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'No one cares' : Outrage at the Queensland Government for failing to protect vulnerable children before their death

Dechlan Brennan -

The following article contains graphic and disturbing details.

A damning report has laid bare a failure to adequately support children by authorities as they move through state care and incarceration, with a troubling usage of isolation techniques on imprisoned children as a result of staff shortages being commonplace.

The Child Death Review Board's annual report, tabled in Queensland parliament on Thursday, highlighted the death of two disabled Indigenous children, who died in the aftermath of being kept in "separation" - the term the Queensland government uses for solitary confinement - for extensive periods of time whilst incarcerated in youth facilities.

The children, known in the report as Boy 1 and Boy 2, spent significant time in detention in the lead-up to their deaths. One boy died by suicide and the other by drug overdose.

Maggie Munn criticised the Queensland government punitive approach (Image: The Australian)

National director of Change the Record, Maggie Munn, said, "for anyone to be driven to the point of thinking about suicide is horrific."

"For a child to be driven to taking their own little life is something I honestly don't have the words for," they said.

"These babies suffered extreme trauma and violence at the hands of the Queensland Government. They spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement. They took their lives."

Katherine Hayes, chief executive of the Youth Advocacy Centre, told National Indigenous Times it was inevitable these two children wouldn't be the only ones to experience these "abhorrent circumstances".

"Where is the community outrage over a government's failure to support these children from circumstances that make these outcomes inevitable?" Ms Hayes said.

Combined, the two boys spent over 600 days in youth detention facilities. During that period, Boy 1 was detained for 376 days: Boy 2 for 319. In the last 12 months before they died, the children spent a significant amount of time in separation. Boy 1 spent just over 100 days collectively, or nearly 80 per cent of his time, in isolation.

He died 20 days after being released.

Boy 2 spent 111 days in total in isolation, more than 50 per cent of his time in youth detention in the 12 months before he died.

Much of this was attributed to staff shortages in the facilities.

Katherine Hayes asked where the outrage in the community was (Image: ABC News)

The Australian and New Zealand Children's Commissioners, Guardians and Advocates (ANZCCGA) recently criticised the decision to isolate children in detention, arguing it should be only used when all other options are exhausted and for the shortest time possible.

"Where isolation is used, it must be for the shortest amount of time possible and be publicly reported to an independent oversight mechanism," ANZCCGA said.

Queensland does not have "adequate" reporting methods for time children spend out of their cells. This contrasts with adult prisoners, where legislation requires time in "separation" to be recorded.

Child Death Review Board Chairperson Luke Twyford told National Indigenous Times this difference made little sense "when you consider the vulnerability of young people."

"The impact of staffing and how that impact is felt by young people who are then in lockdown, to me is a matter of priorities - and how we prioritise not causing that harm," he said.

The report also detailed the children having a history of exposure to extensive sexual and violent trauma, substance abuse, loss of culture, and likely had suffered from undiagnosed foetal alcohol syndrome.

Mr Twyford said there were opportunities in the two boys' lives - through multiple government departments, as well as the courts and education - to do something different.

Luke Twyford says there needs to be a reappraisal of the approach to youth crime

(Image: Queensland Family and Child Commission)

"So, whilst we do look at the tragedy, and almost the inevitability of where their young lives led. What we really see and focus on is the missed opportunities to do something different," he said.

Over the 2022-23 period, six young people - four Indigenous and two non-indigenous - died. They were all known to both the child protection and youth justice systems.

A Department of Youth Justice Spokesperson told National Indigenous Times Separations were an "essential response option for the safety and security of staff, young people, visitors and the community and are subject to strict approvals."

"Separation periods do not necessarily equate to time spent in room. Depending on the reason for the separation and where safe to do so, young people will be provided out of room time during separations," the spokesperson said.

"The Board made a series of recommendations and most elements of the recommendations have been implemented, including the availability of improved data and improved recruitment and retention in youth detention centres."

Munn was highly critical of "punitive" changes implemented by the Queensland government - which has included the criminalisation of bail and housing children in adult watch houses -and said there was always a fear they lead to children dying in custody.

"This report shows exactly that in Queensland," the Gunggari human rights advocate said.

Mr Twyford said one of the focuses of the report was the need to "reappraise" approaches to youth crime.

"To highlight these two young boys' stories in our annual report, they were examples of the broader things that we were seeing across cases," he said.

"It was our deep sense that unless we are addressing the root causes of offending behaviours, unless we are changing the circumstances in young people's lives, we will not be effective in either youth crime, or in redirecting young people into positive lives."

For Ms Hayes, the continual talk from the government concerning a closing of the gap was meaningless when hard-line policies were keeping children detained in isolation.

"Everybody talks about closing the gap," she said. "All that's happening here in Queensland is the gap is widening."

"It's as if no one cares."

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