Suffer the little children

This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of Proctor.

Hundreds of caged children as young as 10 are sharing prison-style common areas with paedophiles, locked up for weeks in solitary confinement and wanting nothing more than to speak to their mothers.

Such tales of horror are tragically commonplace around the globe in third world countries.

However, this bleak picture is a snapshot of today’s Queensland – a bountiful and sun-drenched so-called “smart state’’ in which children aged 10–17 who face criminal charges are left languishing in high-security police watch houses for up to 40-days at a time, locked in cells alongside hardened dangerous criminals and sex offenders.

The recent ABC Four Corners program Inside the Watch House detailed dozens of cases revealing the appalling treatment of children in watch houses across the state – but particularly in Brisbane, where up to 70 children were being warehoused in austere and tiny concrete cells, furnished with little more than a thin foam mattress, blanket and a toilet pedestal.

Before the airing of the program, QLS President Bill Potts issued a public statement labelling the detention of children in police jail cells as a disgrace and called for an end to the practice.

“It is an absolute disgrace and simply outrageous to think that this practice was ever allowed to happen in the first place, let alone be considered an ongoing way of detaining any young child,’’ Mr Potts said.

“QLS is aware that overcrowding in watch houses and remand centres has been a systemic problem for many years.

“The latest figures relating to children are symptomatic of a criminal justice system under immense operational strain. We know there are many reasons for this and there are no magic or simple solutions to the problem.

Mr Potts said there was no further need for another inquiry on the topic after the Atkinson Report on Youth Justice, released in July last year, had already identified and recommended 77 areas for reform – the majority of which propose strategies and programs for the diversions of children away from the courts and custody.

“QLS has strongly advocated for youth justice reforms for many years and, like the Atkinson report, has placed an emphasis on the need to address myriad social issues that will prevent children from offending in the first place, rather than correct the situation after they’ve offended or have been detained,’’ he said.

“When children start their lives, none of them aspire to be criminals. We know that a majority of juvenile offending is a part of a much deeper and more complex set of problems in a young person’s life.

“We also know that petty crime and factors such as broken homes, abuse, social exclusion or disadvantage, mental health problems, disability, drug abuse, truancy and a lack of opportunities or hope are strongly connected.

“In many ways, rates of juvenile offending tell us that parts of our community are broken and need to be fixed.’’

Mr Potts conceded it would be irresponsible and an unacceptable risk of danger to the community if potentially dangerous young accused were simply released on bail purely due to the lack of adequate space in properly resourced child detention centres.

“However, it is totally appropriate that alternative facilities be considered, such as properly staffed and supervised halfway houses or ‘youth bail houses’ which have proven successful in Townsville,’’ he said.

“Everyone wants young offenders to gain the skills and desire to be positive and contributing members of the community rather than falling between the cracks and becoming another member of the revolving door community of life-long criminals.

“If we don’t start to tackle it now, when?”

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