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Child subjected to days of isolation in youth detention cell: court told

A disabled 16-year-old boy last month endured days confined to a cell at a North Queensland youth detention centre, in conditions a magistrate has described as “falling short’’ of the “bare minimum … acceptable in a civilised society.’’

Mount Isa Childrens Court magistrate Eoin Mac Giolla Ri, in sentencing remarks published on Friday (4 Feb), speaks of the harrowing plight and hardships faced by a young offender exposed to extraordinarily long stints in isolation – as a result of current COVID-related staff shortages – at Townsville’s Cleveland Youth Detention Centre.

Mr Mac Giolla Ri, in his written six-page decision, goes into great detail to explain the many disadvantages faced by the boy – given the pseudonym Leo Horan – including being raised by parents who drank too much, to being exposed to domestic violence, trauma, grief and loss and how they contributed to his anti-social and extensive criminal history.

On 25 January (2021) Leo pleaded guilty to three offences involving entering and attempted unlawful use of a vehicle and assault causing bodily harm three weeks earlier.

However, it is the details of Leo’s stint in youth detention last month that received special mention from the court.

Mr Mac Giolla Ri was told Leo – who has an extensive criminal history covering a five-year period from the age of 11 – was last month kept in detention for 21 days, and that much of that time was spent in 24-hour confinement as a result of “continuous cell occupancy’’ or the centre being placed into “night mode’’ as a result of COVID-related staff shortages.

“Leo was remanded in custody on 4 January 2022 and must have spent at least some time in the (local police) watch-house because he didn’t arrive at Cleveland Youth Detention Centre until the 12th of January,’’ he said.

“Since that time, so for 13 days, he has been placed in a particular unit. I accept that it is not for me, as a judicial officer, to decide what the appropriate type of accommodation is [this particular] Youth Detention Centre, or any youth detention centre.

“But I am concerned that [this] Detention Centre is falling below the standards it ordinarily operates at, and those standards must already be seen, I would say, as the bare minimum of what might be acceptable in a civilised society, are now falling short of that.’’

Mr Mac Giolla Ri noted Leo “has real difficulties in abstaining from offending’’ and has acquired a considerable history for serious offences that had resulted in a myriad of court-imposed sanctions, including six probation orders, two community service orders and eight detention orders.

He said Leo, prior to his latest 21-day stint in detention, had spent 214 days in custody as a result of 19 separate admissions to youth detention.

The court was also given details of the abuse and trauma Leo had been exposed to since he was born.

“(Leo’s) first interaction with Child Safety was when he was one year old and that was in relation to domestic violence and substance abuse and emotional and physical harm,’’ Mr Mac Giolla Ri said.

“His mother was very young when she had him and had no support and was herself a victim.

“In more recent times, he has been scared of being at home and he self-placed outside his home. He finds connecting with people difficult and he has a limited number of people around him providing a good example and, in the absence of connections with positive people, he has replaced those with connections with the peers with whom he has committed these offences.

“The factors contributing to the offending are his lack of attachment to positive adult role models, grief, loss and exposure to domestic violence.

“(Leo) has parents who drank too much and he has a cognitive impairment and a speech and language delay. He associates with negative peer groups because he can form bonds with them and he is not entirely capable of doing more prosocial activities because of his impairments, and because of his association with these peers, it’s a vicious circle.’’

Mr Mac Giolla Ri, a veteran barrister appointed as a magistrate in Brisbane in June 2021 – and who transferred more than 1825 kilometres north-west of the city to Mount Isa in December – said the offending committed as a result of Leo’s most recent behaviour would ordinarily attract a period of six months’ detention.

However, he said in the current circumstances it would be inappropriate to subject Leo to further detention.

“It seems to me that in the ordinary course of events, I will be sentencing Leo to a period of six months’ detention and require him to serve at least 50%, perhaps more than that,’’ he said.

“But in the circumstances where he has endured detention where there has been ongoing periods of time where he has literally not been allowed out of his cell for 24 hours at a time and where, when he is let out, it is often … for limited times during the day into the day area of his unit.

“I have visited [this particular] Youth Detention Centre, the cells are perhaps, in the ordinary course of events, one could describe them as towards the minimum of what might be acceptable for a child, and I find the same in relation to the day area of the unit.

“In those circumstances, balancing the need for the community’s protection with the other principles in the Youth Justice Act, I find that it would be inappropriate to require him to serve any longer.’’

Leo was sentenced to three months’ detention to be served by way of a conditional release order in the community and six months’ probation.

Read the decision.

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