Improper practices in youth detention: a national crisis?

In the wake of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, we have been heartened to see other State and Territory governments conduct reports into the conditions of their own juvenile detention centres. However, what has emerged from these reports are chilling stories of abuse, self-harm & the abandonment of our vulnerable youth to a system disinterested in their future. 

As a soul-crushing illustration, reports into Western Australia’s Banksia Hill Facility revealed that young detainees have been treated like they were the most dangerous organised criminals in the country. Troublesome detainees were controlled by restraints, flash bombs and shotgun laser sights. In a similar fashion over in NSW, six heavily armed tactical police sat in Parramatta Children’s Court at an appearance for two young co-accused in February this year.  

tactical officers with assault rifles

There is a worrying trend of militarisation in youth justice.

Labelled and treated as our society’s lowest from such a young and formative age, they understandably struggle to see themselves integrating into the community. Shockingly, since opening its business in 2016, the Banksia Hill Facility has seen six attempted suicides and hundreds of self-harm incidents.  

Some may argue that these incidents are the result of poor funding because government resources are better put elsewhere than criminals. The report into the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre (BYDC) concluded that staff were sometimes pushed to extreme solutions granted they were frequently required to work 12-hour shifts for days or nights on end.

Yet this does not explain the deliberate cruelty that a number of youth detention centre staff inflict upon the children in their care. The use of other young detainees as ‘enforcers’ by staff to intimidate other troublesome youth at the BYDC is one example of such a baffling lack of consideration for vulnerable and marginalised people. There is clearly a wider cultural issue of indifference to issues facing at-risk young people that enables heartless actions in youth detention. 

We have taken the first steps to correcting the mistakes of the past by bringing them to the surface. As informed citizens, we all play a very important role in questioning that indifference across the country. There is a compelling reason to act quickly and act now: if children receive no basic respect, as adults they will have none.

If you are needing help with basic human, civil or legal rights, contact O’Brien Solicitors on (02) 9261 4281 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get help from one of our human rights lawyers in our Sydney office.

Victoria passes new legislation reversing onus of proof for child abuse matters

In recent days the Victorian government passed an Australian-first piece of legislation that signals a huge reform in how child abuse cases are to be prosecuted. Entitled the Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Act 2017, it has the effect of reversing the onus of proof onto organisations accused of failing to prevent child abuse.

This means that if you are a victim of abuse in Victoria seeking to sue organisations that employed the abusers, you no longer need to prove that the organisation failed to take any precautions in preventing the abuse. Rather, the burden is now on the accused organisation to prove measures were taken to prevent it. ‘Organisations’ includes churches, community groups as well as teachers and government authorities that look after children.

In effect, this law greatly contributes to levelling the legal playing field that ordinarily saw individual victims heavily disadvantaged against larger, more powerful organisations.

A key lesson to take away from the two recent Royal Commissions concerning child abuse is that it is too simple for institutions to deny liability by denying knowledge and forcing the abused to establish knowledge of the abuse or the abuser’s past behaviour that ought to have sent red flags to the organisation. It has also become painfully apparent that many institutions sought to protect their own reputation or that of their membership by concealing the abuser’s behaviour and protecting the abuser whilst simultaneously alienating and ostracising the abused. This loaded the pain and suffering of those survivors of abuse.

Royal Commission into Child Abuse

Royal Commission into Child Abuse. Photographer: Jeremy Piper

It has been notoriously difficult for victims to prove that institutions have broken the duty of care they owed them, if those institutions accept that they owed a duty in the first place. This has lead to many victims settling their proceedings with inadequate and meagre settlements. For the community and particularly for the victims and their families, this new law helps to remedy this clearly unjust state of affairs.

In the future, we hope that other States and Territories also take note of the lessons from the these Royal Commissions and the example that Victoria has set with its new legislation.

The buck must stop with the men and women who have the power to prevent threats to child safety.

  • You can see the Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula’s media release here.
  • If you would like more information about the Royal Commissions mentioned above, also see the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse here, and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory here.