An Indigenous human rights expert and member of the United Nations has taken the West Australian government to task over its treatment of Aboriginal children in detention, claiming it is an international embarrassment.
Dr Hannah McGlade, lawyer and member of the UN permanent forum on Indigenous issues, said WA was risking its human rights reputation.
The WA government has faced increasing criticism over conditions in the state’s only youth justice centre, Banksia Hill detention centre, amid ongoing reports of self-harm, suicide attempts and the transfer of children as young as 14 to a separate wing within Casuarina men’s prison, a maximum security facility.
The premier, Mark McGowan, has dismissed the criticisms by Aboriginal leaders and advocates, labelling them “activists”, and said inquiries into the facility were not necessary.
“The human rights abuse of Aboriginal children is an international embarrassment and it’s a blight on our nation. We have to do better,” McGlade said.
She said an investigation into the treatment of children was necessary, her calls echoed by Aboriginal leaders and prominent non-Indigenous community leaders, including child advocate and researcher Fiona Stanley and former judge Dennis Reynolds.
“We are seeing rolling lockdowns that are unlawful,” McGlade said. “The government is engaging in unlawful conduct towards the children and is seemingly thumbing its nose. We’re violating the convention on the rights of the child.”
“We’ve seen restraint practices so dangerous they’ve been banned in Queensland. We’ve seen children assaulted, treated in highly abusive ways.”
She said some legislation meant that young people were coming into contact with the justice system because of mandatory “three strikes” sentencing.
“Incarceration should be a matter of last resort. We’re talking about many children being incarcerated for minor property or burglary-related offences and research has shown that many of these kids are doing this because they are hungry,” she said.
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The WA government supports the development of a national proposal to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 – but does not support raising the age to 14.
Aboriginal leaders have accused McGowan of ignoring them and demonising vulnerable children as “rapists and murderers” as the state faces ongoing pressure about the treatment of young people in detention.
Daniel Morrison, the CEO of Wungening Aboriginal Corporation and co-chair of Social Reinvestment WA who met with McGowan and other key stakeholders last week, said the government was failing to consult with Indigenous community groups.
“Any process to fix the youth justice system must be collaborative, inclusive and led by Aboriginal people if we are to achieve lasting change. There is no quick fix,” he said.
Prominent Aboriginal leaders issued a statement overnight backed by high profile Australians, including former WA Labor premier Carmen Lawrence.
In the joint statement, Aboriginal leaders said their voices were being silenced on the “abuse” of children.
“It’s time the State Government heard our voice,” the statement said.
It said the government had failed to work with the Aboriginal community to address their concerns and urged reform.
“We are disappointed there has been little to no meaningful engagement with the Aboriginal community about a way forward on youth justice,” the statement said.
Morrison said the state needed to overhaul its approach to youth justice with children being at risk of harm due to overly punitive responses.
“It’s clear that we need an inquiry so that urgent youth justice reform in WA, and the experiences of children and families can be properly heard,” Morrison said.
On Monday, McGowan said the meeting was “positive” and rejected calls for any further inquiries. He said enough work had already been done.