A review commissioned by the West Australian government nearly 18 months ago recommended it overhaul the increasingly troubled Banksia Hill youth facility, and move away from “punitive control” to “therapeutic care”, but the report is unlikely to be made public.
In a leaked email, seen by Guardian Australia, the company contracted to develop the strategy referred to work it did to develop a “new business case” for Banksia Hill.
The WA government said the business case by Nous Group was an “internal document” that would not be made public.
The government has faced harsh criticism over conditions in the state’s only youth detention centre, amid ongoing reports of self-harm, suicide attempts and destruction of cells at Banksia Hill. In July, 17 children were transferred to a special wing of the maximum security Casuarina men’s prison after behavioural issues led to cells being destroyed. About 10 children were still there.
In its annual report, released last month, WA’s independent custodial inspector believed a “welfare focussed and trauma informed intervention is urgently required”, saying the situation inside Banksia Hill “continued to deteriorate”.
Guardian Australia can reveal that at least 18 months ago the WA government commissioned Nous Group to design and overhaul the youth justice system.
Nous was paid $428,010 to develop the plan. In October, the Department of Justice paid Nous another $162,800 to develop a business case.
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Questions have been raised about why the work has not been made public, particularly after the premier, Mark McGowan, held crisis talks two weeks ago with stakeholders.
That summit was called after shocking footage of children being forcibly restrained and “folded up” by youth justice officers was published by the ABC and the West Australian. The justice department has since said it will ban the restraint with guards to be trained in other methods.
The email from Nous, sent on 29 November, days after the summit, said it was working with the Department of Justice to develop a “new operating philosophy”.
“The new operating philosophy and service model aims to shift from a punitive, control-based approach, towards a rehabilitative and therapeutical model of care.”
Aboriginal leaders said they were becoming increasingly frustrated with the government over a lack of consultation on how to improve the youth justice sector.
The chief executive of Derbarl Yerrigan, Perth’s Aboriginal medical service, Tracey Brand, said reforming the youth justice system should be led by First Nations people.
“It’s very disappointing,” the Arrernte woman said.
“It’s vital, they need to listen to the Aboriginal leadership and the needs and expertise that are out there.”
Brand said many of the children in Banksia Hill had neurological conditions and other disabilities and the Aboriginal medical service should be in charge of providing medical care.
Dr Hannah McGlade, a lawyer and Noongar advocate, said the state government had failed to discuss its broader plans, which was disappointing given that the inspector of prisons’ most recent report on Banksia Hill revealed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up nearly 75% of all children inside the facility.
“It’s very, very surprising, and we weren’t even told. There was no consultation with Indigenous Aboriginal community-controlled organisations,” McGlade said. “Once again, this is a failure of the government to understand the basic principle of Aboriginal self-determination and treat us with equal rights and responsibilities, to lead the response to Banksia Hill, considering that the children are overwhelmingly Aboriginal.”
The leading public health researcher and epidemiologist, and former Australian of the Year, Fiona Stanley attended the meeting with government ministers, the premier and several Indigenous representatives.
She said the government was failing the most vulnerable children in the state and that early intervention was vital.
“They’re absolutely failing these kids and successive governments have failed these kids. Federal governments and the state governments have failed Aboriginal families for decades,” Stanley said.
McGowan called the meeting positive and constructive, but others present have spoken out, calling it a “stunt” and “disappointing”.
The premier rejected the assertions and hit back at “activists” as “fanciful” and “not dealing with the real world” as the WA government unveiled $63m for mental health support, extra staffing as well as millions to refurbish and repair damaged cells.
The government insisted it would consult broadly with Aboriginal leaders and was examining how to ensure First Nations perspectives were prioritised during the upgrades and reforms along with Nous Group.
“The Nous Group was commissioned by the Department of Justice to undertake a number of projects related to youth justice and Banksia Hill.
“Each of the commissioned projects involved stakeholder engagement and consultation with a number of Aboriginal organisations and young people,” a spokesperson for the department said.
Nous Group referred Guardian Australia to the Department of Justice and declined to respond publicly.
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org