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The system is the real "terror" in youth justice

George Newhouse -
:

It’s the WA Government and not “terrorists” that are the cause of the troubles in Banksia Hill youth detention centre.

How can the West Australian Premier Mark McGowan get away with describing a group of kids with disabilities as “terrorists”? Especially when we know that many of them grew up in the care and under the control of his own State’s Child Protection system.

Most of these so-call “terrorists” are in Banksia Hill on remand. That means that they have not been convicted of any crime and most of them will never be convicted of a crime.

For those who are found to be guilty, few will go on to receive a sentence which requires imprisonment. Tragically, children are often held in Banksia Hill because they have nowhere to go if they were released.

They could and should be supported in a group home or a purpose-built boarding house instead of prison.

So, who are these children? It’s a fact that around 89 per cent of the kids in Banksia Hill have been found by the Telethon Foundation, one of Australia’s leading children’s’ health research organisations, to have a severe neurodevelopmental impairment, and over one third of the children were found to have been suffering from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder or FASD. These are significant impairments.

But to deflect attention away from his own government’s abject failure to protect children in State “care”, Premier McGowan launches an attack on them.

He wants us to believe that the problems are caused by a few ‘rotten apples” and not his own government’s systemic failures. Failures that have been obvious for decades.

During a recent visit to the facility, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds said: “These are children in need of care and treatment for complex disabilities and serious mental health problems.”

Allegations that the children are “monsters” or “terrorists” have been slammed by the former President of the Children’s Court of WA, Denis Reynolds who said: “The Premier and the Minister are saying these are bad, bad children behaving badly, ignoring deliberately any reference to [their] unlawful treatment. It's the treatment in that place that is causing the behaviour and that's what we want to stop.”

The Disability Royal Commission found that children with disabilities in detention in Western Australia are being locked in their cells for between 20 and 24 hours a day on a regular basis, subjected to confinement for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact, which amounts to solitary confinement and added that children with disabilities are provided with little or no meaningful therapeutic support in Banksia Hill.

Adding to the voices demanding change is the WA Inspector of Prisons (OICS) who declared that Banksia Hill is not fit for purpose as a youth detention centre.

The conditions at Banksia hill are filthy, brutal and the children are subjected to violence.

Kids suffer from extensive lockdowns and are denied education, sport and other activities as a result of chronic understaffing and a culture of punishing them instead of supporting their rehabilitation and therapy.

In 2018, Amnesty International reported that children detained in Banksia Hill were subject to inhumane treatment, being forced to ‘earn bedding’, fed through a grille in a door, solitarily confined, denied access to education and deprived of family contact.

The youth justice system is broken, from the grossly disproportionate rate of Aboriginal children being removed from their parents into state care to the grossly disproportionate rate of Aboriginal children being arrested by police to their abusive treatment in youth detention.

But there are solutions.

Kids need to and can be supported to stay with their parents unless there are real risks of abuse or violence and in those circumstances, children should be diverted away from detention to more therapeutic alternatives.

The WA Government has earmarked $15 million towards an on-country residential facility to provide an alternative to detention, as well as $500,000 to plan and develop other safe place proposals, including an Aboriginal led program on a Kimberley cattle station.

But, to date, a site for the facility has not even been selected. Any children that remain in custody after implementation of these diversionary initiatives should receive wholistic and nurturing treatment to rehabilitate them rather than crudely and violently punishing them.

Apart from destroying their lives, a failure to do so just commits them to a merry go round of crime and a life in adult prison at immense cost to taxpayer. The National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP) run by Gerry Georgatos and Megan Krakouer has had exceptional results with their nurturing and therapeutic approach.

When they operated their programme inside Banksia Hill during COVID there were no violent incidents and the female detainee population halved.

The NSPTRP team worked one-on-one with the detainees, applied successfully to the Children’s Court for their release and established tailor-made supports facilitating pathways to health care, secure housing, education and employment for both the children and their families but their advocacy has been rebuffed by the WA government, who defunded their effective programme.

There is a desperate need for culturally safe health care to be provided to Aboriginal detainees by a funded Aboriginal Medical Service that they can trust. Detainees should receive disability services from independent NDIS service providers.

It became clear during evidence given at the Disability Royal Commission that officers working at Banksia Hill were paid less than officers at adult prisons, which leads to kids being locked up for 23 hours at a time, dissatisfaction and staff losses.

It is an easy fix to pay youth detention officers at the same rate as adult corrective services officers to rectify the problem of chronic understaffing.

WA is the only State in Australia with a budget surplus, in fact an operating surplus of $3.3 billion is expected for 2023-24 budget, and yet the WA government refuses to use it to fix this mess.

Adjunct Professor George Newhouse is the CEO of the National Justice Project.

He has been advocating for reform of the youth detention system in WA for a decade and he thanks Gerry Georgatos for his assistance in writing this piece.

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