Kids who’ve experienced abuse need care, not custody

Children need love, care and protection to thrive, but the reality is that many Australian children suffer abuse and neglect, sometimes at the hand of people closest to them.

During National Child Protection Week (6-12 September) Youthlaw is urging police, lawmakers and other authorities to recognise the impact of childhood abuse and trauma on young people’s later behaviour.

A young person’s brain is not fully developed until they are 25. An experience of abuse during these formative years affects neurological and psychological development and impacts decision-making and behaviour.

Too many young people are acquiring criminal records they can’t escape from, and being fast tracked into youth detention for behaviour that is directly linked to their past experience of trauma, abuse, neglect and parental death.

Nationally, young people in the child protection system were 12 times more likely to be under youth justice supervision from 2014 to 2016 (AIFS, 2017).

The 2019 Crossover Kids report released by the Sentencing Advisory Council found that of all children sentenced or diverted in the Children’s Court in 2016 and 2017 (a total of 5,063 children), 38 per cent had a history of child protection That climbed to  a staggering 50per cent for children sentenced to youth detention (Sentencing Advisory Council, Report 1).

The Crossover Kids report also reveals that the younger a child is at first sentence, the more likely they were to have a child protection background. Of children first sentenced aged 10–13, 54 per cent were the subject of at least one child protection report, 38 per cent were the subject of a child protection order (168 children) and 33 per cent experienced out-of-home care.

Among those who have had contact with child protection, children that have been placed in residential care are arguably our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens, and need the most compassion and understanding.

For kids in resi care behaviours such as swearing, breaking a plate or acting out in other ways too often leads to police intervention.

If those children were living at home, parents would be unlikely to use police as a first option to manage those behaviours. As wards of the state, we have a parental responsibility to apply the same lens.

Youthlaw continues to work with relevant organisations and authorities to find ways prevent young people in residential care having unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system.

In January 2020 DHHS, Victoria Police, the Department of Justice, the Centre for Excellence in Chid and Family Welfare and the Victorian Aboriginal Childcare Agency jointly released a Framework to reduce the criminalisation of young people in residential care

The Framework represents a commitment to reversing the trends of ‘crossover kids’.  But the reality is that despite the release of the Framework we’ve yet to see any meaningful change to the way things are working.

Kids in resi care are still having unnecessary contact with police, which too-often escalates to arrests and charges, and triggers a cycle of criminalisation.

Resi care workers do an outstanding job, under often challenging circumstances, but they are under-resourced and ill-equipped to manage very challenging behaviours.

They need more support and training to be able to manage challenging behaviour without involving police as a first option. [SE1] 

We want to see coordinated, ongoing training for all residential care workers, for police and for members of the judiciary. Courts also need a way to flag all cases that involve crossover kids through the creation of a separate dedicated list of appearances, as per the recommendations of the Sentencing Advisory Council.

The drafting of a new Victorian Youth Justice Act is a rare opportunity to shift how we approach sentencing children to ensure that experiences of trauma are considered at every step. Until we fully acknowledge the nexus between adverse childhood experiences and challenging behaviour among young people, we will continue to see a pipeline of young people being funneled from resi care into our courts, youth detention centres and ultimately into adult prisons.