Systemic failures in child protection and youth justice: NT Royal Commission releases its final report

Published
22 November 2017

With less than a month to go until the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission), the Northern Territory has given us a teaser of what could be expected from the Royal Commission's Recommendations.

On 17 November, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT (NT Royal Commission) gave its final report to the Northern Territory Government. The NT Royal Commission was formed in response to the treatment of children in care in the Northern Territory. This was largely precipitated by an ABC Four Corner’s story on detention and ill-treatment at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, publicising the horrific experiences of Dylan Voller.

Despite only running for nine months, the NT Royal Commission final report reaches 2171 pages, making wide-ranging recommendations to reform the youth justice and child protection systems.

The Key Findings

The NT Royal Commission found that NT youth detention centres were not fit for either accommodating or rehabilitating children and young people. Detention centres were not operated in a manner consistent with the Youth Justice Act (NT), with an ad hoc approach to the admissions process.

Furthermore, submissions and public hearings exposed that detainees were subjected to regular mistreatment, including verbal abuse, humiliation, and physical/racial abuse. In particular, isolation was found to be used punitively, with children in high-security often kept in confined spaces “in a wholly inappropriate, oppressive, prison-like environment.”

In addition, the NT Royal Commission concluded that children in youth detention were denied their basic needs, with officers at times withholding water, food and the use of toilets. Some officers dared detainees or offered bribes to them to carry out degrading/humiliation acts or commit physical violence to each other.

Particular concerns were highlighted with respect to female detainees, who did not receive equivalent access to personal hygiene facilities, were treated unequally in access to recreational facilities and at times were subject to forms of sexual abuse and harassment.

Together, this was indicative of systemic failure to comply with human rights standards and safeguards such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty.

The NT Royal Commission’s Recommendations

Based on these findings, the NT Royal Commission made nearly 230 recommendations, covering various reform areas across the youth justice and child protection systems including detention facilities and their operations, entry into the child protection system, legislation and legal process.

Some of the most significant recommendations made were:

  • closure of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre within three months, with the high security unit shut down immediately
  • raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 and only allowing children aged under 14 to be detained for serious crimes
  • banning the use of restraint and force to discipline children and prohibiting extendable periods of isolation
  • increasing the involvement of Aboriginal organisations and the community in child protection and youth justice.

Child protection in the Territory

While the central focus of the NT Royal Commission’s recommendations was on youth detention, substantial reform has been proposed to the Territory’s child protection system, with the current system considered to be unsustainable and ineffective in lowering the exposure of children to harm.

However, the NT Royal Commission noted that these problems are not new, with many of the recent findings echoing conclusions made by the Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory more than 7 years ago.

The NT Royal Commission found that the Territory had failed to take up the opportunity to address child abuse and neglect through effective prevention and treatment efforts. This had resulted in a growing number of reports of children at risk, and continued deterioration of the lives of those coming into contact with the system. Hence it was recommended that Territory Families develop mandatory reporting guidelines for professional and community notifiers and assist these notifiers with meeting their reporting obligation under the Care and Protection of Children Act (NT).

To change the NT’s approach to child protection, the NT Royal Commission proposed that a 10-year Generational Strategy for Children and Families by developed, led by the Chief Minister. This Strategy would set a framework for the prevention of harm to children, and oversee the development and delivery of services for children and families. A key part of this Strategy would be developing policies, programs and services to target high-risk groups and prevalent risk factors which lead to involvement in the child protection system.

The NT Royal Commission also proposed that the Children’s Commissioner Act (NT) be repealed, with new legislation passed to establish a Commission for Children and Young People which will have clear jurisdiction for children and young people in the NT. Other recommendations called for improved information improved child protection oversight, including more prominent and practical complaints management, data and information sharing, and effective record keeping.

What does this report means for schools?

In response to the NT Royal Commission’s final report, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has called the successive failures of NT governments “a stain on the NT’s reputation,” announcing a comprehensive overhaul of the child protection and youth justice systems. Schools in the NT should hence monitor any proposed adjustments to their child protection obligations, particularly in relation to the child protection recommendations presented by the NT Royal Commission discussed above.

With the end of the national Royal Commission drawing near, the recommendations arising from the NT need to be considered by schools in the Territory and across the country as they prepare for the final report to be released. In particular, the NT Royal Commission’s recommendations in relation to mandatory reporting, complaints handling, record keeping and information sharing will likely have counterparts in the national recommendations.

 

Kieran Seed

Kieran is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. In his position, Kieran assists with drafting and review of governance, risk and compliance content programs and client-requested policies, while also writing regular articles for School Governance. Kieran’s key focus areas are student duty of care and school registration. Kieran studied at the University of Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of International and Global Studies majoring in Government and International Relations.