Anoushka Jeronimus’ speech on the 30th anniversary of universal child rights

Anoushka Jeronimus’ speech on the 30th anniversary of universal child rights

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Our Manager of Youth Crime Anoushka recently spoke at the Monash University School of Social Sciences event '30th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child'. Read her speech notes:

Victoria Legal Aid is the State’s largest defence practice for children facing criminal charges.  We see the practices and micro decisions that affect children going into and remaining in detention and now prison, every day.

Right now the age of criminal responsibility in this state is ten – I don’t know if any of you have a ten year old at home, but please take a moment to think about what that looks like – tonight as we sit here a child, in grade four or five can be charged with a criminal offence and detained in a youth justice facility.

We know the best way to help children who’ve gotten in trouble, is to keep them in the community connected to family and other support, so they can learn from their mistakes and go on to lead healthy and happy lives. This is at the heart of our Children Youth and Families Act. But unfortunately, I think it’s fair to say that in recent years we’ve seen an unwinding of those principles and an idea come into being that some kids are deserving of these lofty ideals, while others are not.

Overall, detention is still recognised as a last resort for children. However, the operating environment and a series of legislative changes have made it increasingly difficult for decision-makers to honour this principle. 

Tonight is a chance to reflect on the obligations the UNCRC promotes for all children.

The reality of representing children

Our Article 37 obligations include that:

  1. Detention of children must be a last resort and for shortest possible time; and

  1. Ensuring that, whilst detained children are treated with humanity, dignity and in a manner, which considers their individual needs.

This year’s Youth Parole Board Annual Report shows the number of children on remand increased, both in terms of frequency and individuals. This is concerning given we know that the more time children spend in custody, the greater their chance of returning.

Following the 2018 bail reforms, more children are finding themselves in remand situations more quickly, propelled into the higher bail test categories for bail, exceptional circumstances. We are also seeing an underutilisation of the intensive supervised bail scheme designed for more complex children. 

During our weekly outreach visits to children in youth detention we see great variation in their conditions. While media attention focuses around the actions of children in custody, the conditions they are living in are rarely included in these reports.

Our experience is that the increasing remand numbers, staff shortages combined with resourcing and training issues for custodial staff, are playing a big role in the treatment of children. This results in our clients being denied access to education or therapeutic programs, being subject to lock-ins and conditions that amount to solitary confinement.

Our young client Leo recently told us that things are as bad as they have ever been in Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre and that he spends most of his time locked in. ‘I just want someone to talk to’, he said.

The Victorian Ombudsman’s recent report into solitary confinement confirmed that there is widespread use of solitary confinement conditions, meaning the physical isolation of children and young people ‘for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact’:

  • that these practices are used are as a management tool when centres are short staffed; and
  • that solitary confinement is used to punish young people who are often victims of assault. For example 30% of young people at Port Philip Prison were in solitary confinement ‘for their own safety’.

The report from Deborah Glass was a distressing study of the normalised, widespread use of practices that damage childrens' wellbeing and stops their opportunity for rehabilitation. The practice of prolonged periods of solitary confinement of children is counter to Article 37 and needs to be reviewed.

Also of great concern to me is that Aboriginal, Maori and Pasifka, East African and child protection-involved kids make up about 70 percent of the youth custody population. These are among the most disadvantaged, dislocated and traumatised youth in our community.

It is a fact that more serious, violent offending has increased. As highlighted by the Youth Parole Board report, the 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry research paper states, 'a consensus in research that a small population of chronic offenders are responsible for a disproportionately large amount of crime' However, reforms to send kids to adult prison when they commit serious offences is not the answer either; addressing the offence not the offender goes against all the evidence of what works to keep the child and community safe.

Suggestions for improvement

I’ve been asked to close by suggesting how we could make improvements to the system and due to time and the range of speakers tonight I will focus on a couple of key changes that we know would improve outcomes for children in Victoria.

Firstly, we can keep children from entering the system and out of custody: As many of you know there is currently a campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, which is the global average.

Across Australia around 600 children below 14 are locked up in youth prisons each year. Almost 70 percent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. This situation is untenable from a legal, social services and medical standpoint. This is why the Raise the Age campaign has received support from peak bodies in all these sectors. We must raise the age of criminal responsibility and give kids the chance to be kids and to change and grow.

We also can divert children away from the system. At the beginning of 2018 the Children’s Court state-wide Youth Diversion was rolled out. As part of the process, the child must take responsibility for their crime and they must take concrete steps to develop their knowledge, skills and attitudes to avoid committing further offences.

We continue to call for the creation of a plan to reduce the chances of children in residential care having contact with police and the courts.

Diversion should also include diverting children away from serious organised crime. Some of the children we’ve seen who commit more serious crimes go from zero to ten in terms of offending. Disengagement from school, mental health issues, racism and lack of employment are contributing factors.

An overarching crime prevention strategy which focussed on whole of life outcomes for children and families would be an excellent step in the right direction and I was pleased to see such a strategy from Scotland recently.

As legal representatives for children and young people we see their hope and potential daily. They all deserve chances to go on to lead productive sometimes extraordinary and sometimes “ordinary” lives. The CRC is a blueprint for how we can respond to children’s needs and potential. As adults we have a responsibility to bring the Convention to life.

More information

Read about why we support raising the age of criminal responsibility

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