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The Same Four Walls report

Media release: Children in Victoria’s youth justice centres are subjected to unacceptable levels of isolation and lockdowns.

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Thursday 23 March 2017

Report reveals unacceptable levels of isolation and lockdowns in Victorian youth justice centres

Children and young people in Victoria’s youth justice centres are subjected to unacceptable levels of isolation and are routinely “locked down” due to staffing issues, a report by the Commission for Children and Young People tabled in Parliament today reveals.

The same four walls offers an unheard perspective on current issues in Victoria’s youth justice system. Its findings point to long-standing issues of understaffing, poor transparency and extensive use of restrictive practices.

The inquiry found isolation was imposed at least nine times per day on average, rising to 42 times per day in December 2016. 

While 23 per cent of recorded isolations were imposed for periods of an hour, others were recorded for significantly longer, including periods of 24 hours or more. The inquiry found evidence of children and young people on separation plans, isolated from peers and the routine of the centre, for up to 45 days at a time.

Some vulnerable children and young people were isolated on “separation plans” because they had been victims of assault or had attempted suicide. Others were isolated on separation plans following poor behaviour with no evidence of other attempts to address the causes of their behaviour.

“This inquiry suggests isolation is used as a key behaviour management tool in Victoria’s youth justice centres, rather than as a last resort and for the shortest possible time,” Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan said. “This practice fails to recognise that isolation can cause severe short and long term harm to children and is simply not an effective way to address behavioural problems.”

In addition to the recorded use of isolation, the inquiry found whole units or entire centres were locked down at least 520 times in 18 months, largely due to inadequate staffing levels. More than 50 of the recorded lockdowns lasted longer than 36 hours and another 88 saw children locked in their rooms for 13 to 20 hours.

“These findings provide a broader context for recent unrest in Victoria’s youth justice centres,” Ms Buchanan said. “Lockdowns impact children and young people’s access to education, visits and other programs essential for their rehabilitation. They also impact their mental health, exacerbating anxiety, anger and frustration. This creates tensions and makes centres even harder for staff to manage safely.”

Of particular concern was the overrepresentation of Koori children and young people subjected to isolation. At Malmsbury, 30 per cent of children and young people in isolation were Koori, despite Koori clients only making up 16 per cent of the youth justice population.

Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos said “I am appalled by the high rates of Koori kids being subjected to isolation. More than two-thirds of isolations imposed on Koori kids were not appropriately authorised and cultural support workers are not being engaged as policy requires.”

“Isolation as is being practiced currently is contrary to the findings and principles of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and after 25 years the system does not appear to have learnt anything,” Mr Jackomos said.

Isolation and separation practices featured inadequate decision making processes and poor record keeping. Data provided to the Commission also showed many instances of isolations, separation plans and lockdowns not authorised at appropriate levels.

The Commission was concerned about the management of children and young people with mental illness, particularly the regular isolation of those who presented with self-harm risks. The Commission found that custodial staff, rather than clinical staff, had the key responsibility for determining the appropriate observation of these children. Given that one in five children and young people in the system has a history of self-harm or suicidal ideation, this issue poses a significant risk.

“It is my hope that this inquiry informs current government action to address issues in Victoria’s youth justice centres,” Ms Buchanan said.  “It highlights a range of problems requiring urgent attention, some of which have affected centres for years. Without attention to staffing, an effective behaviour management regime, a reduction in inhumane practices and measures to better protect the mental health of children, we cannot hope to see real improvement.”

The Commission makes 21 recommendations for improvements in the system, including ensuring compliance with legislation and policy, appropriate responses to mental health needs, introducing basic sanitation into isolation rooms and staffing.

The inquiry examined the use of isolation for the 18-month period of February 2015 to July 2016, and also examined the use of these practices in the first two weeks of December 2016.

Contact

Luis Gonzalez, Communications and Media Adviser
M: 0425 871 816