HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.38 pm]: I rise once again to talk about the coroner’s report into the deaths of 13 children and young people in the Kimberley. There is a lot in this report. I am concerned that a lot of it may run the risk of going by without comment, so I am going to continue to try to raise the issues in the report. This is the fourth time I have risen to speak about this issue in Parliament. To reiterate: the coroner’s report paints portraits of the very brief lives of five boys aged 12 to 17 years, three girls aged 10 to 13 years, and five young men aged 18 to 24 years. The coroner’s investigation into their deaths brings to the fore some fundamental questions of accountability for these young lives on the part of our state and, importantly, on the part of our agencies. The coroner found that all 13 deaths were preventable—we could have stopped this from happening. Two of the young people had been referred to Youth Justice Services. The coroner made an adverse finding against the former Department of Corrective Services regarding the department’s failure to refer a 12-year-old girl to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in a timely way. The referral was finally made but, tragically, the child died before the next visit to Wyndham of the clinician from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. The small youth justice East Kimberley prevention and diversion team was at that time responsible for between 60 and 80 children. The coroner identified that significant staffing issues within Youth Justice Services had existed for some time. This young person was failed due to those staffing issues in both Youth Justice Services and CAMHS.
The issue goes much deeper than this. Research clearly shows that the earlier young people get involved in the criminal justice system, the worse their likely outcome will be and the more likely they are to be involved in the justice system in the future. Conversely, the vast majority of children who are dealt with outside the criminal justice system do not go on to reoffend. I believe we need a fundamental rethink about the way we address offending behaviour in children. This is not a particularly radical view. We have had repeated reports from the Inspector of Custodial Services calling for the Banksia Hill Detention Centre model to be scrapped, we have a growing understanding of concepts around justice reinvestment, and there have been calls for trauma-informed therapeutic responses to offending in children. It is very clear that there is significant support for change, as evidenced in the research. Even the Australian Medical Association is joining the voices of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Northern Territory royal commission, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and a range of academic experts to call for the government to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility. We need a rethink of the way we respond to these children, and in particular to younger children living in rural and remote areas who are committing crimes due to chaotic home environments, drug and alcohol issues, and physical and mental health issues.
Given that lots of people are calling for change, we might ask what the government is doing in this space. In June 2017, I asked about the new government’s plans regarding youth justice, and in particular the practice of transferring children and young people from remote areas to Banksia Hill Detention Centre. The response at that time was that the government was considering the recommendations made in the Kimberley alternative justice framework. The Kimberley alternative justice framework was prepared by the office of the member for Kimberley, Josie Farrer, MLA, in 2014. The report contains 19 broad-ranging recommendations, including that there be an increased number of diversion programs, social impact partnerships, more programs and services to support families and young people on country, more school psychologists and re-engagement programs, and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder assessment and support programs, to mention just a few. Of course, the report also recommends that initiatives be developed with and by local communities, which is a theme picked up in the coroner’s report. That proposal, frankly, sounds good, yet almost five years after this report was developed, and two years after this government took office, nothing at all appears to have changed on the ground.
Soon after the government took office, it was also announced that some of the functions of Youth Justice Services would transition to the Department of Communities through the machinery-of-government changes. Even then there were concerns, because many people thought that the entirety of youth justice needs to fall within the Department of Communities. There was a plan to keep Banksia Hill separate and in Corrective Services. This move was foreshadowed in the coroner’s report. We are nearly a quarter of the way through 2019. Do we know what is happening with the transfer of Youth Justice Services to the Department of Communities? No, we do not. We are two years down the track and nothing has happened. That is a very long time to be left in limbo. Have we heard anything else about the proposal to progress the Kimberley alternative justice framework? No, we have not heard anything. The aim of Youth Justice Services is to rehabilitate young people and, importantly, to reduce reoffending. Clearly, we are doing really badly at this, with more young people in Banksia Hill having reoffended than not. In 2017–18, 58.7 per cent of young people returned to detention within two years of release. We are clearly not getting it right, people.
I welcome the Premier’s announcement late last year regarding the government’s aim to reduce youth reoffending, so that by 2022–23 no more than 50 per cent of young offenders return to detention within two years of release. Although an improvement, that is still far too high. But, again, what is the government doing to achieve this? Target 120 is the only thing we seem to hear about, and although it sounds like a promising program, the only sites we have heard about are Armadale and Bunbury.
We should not be criminalising young people whose behaviour, at the end of the day, as evidenced by the tragic coroner’s report, is a symptom. It is a cry for help. These children’s lives, documented so confrontingly by the coroner, are mired by chaotic and violent home lives, poor physical and mental health, disability and substance abuse. We should be doing everything we can to support them to lead healthy, successful lives, and it is abundantly clear we are failing spectacularly at this—72 per cent of young people in youth justice detention are Aboriginal, which is five times the rate of their non-Aboriginal peers. Members, we are talking about children here. I understand from media reporting that there have been at least 35 suicides of Indigenous people this year—in just 12 weeks—and of that number, three were children who were only 12 years old. That is what has happened this year already. This situation, absolutely, is a crisis. Aboriginal children’s lives matter. This will continue to be a crisis until we actually take notice, and see firm action to start doing things differently.