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New report paints horrific picture of children in state care and detention

Dechlan Brennan -

The following article contains graphic and disturbing details.

Two children whose deaths were investigated by the Queensland Child Death Review Board had previously spent time in youth detention, suffering bullying, abuse and victimisation.

The revelations come in a new report, which has revealed 72 children known to the child protection system died in Queensland in the 2022-23 financial year, an increase of three from the previous year. Of the 60 deaths reviewed, 41 per cent of the children were under the age of one.

The story of the two children, known in the report as Boy 1 and Boy 2, paints a picture of tragedy, outlining the horrors of children in the justice and child protection system.

Both children were Indigenous, and experienced in-utero exposure to violence, alcohol and illicit substances.

The report states both suffered from cognitive disorders, had repeatedly tried to self-harm and were the victims of horrific acts of physical and sexual violence. The two of them also admitted to using alcohol, cannabis, MDMA and methamphetamines.

Combined, they spent 600 days in detention in their lifetime, with the report highlighting their experiences during this period.

"One boy experienced incidents of bullying and victimisation from other young people while in detention," the report stated.

"Records show he was spat on by other young people, punched in the head, had water thrown on him and was bullied because of his size."

Records also showed he requested to move cells because "he feels he is being bullied …[and]… that he is sick of the sexualised behaviours and inappropriate comment[s] by some of the other young people in the unit."

When he considered the request was not actioned quickly enough, he "tried to flood his cell and his access to water was turned off," before reportedly spending additional time in his cell of his own volition due to feeling unsafe.

In parliament, Greens MP Michael Berkman asked Minister for prevention of domestic and family violence, Yvette D'Yth, to reveal who the two children were and how long they had previously spent in detention.

He told National Indigenous Times it shouldn't take "two tragic deaths" to wake the government up on the dangers of youth detention.

"But if not now, when?" he said.

"This review should spark an immediate end to, or at very least an investigation into, the use of so-called 'separation' in youth prisons."

In the Queensland context, separation is defined as placing a young person in a locked room by themselves for a purpose, defined in the Youth Justice Regulation.

Boy 1 spent 78.51 per cent of their time in detention in separation; Boy 2 spent 54.24 per cent.

The report noted the separations "significantly" interrupted and impacted Boy 2's access to "education, therapeutic and cultural programs, social and leisure activities, exercise, fresh air, and sunlight."

It identified three occurrences of Boy 2 spending 24 consecutive hours in his cell without a break, as well as a further consecutive period of 31 hours and nine minutes.

Much of this was due to staff shortages in the facility.

"Many of the children and young people in detention have experienced a life of significant disadvantage and marginalisation, with many being the victims of abuse and neglect," the report said.

"Being confined in a cell for extended periods of time, without interaction with peers, family, culture, and support networks creates an environment of re-traumatisation. Research has shown pre-existing mental health problems are likely exacerbated by experiences during incarceration, such as isolation, boredom and victimisation."

Mr Berkman agreed, noting: "Locking a child in their cell for long periods of time trashes a child's human rights, prohibits them from accessing crucial services like education, and limits their chances of rehabilitation."

"This report confirms a devastating truth: that isolating children in detention compounds their mental and emotional distress and is driving some children to suicide."

Queensland locks up more children than any other state, leading the country in the most nights young people spend in custody.

In the last year, the government has twice breached the state's Human Rights Act, resulting in more children being incarcerated, many of them in adult facilities.

Human rights, legal and Indigenous groups have consistently lambasted the move, noting it only exacerbates trauma, and furthers recidivism.

The state represents 66.1 per cent of the national population of 10–17-year-olds under youth justice supervision, despite accounting for only 21.7 per cent of the 10–17-year-old population.

First Nations children are significantly overrepresented, with 66 per cent in detention identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, as compared to 7 per cent of the general population.

In the case of Boy 1 and Boy 2, detention did nothing to alleviate the experiences of their already traumatic childhood.

Furthermore, out of incarceration, there was little planning on how they would manage with their pre-existing trauma and struggles.

"What is not apparent in the records for the boys at this time was the long-term planning for their life and re-entry into the Queensland community with prosocial intent," the report stated.

"Youth detention centres, in their current design and operation, have proven to be ineffective in addressing the root cause of offending, evidenced by the high rates of repeat offending.

"The practice of detention that these boys experienced were more likely to increase, rather than address, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and low self-esteem."

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