Assault of kids in watchhouses

by Chris Griffith
Published 31 May 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


For years Queenslanders have witnessed the spectacle of the disgusting treatment of children held in watchhouses.

In 1988 we read of a male youth sentenced to seven years for raping two 14-year-old boys held in the Southport watchhouse.

And last year two young girls aged only 13 and 14 said they were subject to multiple strip-searches while detained in the same watchhouse on minor charges.

As recently as December there was the revelation of a 12-year-old child left for 60 hours in the Rockhampton watchhouse.

Over the years watchhouses have been a convenient dumping ground for children arrested and awaiting court appearances for matters as minor as shoplifting and offensive language.

Yet the Queensland bureaucracy has ignored the complaints, and has instead indulged in an exercise of shameful departmental buck- passing.

This is documented in correspondence to Queensland's Youth Advocacy Centre, a legal and welfare agency which initiated the campaign to end the incarceration of children in watchhouses.

In November 1985, the then Department of Children's Services told the Centre: "Essentially the basic question you raise is one for the Police Department."

Yet in March 1986, the Police Commissioner said: "As the welfare of children in such matters is one for the Director of Children's Services, I suggest that you contact him concerning this matter."

As recently as October 1990, former police minister Terry Mackenroth wrote: "I would suggest that, in due course, you write to the office of the Director-General, Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs concerning this matter."

Fortunately, some change is now afoot.

In December last year the Police Service and the Family Services department adopted a joint policy covering notification arrangements for children held in custody, and the conditions of care under which they are to be detained.

There is also attitudinal change. The Family Services Department acknowledges: "The premature or unnecessary incarceration of children increases the likelihood of their becoming recidivist offenders."

And police have for some time resorted to cautioning rather than charging young offenders.

Youth Advocacy Centre solicitor Anne McMillan says in recent times there has been an increase in the use of summons, and less use of the power of arrest.

And those arrested are now more likely to receive bail, a situation the Centre wants formalised in the Bails Act which does not currently distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders. All these measures work to keep children out of watchhouses.

Yet some statistics are still disturbing, for example the suggestion that over 50 per cent of children held in Queensland watchhouses from January to March this year were Aboriginal.

So what more is to be done?

Australian Law Reform Commission president Justice Elizabeth Evatt this week quoted the United Nations Minimum Standards for the Administration of Juvenile Justice.

She said: "The rule provides, among other things, that detention, both before and after trial, should be used as a measure of last resort."

However she said alternatives must be found for those children charged with serious offences who must be detained.

"If they are to be held, it should be in circumstances suitable to their age and need," she said.

She says in Queensland there are four custodial centres for young offenders. However, these centres may be too far away, or the police may not have transport or the staff to convey the children.

Alternatives, she suggests, are the lower security bail hostels as in the United Kingdom, and the juvenile holding home scheme implemented in New South Wales.

There is possibly other solutions that are realistic given Queensland is a large decentralised state incapable of providing permanent facilities for young offenders in every town.

The authorities could establish a system of community placements for the less serious offenders - under the supervision of trained welfare workers.

And transport must be available to move the more serious offenders to juvenile detention centres.

Southport, for example, is less than two hours drive from the John Oxley Youth Centre at Wacol and the Leslie Wilson Youth Centre at Wilston.

The CJC's recently released issues paper "Youth Crime and Justice in Queensland" notes a downward trend in juvenile crime.

It says most juvenile crime is "property crime" concentrated at the less serious end of the crime continuum.

It therefore is incongruous some young people have suffered greater punishment by detention in watchhouses than they would ever receive for the offence itself.