Northern Territory to Spend Five Years Overhauling Child Protection and Youth Justice Systems

Youth Justice

Towards the end of last year, School Governance reported on the release of the final report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (NT Royal Commission).

Responding to findings of systemic and ongoing breaches of legislation and failure to provide basic needs to children and young people in youth detention, the NT Royal Commission made 227 recommendations, covering various reform areas across the youth justice and child protection systems.

Aftermath of the NT Royal Commission – actions and reviews

The NT Government took immediate action to the final report by closing the high security unit at Don Dale, allocating funds towards setting up juvenile justice infrastructure in the Northern Territory, including replacing the Don Dale and Alice Springs Youth Detention Centres.

In late February 2018, reports surfaced of allegations of child abuse in Tennant Creek. A two-year-old child was treated in an Adelaide hospital after she was allegedly sexually assaulted in her home by a 24-year-old man. Community members and leaders were critical of the NT Government’s response to the assault, suggesting that months of warnings about alcohol, drug abuse and violence were not heeded.

On 1 March 2018, the NT Government accepted the intent and direction of each NT Royal Commission recommendation. A total of 17 work programs under four major objectives will be implemented to cover 217 of the recommendations, including improving care and protection services and youth justice, and strengthening governance and systems. The NT Government stated that the remaining 10 recommendations require further action by the Federal Government and other organisations.

On 5 March, a five-point ‘action-plan’ was released to assist the Tennant Creek situation, containing a number of initiatives including:

  • enhancing locally based child protection services
  • working in a connected way with local Indigenous organisations
  • respecting, listening and acting with community elders
  • enhancing domestic and family services
  • expanding responses to young people.

The Implementation Plan

On 20 April, the Minister for Territory Families Dale Wakefield released an implementation plan to execute the work programs in response to the NT Royal Commission – Safe, Thriving and Connected: Generational Change for Children and Families (the Implementation Plan). The Implementation Plan outlines how the NT Government will invest more than $229 million over the next five years to achieve program delivery.

Putting children at the centre of Government and committing to improved outcomes for children and families, the NT Government has proposed a whole-of-Government response to the NT Royal Commission which integrates the Implementation Plan within various other reform programs. The NT Government’s goal will be to create a common framework for improving child wellbeing by developing a General Strategy for Children and Families.

The reform programs and projects described in the Implementation Plan will be implemented across three completion phases, with a focus on ongoing generational change. The completion phases, and their major deliverables, are summarised below:

Phase 1 – full delivery within 1 year

In Phase 1, the NT Government has highlighted a number of short-term and priority outcomes. These include:

  • establishing 3 new Child and Family Centres
  • establishing pathways for families to access early support
  • improving youth detention operations, care and protection practice, and support provided to young people to access housing
  • convening a Tripartite Forum, with representatives from the NT Government, Commonwealth Government and community sector, to coordinate and oversee policy and programs.

One of the Phase 1 outcomes is the enactment of priority legislative amendments, which likely refers to the Youth Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 (NT) which was introduced into the Legislative Assembly on 21 March 2018. The Bill will give effect to the NT Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding the use of force, restraints and other mechanisms relevant to youth in detention. It is unclear whether additional ‘priority’ amendments will be introduced within the next year.

Phase 2 – full delivery within 3 years

In the medium term, Phase 2 focuses on strategic outcomes and will establish a number of child protection institutions. Outcomes include:

  • establishing 4 further Child and Family Centres and introducing Family Group Conferencing
  • establishing a Commission for Children and Young People
  • transforming out-of-home care and strengthening focus on youth policing
  • establishing NT and Australian Government joint planning mechanisms.

A key aspect of Phase 2 will be the formation of a single piece of legislation ‘for children’. This Act will replace the Youth Justice Act (NT) and the Care and Protection of Children Act (NT). Among the reformed provisions, the new Act will include restrictions on placing children younger than 14 in youth detention, and measures to accommodate an increase in the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years old, suggesting a contemporaneous amendment to the Criminal Code Act (NT) will take place.

Phase 3 – full delivery within 5 years

The final phase of the Implementation Plan sets out a number of long-term infrastructural developments, which include:

  • establishing 4 further Child and Family Centres
  • replacing youth detention centres with youth justice training facilities
  • establishing a Youth and Children’s Court facility.

Phase 3 also includes the implementation of a new integrated client information system for child protection and youth justice, aligning NT with information sharing developments in jurisdictions such as South Australia and Victoria. The NT Government will introduce policies and procedures for sharing information between providers working with children and young people, likely including schools.

Why is this important for schools?

With the Implementation Plan facilitating a five-year process of systemic change in the NT, schools will need to continue monitoring the news for ongoing changes in their child protection obligations, particularly from the establishment of the Commission for Children and Young People, the introduction of a single Child Protection Act, and new information sharing policies, procedures and laws.

Schools should also keep in mind that, while the NT Royal Commission made recommendations which overlapped with those of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (National Royal Commission), the National Royal Commission covered a broader range of child protection issues. These include changes to working with children check laws and introducing reportable conduct and institutional duties of care laws.

With the NT Government yet to provide a formal response to the National Royal Commission, the ‘generational strategy’ may continue to expand, leading to further legal change impacting schools. For example, a change to the Criminal Code was recently assented to – the Criminal Code Amendment (Intimate Images) Act 2018 (NT). This amendment will introduce new offences of non-consensual sharing of an intimate image and threatening to share an intimate image, and will require schools to amend their use of technology guidelines, codes of conduct and complaints handling procedures.

Taken together, these legal and regulatory drivers should be positioning NT schools to take a proactive approach to child safety by undertaking an extensive review of their child protection policy framework.

 

About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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