Isolation and Lockdowns in Victorian Youth Justice Centres Unacceptable – Report
23 March 2017 at 3:36 pm
The findings from a damning report revealing lockdowns and children being left in isolation in Victoria’s youth justice centres has received widespread condemnation from the not-for-profit sector.
According to a report by the Commission for Children and Young People tabled in Parliament on Thursday, children and young people in Victoria’s youth justice centres are subjected to unacceptable levels of isolation and are routinely “locked down” due to staffing issues.
The report called The Same Four Walls pointed to long-standing issues of understaffing, poor transparency and extensive use of restrictive practices.
The inquiry found isolation was imposed at least nine times per day on average, rising to 42 times per day in December 2016.
While 23 per cent of recorded isolations were imposed for periods of an hour, others were recorded for significantly longer, including periods of 24 hours or more.
The inquiry found evidence of children and young people on separation plans, isolated from peers and the routine of the centre, for up to 45 days at a time.
It found that some vulnerable children and young people were isolated on separation plans because they had been victims of assault or had attempted suicide. Others were isolated on separation plans following poor behaviour with no evidence of other attempts to address the causes of their behaviour.
“This inquiry suggests isolation is used as a key behaviour management tool in Victoria’s youth justice centres, rather than as a last resort and for the shortest possible time,” Commissioner for
Children and Young People Liana Buchanan said.
“This practice fails to recognise that isolation can cause severe short- and long-term harm to children and is simply not an effective way to address behavioural problems.”
In addition to the recorded use of isolation, the inquiry found whole units or entire centres were locked down at least 520 times in 18 months, largely due to inadequate staffing levels. More than 50 of the recorded lockdowns lasted longer than 36 hours and another 88 saw children locked in their rooms for 13 to 20 hours.
“These findings provide a broader context for recent unrest in Victoria’s youth justice centres,” Buchanan said.
“Lockdowns impact children and young people’s access to education, visits and other programs essential for their rehabilitation. They also impact their mental health, exacerbating anxiety, anger and frustration. This creates tensions and makes centres even harder for staff to manage safely.”
The report said of particular concern was the overrepresentation of Koori children and young people subjected to isolation.
At Malmsbury, 30 per cent of children and young people in isolation were Koori, despite Koori clients only making up 16 per cent of the youth justice population.
Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos said: “I am appalled by the high rates of Koori kids being subjected to isolation. More than two-thirds of isolations imposed on Koori kids were not appropriately authorised and cultural support workers are not being engaged as policy requires.
“Isolation as is being practiced currently is contrary to the findings and principles of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and after 25 years the system does not appear to have learnt anything.”
The Commission for Children and Young People said it was concerned about the management of children and young people with mental illness, particularly the regular isolation of those who presented with self-harm risks and found that custodial staff, rather than clinical staff, had the key responsibility for determining the appropriate observation of these children.
“It is my hope that this inquiry informs current government action to address issues in Victoria’s youth justice centres,” Buchanan said.
“It highlights a range of problems requiring urgent attention, some of which have affected centres for years. Without attention to staffing, an effective behaviour management regime, a reduction in inhumane practices and measures to better protect the mental health of children, we cannot hope to see real improvement.”
The commission made 21 recommendations for improvements in the system, including ensuring compliance with legislation and policy, appropriate responses to mental health needs, introducing basic sanitation into isolation rooms and staffing.
Amnesty International called on the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to end the abuse of children and young people, including children being held in solitary confinement in cells with no toilets.
“Isolation for more than 22 hours without meaningful human contact is solitary confinement and is absolutely prohibited for children under international law. Yet, on Premier Andrews’ watch, on more than 20 occasions children have been locked in isolation for almost every hour of the day and night,” Indigenous rights campaigner at Amnesty International Australia Julian Cleary said.
“Premier Andrews must end this abuse immediately.
“This report’s findings about conditions of isolation are horrific, with some isolated children forced to relieve themselves in rooms that have no toilets.
“The parallels with what occurred at Don Dale [in the Northern Territory] are striking. People across the country and the world have been shocked at the abuses of children in Don Dale – and yet the Andrews government has not learned from the horrors there.
“At the same time as the Northern Territory Royal Commission is airing sickening allegations of systemic abuse in that youth justice system, Premier Andrews is taking Victoria down the same dark path.”
Victorian Council of Social Service CEO Emma King said the report was a “wake-up call” to the state government.
“Locking kids in small rooms for extended periods of time is an unusually cruel act,” King said.
“It doesn’t help the kids or make our community safer.
“As this report reveals, using lockdowns as a regular response to bad behaviour can escalate rather than diffuse a situation.
“Lockdowns should be used as a last resort only, not as a way to manage day-to-day behavioural issues.
“Clear time limits must be set on the use of lockdowns and the Victorian government must ensure kids get some fresh air each day.
“The way to keep Victoria safe is to embrace therapeutic and age-appropriate approaches to justice, not cruel and outdated forms of punishment.”