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Royal Commission Demands Action in Wake of Shocking and Systemic Failures

17 November 2017 at 3:58 pm
Wendy Williams
The social sector is calling for immediate action to keep vulnerable children out of prison after the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, revealed “shocking and systemic failures”.

Wendy Williams | 17 November 2017 at 3:58 pm


Royal Commission Demands Action in Wake of Shocking and Systemic Failures
17 November 2017 at 3:58 pm

The social sector is calling for immediate action to keep vulnerable children out of prison after the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, revealed “shocking and systemic failures”.

According to the commission, which handed down recommendations on Friday, fundamental reform is needed to end approaches that continue to fail children, families and the community.

The Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry said “shocking and systemic failures occurred over many years and were known and ignored at the highest levels” and it ruled, youth detention centres were “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people”.

It found children and young people were “subjected to regular, repeated and distressing mistreatment in detention and there was a failure to follow the procedures and requirements of the law in many instances”.

“The Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments were right to commission this inquiry and what we have found vindicates their decision,” commissioners Margaret White AO and Mick Gooda said in a statement.

“These things happened on our watch, in our country, to our children.

“The time for tinkering around the edges and ignoring the conclusions of the myriad of inquiries that have already been conducted must come to an end.”

Included in a wide range of reforms the commission called for Darwin’s Don Dale youth detention centre to be shut immediately, and for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12.

As part of a comprehensive reform program aimed at restoring “the failed detention and child protection systems in the Northern Territory” it also recommended a new Children’s Court, implementation of an early intervention family support program and a Commission for Children and Young People.

“Our recommendations are based on best practice and the proven experience of other jurisdictions that have experienced the same problems. They have taken bold steps and delivered paradigm change that has improved outcomes for children, families and communities,” White and Gooda said.

“We recognise some of what we are proposing marks a profound shift from past practice in the NT. But it is necessary as what has been relied upon to date has and continues to simply fail the entire community.”

Speaking in response to the report, Red Cross executive director for the Northern Territory Andy Kenyon said Australia needed to heed the recommendations, “not only to prevent another Don Dale-type scandal but to stop more crimes from being committed, because we all deserve to be safe”.

“If we never want to see another child hooded and strapped to a chair, the solution doesn’t start in prison,” Kenyon said.

“A much better alternative is to divert vulnerable young people away from a life of crime. This not only prevents potential abuse in detention facilities, but keeps us all safer.”

Kenyon said there were several good models in place that should be sustainably expanded.

“In Broome, for example, boys identified by the police as being in need of support have joined the Young Warriors program. The boys now regularly get out of town and reconnect with on country. Many of them now see the role they can play in supporting their friends, and are working towards a safer, crime-free future,” he said.

Red Cross, which made several recommendations in a submission to the commission, also recommended support for people at every step.

“It can’t simply be a punitive approach that leads to more damage and abuse,” Kenyon said.

“Many of the young people Red Cross deals with are at the beginning of what has the potential to be a lifetime of crime and imprisonment but with support and enormous personal effort they are re-engaging in education, work and volunteering.

“If we’re going to spend $3.8 billion a year nationally on prisons, wouldn’t it be wiser to spend more of it on preventing crime, rather than dealing with it after the fact?”

Jesuit Social Services said the royal commission provided an opportunity to shift from punitive responses to diversion, rehabilitation and therapeutic approaches.

“The horrific treatment of young people in Darwin’s youth detention system sparked this royal commission, and since then a range of significant issues and allegations have emerged from youth justice systems across all parts of Australia,” Jesuit Social Services acting CEO Sally Parnell said.

“It is clear that nationwide, our youth justice systems have failed in their duty of care, and that this has been at the expense of vulnerable children and young people, their families and the broader community.

“Every effective youth justice system must have prevention, diversion and rehabilitation at its heart, with prison always a last resort.”

Parnell said the organisation welcomed many of the proposed reforms contained within the report.

“Prison is no place for a primary school aged child – but the age of criminal responsibility in all Australian jurisdictions is 10. This is despite the fact that United Nations recommends that the age of criminal responsibility should be 14, and many European countries have 14 as the minimum age of responsibility,” she said.

“Jesuit Social Services has long campaigned for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised to at least 12, in line with extensive evidence about brain development”.

UNICEF Australia said they welcomed the commission findings, and called for a comprehensive implementation of the recommendations within committed time-frames.

“These are issues of national importance – we now call for leadership and investment by the federal, state and territory governments to take up these recommendations and reform Australia’s youth justice and child protection systems,” Amy Lamoin, the director of policy and advocacy for UNICEF Australia said.

“Across all states and territories, there have been over 12 reviews into practices and conditions in youth detention. Now that we have done the listening, must commit to action.

“Not only is it absolutely essential that we honour the children and families that have shared their stories of mistreatment, disempowerment and denial of access to essential services, but we must commit to ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Lamoin said that the situation came about because of a failure to listen to Aboriginal children and their families, which needed to be remedied quickly.

“Our state and territory juvenile justice and child protection systems need wholesale reform and long-term bipartisan cooperation,” she said.

“We should take a child rights based approach to this, which would mean we listen to children, make decisions in their best interests and support their connection to their families, culture and country.     

“Acting upon the recommendations in this manner would go a long way toward supporting empowerment of both children and Aboriginal communities.”

Change the Record co-chair Antoinette Braybrook said almost all children imprisoned and separated from their families in the NT were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

“Our children are too important for this Royal Commission report to become yet another document that lays on a politician’s desk gathering dust,” Braybrook said.

“Our children have waited too long for real change, not only in the NT, but across Australia.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are locked up at 25 times the rate of non-Indigenous children. We’ve seen Don Dale-style abuses in WA, Queensland, Victoria, NSW and ACT – and they’re just the ones we know about.”

She said it was a “national crisis that demands national action”.

“Prime Minister Turnbull has acknowledged today that ‘many of the recommendations have wider implications for all jurisdictions’. He must now show leadership and overhaul the youth ‘injustice’ system across the country,” Braybrook said.

“The next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserve nothing less.”

Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record, said the release of the findings was a chance for governments to “step up and protect the safety and the future not only of NT kids, but of kids all across Australia”.

“We call on everyone who wants a better future for our children to make the call loud and clear to your political representatives around the country. We must raise our voices, and keep raising them, until we see a true ‘justice’ system for our children,” Axleby said.

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said while it recognised “the harrowing work” of the commissioners and the importance of the report, it was “dismayed” that such a report was necessary more than 25 after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and 10 years after the Bringing Them Home Report.

“We repeat our call to state and federal governments to implement justice targets within the Closing the Gap refresh agenda. Early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation must be front and centre of Australia’s justice system to protect the lives of our children,” co-chair Jackie Huggins said.

White and Gooda said only fundamental change and decisive action would break the “seemingly inevitable cycle” they had found of many children in care continuing to progress into the youth justice system and detention.

”Perpetuating a failed system that hardens young people, does not reduce reoffending and fails to rehabilitate young lives and set them on a new course, is a step backwards,” they said.

“The failures we have identified have cost children and families greatly, they have not made communities safer and they are shocking.”

They cautioned that if no action was taken the financial cost to the Northern Territory would remain unsustainable in the short term, with detention costs rising from $37.3 million in 2016-17 to $113.4 million in 2026-27, according to Deloitte Access Economics.

But they said the “human costs dwarf financial considerations”.

“If no action is taken these will continue to escalate beyond the already unacceptable levels that are seen in the Northern Territory,” they said.

“The tragic conclusion we have drawn is that not only have the systems failed to address challenges faced by children and young people, that have in some cases made the problems worse.

“We now hope that both governments commit to a new course for child protection and detention based on our recommendations and the evidence that supports them.”    

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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