HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.49 pm]: I rise tonight because I want to talk about an issue that I think is very important and that is the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, which delivered its final report this month on 17 November. That particular report made some very extensive and, in many cases, horrific findings. I want to talk about some of the findings in relation to youth detention and I will discuss the issues as they pertain to child protection at a later date. To summarise the commission’s findings on youth detention, it found that youth detention centres were not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people. Children were subject to verbal abuse, physical control and humiliation, including being denied access to basic human rights such as water, food and the use of toilets. There were children who were dared or bribed to carry out degrading and humiliating acts or to commit acts of violence on each other. Youth justice officers were restraining children using inappropriate levels of force and isolation was being used inappropriately and punitively, which has caused suffering to many children and young people, and it is very likely that in some cases it is going to result or has resulted in lasting psychological damage.
The royal commission’s recommendations are extensive. The recommendations themselves go to 64 pages. To summarise more broadly, some of the reforms recommended by the commission were to close the current Don Dale Youth Detention Centre; to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and allow children under 14 years of age to be detained for only very serious crimes; to push for a paradigm shift in youth justice to increase diversion and therapeutic approaches; to develop a new model of bail and secure detention accommodation; and to increase engagement with and involvement of Aboriginal organisations in child protection, youth justice and detention. I would say these recommendations are very welcome. I was also pleased to see included in the list of specific recommendations that the commonwealth enable Medicare benefits to be paid for young people in detention and that pharmaceuticals be supplied to young people in detention under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. This is something that the Greens and I have been advocating for and, indeed, we discussed it earlier in the year. The commission has also called for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder assessments for specific young people in youth justice to be funded through Medicare or the National Disability Insurance Scheme as appropriate. In the opinion of the commissioners, it is clear that the current youth justice system is not working and that significant change is going to need to occur, particularly in the areas of early intervention.
With 2 000 pages of reporting, there is a huge amount of information in the royal commission’s report and much that has significant implications for youth justice not only across Australia, but also, pertinently for tonight, Western Australia. Tonight I just want to touch on a few of the issues that particularly resonated with me and that I believe have particular relevance to this state. The royal commission noted that locking up kids, particularly young children, does not stop them from breaking the law and it does not make the community any safer. It has reiterated that detention should be the absolute last option for children who are in trouble with the law and that before we lock up children, we need to make sure that we are engaging them with services and programs that try to address the underlying reasons for their offending behaviours. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in Western Australia. Children and young people are being locked up because there is no appropriate accommodation available for them in the community. This was the very clear response to specific questions I have asked in this place. Children who are eligible for bail are being kept in Banksia Hill Detention Centre simply because of a lack of suitable accommodation. They are being kept in detention because they have no home to go to or the court has determined that the home is simply too unsafe or inappropriate for them to be there.
The royal commission has also noted that juvenile detention centres are not supposed to be like adult prisons, and this is a particularly poignant point. Children are not the same as adults, and successfully addressing offending behaviour in children is always going to require a very different approach and strategies. Earlier this year, the WA Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services identified very high levels of self-harm and suicide or attempts, excessive lockdown times, increased use of restraints and a lack of appropriate rehabilitative programs for young people at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre. It is clearly not illustrative of an environment that is tailored to meet these children’s needs. The royal commission was of the opinion that if detention centres are not fit for purpose, they frankly need to be closed. We know, and in fact successive WA state governments have acknowledged, that Banksia Hill is not fit for purpose. It is built like a maximum-security prison, not like rehabilitative and therapeutic accommodation. We are talking about young people who are desperately in need of support and intervention.
As in the Northern Territory, there is no evidence that WA’s youth justice system is effectively rehabilitating young people or addressing their needs. In fact, we know that reoffending rates are abysmal; they are not good, with more than half of young people returning to detention within two years. I remind members that Banksia Hill is WA’s only youth custodial facility and as such it is accommodating children and young people from all over this very large state, yet we know that this model is in direct contrast to what has been recommended by the royal commission and, indeed, what international evidence has been suggesting for a very long time; that is, to have an effective youth justice detention system, young people need to be housed in smaller facilities in smaller cohorts located close to their families and their communities.
I think the royal commission’s findings are a very stark reminder of the serious failings of our youth justice system and they need to be addressed with absolutely urgency. I remain very concerned that six months after the machinery-of-government changes were announced, youth justice has still been left in limbo. We still have not had any clarification about the announcement that youth prevention and diversion programs will move to the Department of Communities. Even the staff who work in those areas have no idea what is going on and there is no evidence-based rationale for the foreshadowed split. Further, despite the minister indicating that he intends to move girls and younger children out of Banksia Hill, we are yet to see any action on this front either. If nothing else, the Northern Territory royal commission has shown us that the human costs of continuing the current approach are simply unacceptable. When our youth justice system is not effective, we are failing not only these children but also the community, because we are failing to ensure that these children are getting the support and intervention they need to ensure that the community is safe. We need to see some strong leadership around this as soon as possible in order to fix up this mess in Western Australia, and we need to start doing the right thing by these children and young people who are in the care of the youth justice system. We need to ensure that we are learning the lessons from this royal commission report, which makes for pretty sobering reading. The government is going to need to step up and demonstrate that it has the political will to change this system, because it is clearly failing young people.