Hundreds of current and former detainees of Western Australia’s only juvenile justice centre will take part in a class action against the state government, alleging they were subjected to forcible strip-searches and prolonged solitary confinement, and that one girl was forced to have a contraceptive implant.
The government has faced harsh criticism over conditions at Banksia Hill detention centre, amid ongoing reports of self-harm and suicide attempts. In July, 17 children were transferred to a special wing, known as Unit 18, of the maximum security Casuarina men’s prison, after cells were destroyed.
Lawyers for Levitt and Robinson solicitors, who have filed the lawsuit in the federal court, said compensation could run into the tens of millions of dollars, with 600 active claimants.
Solicitor Stewart Levitt argued the state government has breached its duty of care to thousands of children between 1997 and June 2020, the date of the complaint.
“There are potentially 6,000 claimants and of those about 600 have been directly in touch with us on this and provided statements and registered as clients,” Stewart Robinson said.
“If you took 6,000 people at $50,000 each; you’re looking at a lot of money,”
He said that children had been subjected to “torturous behaviour” including lockdowns, a lack of education and a lack of care for those with disabilities.
He said one teenage girl was forcibly given a contraceptive implant while at Banksia Hill and other detainees were strip-searched.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
“It includes extremely protracted periods of sensory deprivation, being confined to small cells without clothes – just a smock – food delivered on the floor and, sometimes, even less than an hour outside of their cell a day. This is for months on end.”
Levitt said they are alleging the government breached the human rights of children as young as 10, a majority of whom are Aboriginal, contravened the Disability Act and was counter to the state’s Young Offender Act.
“They did so by failing to assess the children when they entered the facility and failing to report or diagnose the conditions for which they were suffering and to treat those conditions appropriately,” he said.
The mother of one of the claimants said her 14-year son was subjected to trauma, solitary confinement and “abuse” as well a lack of support while inside Banksia Hill and Unit 18.
Her teenage son was the young boy shown being forcibly restrained and “folded up” by youth justice officers in footage recently broadcast by the ABC and the West Australian.
The practice is being phased out after concerns over safety risks.
“Seeing that footage made me sick to my stomach,” said the woman, who cannot be named as it would identify her son.
She welcomed the class action but said no amount of money will compensate for what her son endured. She said her son was subjected to prolonged lockdowns and lack of care while inside the detention centre, and that he had self-harmed.
“Money ain’t gonna recover what happened to my son, from the trauma that he suffered. I am going to work with him on that now.
“He was a bright light, an outgoing young boy [but] as soon as he went inside [Banksia Hill] from 12 to 14, I sort of lost my son,” she said.
She said her son’s mental health deteriorated in Banksia Hill and he became withdrawn.
“I noticed his injuries and seen his cut marks. I tried to help him out as best as I can while he was in that place … I thought I lost him, I told him that he had a whole family that loved him, that supported him and he didn’t do it again.”
The boy, who turns 15 in January, will spend his first Christmas and birthday at home with his family since his release.
“He’s doing OK … he’s doing online study every second day and he’s trying.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment, saying “it would be inappropriate to comment as the matter is before the court”.