What more do Australian governments need to see to realise children need help, not handcuffs? | Lorena Allam

It seems the electoral popularity of being tough on youth crime still outweighs Aboriginal kids’ needs for therapeutic care. What is it going to take?

How much more CCTV footage of kids being tackled, teargassed, beaten and restrained do Australian governments need to see before anything substantial changes in how they treat children and young people?

The answer might be found in comments made by the Western Australia premier, Mark McGowan, in the wake of the most recent reports of mistreatment of kids in the Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre.

McGowan said on Tuesday it is a “sad fact” that the tiny cohort of “detainees” (who are children) behind “extreme and violent behaviour” at Banksia Hill have had “a difficult upbringing and face challenging personal circumstances”.

“But no matter what happens,” he said, “we have to protect the public.”

In other words, the electoral popularity of being tough on youth crime outweighs the need for a more therapeutic response to managing a handful of deeply troubled children who need help, not handcuffs.

Here are some more sad facts.

Aboriginal children and young people are overrepresented in juvenile detention in every state and territory.

On any given night in Australia, there are more than 4,600 kids aged 10 and over in some form of detention: 72% of them are unsentenced; almost half (49%) are Aboriginal. This is even though Aboriginal kids make up just 5.8% of all Australian children aged 10 to 17.

WA – rivalled only by Queensland – has the highest rate of Aboriginal juvenile detention in the country. In WA, where Aboriginal kids are jailed at 21 times the rate of non-Aboriginal kids, 60% of the children in detention are Aboriginal.

In the Northern Territory, where five years ago this week we last saw the kind of brutality on CCTV footage that ashamed the nation, 99.3% of the kids in detention are Aboriginal. There have been numerous times over the past decade when every single child in detention in the NT was Aboriginal.

Every single child.

More facts: nationally, Aboriginal kids are 18 times more likely to be in juvenile detention than non-Aboriginal children. They are more likely to be charged by police instead of being given a caution, more likely to be refused bail, more likely to end up in detention, more likely to return to detention, more likely to receive longer sentences, and more likely to end up in adult prisons before they turn 21. And they start to receive all this “special treatment” at a much younger age than all other Australian children.

Most of the children under 14 years old in detention are Aboriginal.


For years, studies have shown that these children have complex health needs which, leaving aside the ultra-visibility of being an Aboriginal child in a nation seemingly intent on criminalising them, are being under-diagnosed and under-treated.

In ​​WA, a 2018 study of 99 children in Banksia Hill found nine out of 10 kids had some cognitive impairment, and one in three had foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) – the highest known rate in the world of FASD among any population in the justice system. Most of the children in the study (74%) were Aboriginal.

We know these facts, because we have reported them countless times. Like here, here and here.

For months now the deepening crisis at Banksia Hill has been in the news.

In July, Guardian Australia’s Sarah Collard spoke to a Noongar grandmother who said she was worried that increasing tension between staff and detainees was going to put her grandson’s life at risk. She said the boy had serious trauma and behavioural issues, but believed he was not getting the intensive support he needed to function.

“Something’s going wrong somewhere,” she said. “Somewhere in the structure of the place, something isn’t right.”

That was made painfully clear in footage broadcast on ABC Four Corners and published in the West Australian, in which an Aboriginal boy in a rip-proof gown is “folded up” and restrained face down by at least three guards at Banksia Hill.

The grandmother said she knew kids at the facility had destroyed and damaged cells but locking them up was making them worse.

“Before, he was a cheeky little smart mouth child,” she said. “But now he’s a violent kid. He’s a violent teenager, very violent.”

Families, lawyers and human rights groups say they have been trying to shed light on the treatment of children in WA juvenile justice for a long time.

Conditions in Don Dale were bad, they said, but look: the same thing is happening here.

Five years on from the Don Dale royal commission, here we are again. Locked in a “rollercoaster of crises”, according to the inspector of WA prisons, Eamon Ryan.

“Banksia Hill, as the one-stop shop, has proven to be a failure,” he said.

Once again there are reports of children destroying cells after being locked down for hours on end, reports of self-harm, reports of adults restraining children in bare cells, using techniques that are banned elsewhere and not used on adults.

Governments have been advised about alternatives and solutions. They already know about the advantages – to children, their families and to community safety – of trying not to put children behind bars.

In 2020, the Productivity Commission said increasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 could reduce the number of Aboriginal kids in detention by 15%. Some jurisdictions have agreed to consider raising the age to 12, but none has been willing to go further.

We are jailing 10-year-olds. This puts Australia behind international human rights standards and the price we pay in shattered lives now and into the future is far too high. In the meantime the rollercoaster rumbles on.

As the Uluru statement says:

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

Hope is not something these young people have been allowed to feel.


Lorena Allam

The GuardianTramp

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