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Detention of kids in adult watch-houses a ‘national crisis’

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Detention of kids in adult watch-houses a ‘national crisis’

Greg Barnes

Australia is failing in its duty of care to young people, with urgent action required to end the practice of detaining children in adult watch-houses in Queensland, argue two legal advocacy bodies.

Responding to Monday night’s Four Corners episode on ABC, both the Australian Lawyers Alliance and Law Council of Australia slammed the locking up of children in adult watch-houses in Queensland, while also noting such practices are not limited to the Sunshine State.

“This treatment of young people is horrific and, unfortunately, it is not confined to Queensland,” said Greg Barns, National Criminal Justice spokesperson for the ALA.

“In Tasmania, children are strip-searched and in the Northern Territory youth justice laws were recently amended to remove the protections introduced following the Don Dale royal commission.”

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“This is a national crisis. We need urgent Commonwealth and state action to ensure that Australia complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children should be in schools, homes and playgrounds, only ever detained as a last resort, and for the shortest amount of time possible, with genuine efforts made at rehabilitation,” he continued.

“If detention is required, it must be in safe places that are appropriate for children. Never police cells or facilities designed for adults.”

LCA president Arthur Moses SC agreed, arguing that “adult watch houses are no place for children”.

“The ABC’s Four Corners program, which showed children as young as 10 being locked up – sometimes for weeks – in adult facilities in Queensland, was deeply concerning and must not be ignored,” he said.

“Remanding children in such facilities, in any state or territory, is inappropriate, highly disturbing and represents a grave breach of the duty owed by governments to children in their care. This practice exposes some of society’s most vulnerable – our children – to significant trauma and to hardened criminals. It is not consistent with Australia’s obligations under international human rights laws and should not be tolerated.”

Mr Barns also identified Australia’s duties under international law, noting that the best interests of the child are “paramount”.

“Children and young people detained in inhumane conditions can and should sue the state of Queensland. There is a duty of care owed to children, which includes putting their best interests first. This has not happened here.”

“There is a duty of care to ensure that all people being detained by the state are cared for by staff with the appropriate skills and training, and in facilities appropriate to their needs. The primary aim of all detention should be rehabilitation and, when it comes to children, this must be the number one priority,” he said.

Mr Moses said unacceptable treatment of children in detention was not isolated to Queensland, with reports of abuse and mistreatment of children in detention arising across multiple Australian jurisdictions.

“It is time our governments – state, territory and Commonwealth – got off the back foot and pro-actively shouldered their obligations and duties to these children,” he said.

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