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Australian governments under fire for harming children

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 9 January 2023. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2022.

This article was first published on Thursday, November 17, 2022.


Australian governments face growing pressure to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years and to stop traumatising children who need care and support rather than punitive and damaging incarceration, reports Alison Barrett.

As a Croakey webinar heard this week, multisectoral efforts to address the social determinants of health, especially housing security, are also vital.


Alison Barrett writes:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have urged Australian Governments to urgently address the youth justice crisis and take swift action to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years following a Four Corners report this week.

The investigation, Locking Up Kids, revealed examples of racism, neglect and abuse in the youth justice system in Western Australia and Northern Territory.

“… we saw horrific footage of Aboriginal children being held in prolonged solitary confinement, dehumanised and insulted, and violently restrained by prison officers in WA’s youth prison, Banksia Hill,” said Damiya Hayden, Acting Executive Officer at Change the Record, a First Nations-led justice coalition, in a statement following the episode.

“As several officers tackled and sat on one First Nations boy, he screamed ‘I’m scared – I can’t breathe’. They could have killed him.

“This is child abuse and racism, systematically perpetrated by Australian governments against First Nations children. First Nations children with disability are disproportionately subjected to these torturous conditions and the trauma they produce.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said in a statement: “Prison does nothing to rehabilitate young people. It only perpetuates cycles of trauma and leads to further youth offending. Prison is no place for a child.”

Reporter Grace Tobin highlighted that many of the recommendations from a 2017 Royal Commission Inquiry into events at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Northern Territory have yet to be implemented.

Nicole Hucks, Northern Territory’s Acting Children’s Commissioner, said that she visits Don Dale every month and has received “more than 400 complaints in the past year alone about problems [at Don Dale] including solitary confinement, racism and excessive force”.

Hucks has been shocked that this behaviour continues five years on from the Inquiry.

Former Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission Mick Gooda, who led the Don Dale Royal Commission, said: “Australia is one of the only countries in the developed world to still lock up children as young as 10.”

“In 100 years’ time, people are going to look at us and say ‘they locked kids up who were 10 and 11 and 12. What were they thinking to do with this?’.

“We’ll be considered barbarians by future generations because we locked 10 year olds up.”

Four Corners program reported that a 2020 Standing Council of Attorneys General report recommends raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years without exception. This advice was provided by the justice departments of the Commonwealth, States and Territories and was based on the advice of experts, including doctors.

Health and medical leaders

Many health and human rights’ leaders have criticised the lack of transparency and secrecy surrounding the report, with the Public Health Association of Australia calling for it to be made public.

Medical Colleges have signed an open letter calling for the Federal Government to release the report and for all governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years old to 14. The Colleges also say a national taskforce must be established to address the issues plaguing youth incarceration.

The signatories to the open letter include: Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP); Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM); Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP); College of Intensive Care Medicine of Australia and New Zealand (CICM); and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZP).

See the Human Rights Law Centre Twitter thread here.

Health in all policies

Concerns about governments’ instransigence on raising the age of criminal responsibility were also raised during a Croakey webinar last night on the federal budget and health in all policies.

Scott Wilson, CEO of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council SA Aboriginal Corporation, referred to the Four Corners episode, stressing the importance of raising the age of minimum criminal responsibility to at least 14 years.

The webinar also put a timely spotlight on the importance of media policy as a determinant of health, and how media can both undermine and contribute to action on the social determinants of health, such as through the Four Corners investigation.

Media plays an important role in raising the profile of issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, said the webinar’s moderator, Dr Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, contributing editor at Croakey and a Senior Lecturer at Wollongong University. She said the Four Corners program was an example of “transparent, open media”, providing a platform for diverse voices.

Additionally, local and independent media has the opportunity to highlight the impacts of the social determinants of health, Dr Joanne Flavel from University of Adelaide told the webinar.

Flavel said, “Media who understand local context can report on stories that connect social determinants and health. Four Corners last night was a powerful example of a social determinant (justice system) impacting on health.”

Anna Draffin, CEO of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, told the webinar that media “remains pivotal in terms of health issues”. Draffin emphasised the value of local, accurate news throughout the pandemic, 2019-2020 bushfires and more recently with floods.

The Four Corners episode emphasised the important role of media in holding governments to account and highlighting injustices, as well as challenging entrenched narratives.

Gooda said: “I think it’s politically unpopular to raise the age because of the broader community perspectives on youth and youth offending, and that narrative is quite loud.”

Draffin pointed out that it was critical that Australia ensures “its own housekeeping” is in order before “it starts holding international neighbours to account”.

Policy matters

With media playing such an important role in raising the profile of health and social issues and being a vehicle for change and accountability, panel members discussed the importance of media policy for health.

Concerns around misinformation, disinformation and the importance of culturally safe reporting were discussed.

Finlay highlighted the “absolute disaster” that was created with the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007 because of media reporting of the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report. She acknowledged that there were more diverse voices in media now than then, but we “need to see much more”.

Wilson told the webinar that media reporting on issues such as Raise the Age and inadequate housing policy is critical, but they also need to be called out if reporting misinformation, particularly concerning the upcoming referendum on a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

“I’m just waiting for the right-wing media to start attacking and coming out with misinformation,” Wilson said. “Unless platforms like Croakey and Crikey and the ABC actually come out” and draw attention to misinformation, it has the potential to have a huge impact on the referendum results, he said.

While the Four Corners episode put the spotlight on important issues, it has also raised concerns about cultural safety and ethical reporting. An image of Dylan Voller in a spithood was included in the report despite his request for this image not to be shared again.

Multisectoral action needed

Panel members discussed the importance of broad and multisectoral approaches to addressing key social and cultural determinants of health – such as housing, justice, and climate.

Housing is one of the most critical issues that needs addressing now as it leads to a range of health issues.

Wilson said the Budget allocation of $10 billion investment over five years on housing is promising but said it would only go some way to addressing need. Some people in Adelaide had jobs but were sleeping in their cars, he said, because they cannot afford housing and there is a “lack of social housing in most rural and remote communities right across the country”.

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, Director of the NHMRC Healthy Environments And Lives (HEAL) National Research Network, said it is important “to look at climate change and environmental change in a holistic way through health and wellbeing” with a multisectoral response involving the housing and transport sectors among others.

Flavel added that addressing social determinants and health equity requires an intersectional approach of policies including housing prices, income distribution and digital access.

Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer from Deakin University told the webinar it is hard to implement health in all policies, but suggested this was something the proposed National Centre for Disease Control could do. (Her recommendations for regulation of Big Tech are reported in this story by Jennifer Doggett).

Draffin said in terms of influencing policy across portfolios, it was a “case of having evidence that you can consistently put in front of those different parliamentary inquiries to encourage that cross-disciplinary consideration”.

More from Twitter

See this Twitter thread by Alison Barrett for @CroakeyNews reporting on the webinar.