Young offenders need specialist care

THE recent airing on ABCFour Cornersof the disgraceful abuse of young people serving custodial sentences in the Northern Territory has resulted in an invisible group coming into sharp and unexpected relief for the w hole community.

CCTV footage (not secret filming) showed horrific images of young people in solitary confinement for long periods, in conditions of harsh privation, as well as brutal physical attacks, tear-gassing, verbal abuse, and wide-ranging humiliation.

All of these “punishments” were being meted out to children as young as 10, in a first-world developed nation that is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

But aren’t these just “bad kids” who need to be taught a thing or two, and isn’t youth detention the place to do that? Young people in youth detention have committed criminal offences (typically theft but also assault and other breaches), but this does not make them “bad kids”.

In Australia, we strive to divert young people away from custodial sentences, not because we are “soft” on youth crime, but because the evidence tells us that periods of custody are not overly effective for highly complex, vulnerable young people.

Custodial sentences might have good “face validity” but that does not mean they work, and they certainly do not work where damaged children are subjected to further damage during custody.

Young people in custody have typically experienced wide-ranging maltreatment (abuse and neglect of various forms) from early ages, and have often experienced both learning and behavioural difficulties at school.

Some 50 per cent of young people in the youth justice system have already been subject to mandatory child protection orders, and most have exited school prematurely, with limited academic achievement.

There is an over-representation in youth justice settings of young people with neurodisabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, learning disorders, and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

My own research, in Victoria and New South Wales youth justice settings also shows that around 50 per cent of young offenders have significant expressive and receptive language difficulties.

This means they struggle to understand complex instructions and are not effective communicators of their own thoughts and feelings.

These factors create a perfect storm for young people from volatile home situations where empathy, cool-headed conversations, and strong social skills are lacking.

What such young people need, if they are to benefit from a custodial sentence, is calm, predictable environments, staffed by personnel who understand both child and adolescent development and the importance of trauma-informed practices that minimise challenging behaviour, and respond appropriately to such behaviour so that it does not escalate out of control.

As a community, we all need these young people to be in better shape when they are released, than at the start of their sentence.

What we saw on Four Corners last week was adults abusing children

If citizens treated their own children in that way, they would rightly be arrested and imprisoned, and the children would be removed and placed in the care of the state.

Sadly, this is how the Northern Territory, acting as the “state-parent” treats the children entrusted to its care

Professor Pamela Snow is Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School at La Trobe University, Bendigo. This article was first published by Fairfax Media.