By KIERAN FINNANE
Public hearings for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory are resuming, with two days set aside for witness Keith Hamburger AM.
At left: Dylan Voller in a restraint chair and spit hood, one of the now notorious images that prompted the Royal Commission.
His appearance in Darwin’s Supreme Court on Monday and Tuesday will be followed by site visits to the former and current Don Dale youth detention facilities and the Darwin watch house by Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White as well as Senior Counsel.
Mr Hamburger is the author of the so-called Hamburger Report, titled “A Safer Northern Territory Through Correctional Interventions”, commissioned under the previous Country Liberal government, and highly critical of many aspects of the NT correctional services, at least as they were then.
Both they and the new Labor government danced around a full release of the report, with only the executive summary and recommendations finally released by Labor on October 28. Leaking of the full report to Sky News then forced the government’s hand, and a redacted version was released a week ago.
The main news points to emerge from the release were around the commissioning of the 1000-bed Darwin Correctional Precinct (DCP), with the report raising significant concerns that it is not “fit for purpose”.
The report provides detailed numbers for the mismatch between categories of prisoners and the facilities to house them. But it also raises more fundamental questions around the cost efficiency of a large correctional facility such as this one, when there is “no evidence” that they are effective in rehabilitating offenders; and around its failure to address the extreme social and economic circumstances which prevail in the NT’s Indigenous communities, which is “the significant driver” of its high incarceration and recidivism rates.
The commissioning of the DCP reflected the inadequacy of the department’s project planning, says the report, a politically sensitive conclusion as the planning began under the previous Labor Government and finalised by the Country Liberals.
The Royal Commission’s focus, however, will be on what Mr Hamburger has to say about youth detention.
His report describes young people in the system as “among the most marginalized in Australia given their experiences of childhood neglect, poverty, violence and social adversity”. They have experienced “high rates of emotional trauma, come from unstable homes and frequently exhibit behavioural disorders and cognitive disabilities.”
His recommendations include measures to respond to their mental health needs, as well as more appropriate education programs.
He found that an “impressive suite” of rehabilitation programs weren’t necessarily being delivered for various reasons, including insufficient staffing and recommended a “delivery plan” to ensure that rehabilitation programs “form a central plank in the delivery of services to youth in detention”.
To some extent his findings and recommendations have been overtaken by events following the exposure on Four Corners of brutal treatment of youths in the archaic Don Dale facility at Berrimah.
Territory Families have since taken on responsibility for both child protection and youth justice with a commitment to reform. They have already moved, for instance, on phasing out the rostering of Correctional Officers to youth detention facilities, which the Hamburger Report described as “unacceptable”. They are being replaced by appropriately trained Youth Justice Officers.
They have also begun planning for a new youth justice facility in Alice Springs.
And just yesterday the government legislated against the use of restraint chairs on youths, made notorious by the Four Corners footage .
Only handcuffs, ankle cuffs and waist-restraining belts are now “approved restraints”.
Further they can only be used on determination by the Commissioner.
“This determination, which will ensure restraints are only used as a last resort, must be made available to the public,” said Territory Families Minister Dale Wakefield in media release.
“There is no doubt that the images we saw on the Four Corners program had a significant impact on the community. I know this from the number of people who approached me in the street incredibly distressed at what they saw.
“This is about making sure that efforts to de-escalate behaviours are used in preference to difficult and dangerous restraint procedures.
“This makes it safer for our frontline workers. And it results in better outcomes for children that are in our care, many of whom come from a background of trauma and violence.
“This Bill also provides our frontline workers with greater clarity and certainty about actions to take. They are in difficult and potentially violent situations every day. These changes, along with increased training and professional support, will enable workers to minimise the seriousness of situations they encounter.”
Minister Wakefield said extensive consultation had taken place with unions – and continues still – on the effect of the law changes on staff and managing change processes, which includes training for workers.
“This training builds on the principles of trauma informed care in recognising that trauma may be a major factor in the young people’s lives, and staff need to understand how trauma may affect young people, and how they should interact.”
Mr Hamburger’s appearance in front of the Royal Commission will be streamed live on its site.