Children and young people placed in the child protection system in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia often end up in youth detention – a vicious cycle the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT wants to stop.
In an interim report released on Friday, the commission said it had been told being in out-of-home care and placement instability were strong indicators that young people could get caught up in the juvenile justice system.
The commission said it would examine the current child protection system to look at what needed to change to break the cycle of children going from care into detention.
The interim report was delivered only days before a United Nations representative said the most disturbing part of her recent fact-finding mission to Australia was meeting 12-year-olds in detention.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said: “These children are essentially being punished for being poor, and in most cases prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty and crime.”
The report also came at the same time a national body representing the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children independently said the link between out-of-home placements and juvenile detention across Australia needed to be more closely examined.
SNAICC – National Voice for Our Children CEO Gerry Moore said there were currently about 15,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children not sleeping in their own beds at night — a number that was expected to triple by the year 2040.
Mr Moore said there was a “big connection” between children being placed in out-of-home care and ending up in the juvenile justice system.
“We’ve asked the (federal) government to try to work with us to find out what the stats are because we believe there is a connection, but we can only find that out properly by interrogating the information,” he said.
“That’s why good data being collected from all of the states and territories needs to be collected and shared.”
NT tops detention rates
In its interim report, the royal commission said the NT had the highest rate of children and young people in detention in Australia and the highest rate of engagement with child protection services.
It said 89 percent of children and young people in out-of-home care and 94 percent of those in detention in the NT were Aboriginal.
The figures reflected the continued impact of intergenerational trauma — trauma handed down through generations with its roots in colonisation, the loss of culture and land, and the forced removal of children — on Aboriginal people within the NT, the commission said.
The NT’s children and young people also faced myriad health issues, including high rates of mental illness, rheumatic heart disease, sexually transmitted infections, ear disease and hearing loss.
The interim report outlined a youth detention system that was likely to leave many children and young people more damaged than when they entered.
It states: “We have heard that the detention facilities are not fit for accommodating children and young people, and not fit for the purpose of rehabilitation. They are also unsuitable workplaces for youth justice officers and other staff.
“They are harsh, bleak and not in keeping with modern standards. They are punitive, not rehabilitative.”
But it said problems in the NT’s detention centres were known within government well before the ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast its recent report on the Don Dale detention centre.
A Department of Correctional Services’ Professional Standards Unit memo that warned in 2014 against treating youths in custody “like animals” is set to be further examined.
The royal commission said the Memorandum of Issues in Youth Detention, prepared three years ago by the director of the Department of Correctional Services Professional Standards Unit, listed many of the same issues the commission was now examining.
The memo said: “It should be obvious to anyone that if you treat youths like animals by not communicating, threatening, belittling them, withholding food and other entitlements, they will react in an aggressive way.”
The commission said it expected to hear further evidence on the memo, including the challenges faced by those working in the youth detention system.
The royal commission was set up last year by the Turnbull government to inquire into failings within the NT’s child protection and youth detention systems.
International aid organisation Oxfam called for national action on the back of the interim report.
“While the commission’s inquiry focuses on the shocking treatment of children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin, there have been similar allegations of abhorrent abuse in other facilities,” Oxfam CEO Helen Szoke said.
Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White are now due to deliver their final report on August 1.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report in 2014-15 showed that 45 per cent of children and young people in detention in some states and territories had also received a child protection service during the same year. The figure did not include the NT.
By Wendy Caccetta