Court told: Life of youth crime started while in care

A 15-year-old north-west Queensland girl’s life of crime only began after being placed in a government child care home full of “known juvenile property offenders”, a court has been told.

The Mount Isa Childrens Court heard on Friday about the plight of a Isla Johnson (a pseudonym), who been abandoned by her mother and family – some of whom were sent to jail for domestic violence – and her futile attempts to care for siblings all aged under eight.

The court was told Isla committed 45 offences, including an attempted robbery, seven charges of entering a dwelling and 25 charges of entering a premises or attempting to do so, by the time she was 14.

However, the court also heard details of Isla’s tragic life so far after being arrested again on Friday and the details of a frustrated magistrate having no option – due to a lack of suitable youth accommodation – but to remand her in custody in a police watch house.

Childrens Court Magistrate Eion Mac Giolla Ri yesterday published his reasons for refusing Isla bail on seven fresh criminal charges alleged to have been committed within days of being released on strict bail conditions.

Mr Mac Giolla Ri, before remanding her in custody, spent considerable time documenting the lack of family and community support afforded Isla during her short life and how that, when she finally received government assistance, she was placed in a ‘care home’ full of “known juvenile property offenders”.


“Isla ceased living with her mother because she and her siblings, all under eight, were frequently abandoned by her,” he said. “In her mother’s absence, Isla was required to care for her siblings, though she had no money or food to provide for them.

“Isla found herself unable to cope. She sought assistance from two relatives, an aunt and uncle, and lived with them but came into … care when they were sent to prison for domestic violence.

“At that point Isla personally approached Child Safety and asked for assistance. In this way, Isla went into the care of Child Safety in mid-September 2022.”

Isla’s plight is the latest in a recent spate of cases of children left to languish is police watch houses due to a lack of other suitable youth detention accommodation.

Last month, Mr Mac Giolla Ri spoke out about the dire plight of First Nations youth offenders in the region during sentencing comments about a young boy – with pseudonym David Taylor, being held in a police watch house for 10 days and a further 26 of those “confined to his cell for 21+ hours a day” in a North Queensland youth detention centre.

The week before, he granted bail to a separate 15-year-old boy Indigenous boy after it was revealed he had spent 15-days in the Mount Isa watch house.


Isla’s is the latest in an ever-growing list of children being held in Queensland police watch houses or youth detention centres before being sentenced for any alleged offending.

It also follows last month’s federal Productivity Commission data showing that twice as many children aged 10 to 17 are being locked up in youth detention for criminal offences in Queensland than anywhere else in Australia.

During a bail application for Isla on Friday, Mr Mac Giolla Ri noted a myriad reasons that had contributed to Isla’s alleged criminal offending.

“Upon going into the care of Child Safety Isla was placed in a care home with girls who are known juvenile property offenders and she has bonded with those girls,” he said. “It is reasonable (sic) clear to me that this is what led to her property offending.

“Since going into the care of Child Safety, Isla has had four different Child Safety case workers. It is not difficult to see how such a fragmented relationship with Child Safety could be perceived by Isla as a lack of care and, figuratively, drive her into the arms of her anti-social peers, from whom she can expect more meaningful acceptance and interaction.

“Since going into the care of Child Safety, Isla has not attended school, despite expressing desire to attend school and even to play basketball at school.


“On 31 January, almost five months after she came into the care of Child Safety, Isla still did not have an enrolment, so there is still no school she can attend.

“Since going into the care of Child Safety, Isla has not seen her siblings or had consistent contact with them. Her younger siblings, for whom she was often a primary carer, are now also in the care of Child Safety and are placed in a remote community to which Isla has previously had substantial connection.

“A Christmas visit to her siblings was arranged by Child Safety but Isla missed the plane. Isla told the Court that she had no idea a visit had been arranged.”

During the bail hearing, Child Safety provided the court with a proposed timetable of activities to allow Isla to remain in the community pending resolution of her outstanding criminal matters.

“Unfortunately, the timetable was deficient in two important aspects,’’ Mr Mac Giolla Ri said. “The timetable is fragmented, relying on a variety of State and community organisations, without offering any particular pro-social adults with whom Isla could build a relationship.

“In the absence of such relationships it is unlikely that the activities offered to Isla have any hope of replacing the bonds she has created with her anti-social peers; and school is not included … because Isla is not enrolled in school and no enrolment is possible at this time.


“Isla advised the Court that she wants to leave Mount Isa to live with her siblings and wants to attend school. I find that she is genuine in both of these desires.

“In circumstances where the offending occurred so soon after Isla was granted bail and where Isla was unable to comply with her curfew or benefit from her conditional bail program, I am concerned that there are no conditions that I could put in place, that Isla would obey, that would sufficiently mitigate that risk (of reoffending).

“I am conscious that, due to there being no space in youth detention centres in Queensland
at the moment, … she will be detained in the Mount Isa watch house for an extended period.”

Read the decision.

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