On 17 November 2017, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (NT Royal Commission) gave its final report to the Northern Territory Government, making wide-ranging recommendations to reform the youth justice and child protection systems. The NT Royal Commission was formed in response to the treatment of children in care in the Northern Territory.
Among its findings, the NT Royal Commission concluded that NT youth detention centres were not fit for either accommodating or rehabilitating children and young people, and also identified a 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 made 227 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. Key recommendations were:
- closure of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre within three months, with the high security unit to be shut down immediately
- raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 and not 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 Aboriginal community in child protection and youth justice.
The NT Government accepted the intent and direction of all 227 recommendations, and in April 2018 committed an additional $229.6 million over five years to implement key reforms. This investment coincided with the release of the NT Government’s Plan Safe, Thriving & Connected: Generational Change for Children and Families, which outlines how reforms to better support children, young people and families experiencing vulnerability will be delivered. 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.
First Progress Report
The NT Government released the First Progress Report on 16 November 2018, 12 months on from the NT Royal Commission’s final report. The First Progress Report outlines the progress that has been made towards implementing the NT Royal Commission’s recommendations. The NT Government has committed to reporting publicly each year on the progress and impact of its reforms.
According to the NT Government, of the 218 recommendations that relate to action by the Government, 33 are now complete, 47 are well progressed, 122 are underway, and 16 have not yet started.
Key achievements outlined in the First Progress Report include:
- legislative reform to amend the Youth Justice Act (NT), giving Territory Families legal responsibility for youth justice, prohibiting the use of restraints and limiting the use of force, isolation and strip searches for young people in detention
- completion of ‘fix and make safe’ works at the Don Dale and Alice Springs Youth Detention Centres, including new and separate education and female accommodation facilities at the Alice Springs facility
- a tender for the development of purpose-built youth justice centres in Darwin and Alice Springs
- improved partnerships with Aboriginal organisations and families to increase local decision-making and involvement in the child protection and youth justice systems
- streamlining child protection processes through the ‘One Child One Case’ approach for frontline child protection staff, as well as the redesign of Central Intake Services to manage the high demand of notifications
- commencing construction of the Tennant Creek Child and Family Centre, which is the first of 11 new child and family centres to be built over the next five years
- developing a multi-agency Crossover Family Working Group to increase information-sharing and coordination of service response provided to young people and their families
- funding to increase the independent Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s capacity to monitor and audit the child protection and youth justice systems.
According to the NT Government, the next major milestones of its child protection reforms will be delivered by 30 June 2019. They include:
- opening the Tennant Creek Child and Family Centre
- implementing the 'Signs of Safety' practice framework in the NT ('Signs of Safety', as detailed in the NT Royal Commission's final report, was developed in Western Australia and takes a comprehensive approach to the assessment of child safety risks)
- renovating the Alice Springs Local Court to include a multi-purpose court for matters relating to children and young people
- establishing two more Child and Family Centres
- implementing the Aboriginal Out-of-Home Care strategy
- commencing Aboriginal foster and kinship carer programs
- introducing additional 'priority' legislative amendments
- commencing the Community Youth Support Grants program and expanding access to youth diversion
- finalising three more local decision-making agreements
- continuing to improve youth detention operations, practice and staff training.
The Progress Report also noted that the NT Government is continuing to work towards development of a single act for youth justice and care and protection to ensure their laws are contemporary and focused on keeping children and families at the centre of both systems. Work has also commenced on the development of an online guide to support professional notifiers to make mandatory reports, though the First Progress report does not mention the status of guidelines for community notifiers or assisting notifiers with meeting their reporting obligations under the Care and Protection of Children Act (NT).
What does the First Progress Report Mean for NT Schools?
With the Implementation Plan facilitating a five-year process of systemic change in the NT, NT schools will need to continue monitoring for ongoing changes in their child protection compliance obligations, particularly in relation to 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 the introduction of reportable conduct and institutional duties of care laws.
In its formal response to the National Royal Commission, the NT Government answered many of the recommendations with a comment that further legislative reform on processes and systems to receive and act on complaints from carers, clients and families was being considered as part of the development of a single Act to replace the Youth Justice Act (NT) and the Care and Protection of Children Act (NT). In its Implementation Plan, the development of this single piece of legislation was a key aspect of Phase 2 of the reforms, which will be fully delivered within three years. This means that schools in the NT will have an entirely new child protection framework, one which accounts for the recommendations of two separate Royal Commissions, within the next few years.
Taken together, these legal and regulatory drivers should be positioning NT schools, and schools around Australia in relation to this area generally, to take a proactive approach to child safety by undertaking an extensive review of their child protection policy framework.