.

"The highly successful Target 120 program, launched by the McGowan Government, has recently been expanded into additional parts of WA... (and) supports young people aged between 10 and 14 who are at risk of becoming repeat offenders and becoming lost to the criminal justice system.

"Since its inception in 2018, the program has been linked to better outcomes for participants, with half of those not re-offending since their commencement in the program."

The spokesperson said the WA Government had allocated $15 million towards an on-country residential facility in the Kimberley for young offenders as an alternative to detention.

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