Ms O'CONNOR question to MINISTER for EDUCATION, CHILDREN and YOUTH, Mr JAENSCH
The National Children's Commissioner has joined Amnesty and UNICEF in calling for Ashley's immediate closure to prevent further harm to children and young people. In the wake of evidence to the commission of inquiry, all have expressed their horror that the place is still open, after all we have learned about the harm it has caused. Can you give them, and the parents of children and young people at Ashley right now, any reassurance juvenile detainees are safer there now? Will you answer the question you did not yesterday and confirm Ashley will be closed and alternatives will be in place by September 2024?
Mr Speaker, I thank Ms O'Connor, Leader of the Greens, for her question. I can confirm our decision is clear. Our commitment remains that Ashley will be closed and we will have new therapeutic alternatives in place by the end of 2024. That has not changed since the commitment was made in September 2021.
I empathise and sympathise with those who are calling for an end to the Ashley story as soon as possible. We have committed to a pathway for delivering that. If there were alternatives available now, we would be taking them.
The Ashley that is being talked about in the commission of inquiry, as it needs to be, painful as it is, brings together experiences across decades. The picture of Ashley being painted in people's minds now is horrific and unacceptable at any time for anyone.
The Ashley operating today is not all of that. There has been a lot of change made and undertaken and, most importantly, there are young people in Ashley now who have been put there by courts who need dedicated, skilled, trained care and supervision and management, and there are people in Ashley now whose job it is to give them that.
Regardless of the storm raging around Ashley, our first consideration needs to be the wellbeing of those people who are in Ashley and those who are there charged with the responsibility of giving them care. If there were better alternative sites and services available, we would be using them. In fact, what is happening is we are bringing them to Ashley, as the most suitable site we have to provide these services right now.
There are layers of safeguarding and supervision. There have been structural changes made to that facility, which I have relayed here, over years of investment we are making to improve the safety and safeguarding of Ashley. However, we must never forget that in there right now are young people who the courts have put there for the safety of the public and for their need for secure therapeutic attention. There are people whose job it is to do that, who care deeply about doing their job well. For all those people and their families this time is extraordinarily difficult and we need to ensure that we are now giving them the supports as well as the safeguards to keep doing that job.
We can make decisions and announcements about closing Ashley but it does not make that difficult job go away and we need to ensure we are doing that to the best of our ability. I commend our department staff, our workers in our youth justice system and the other services that support them and which are supporting them through this difficult time doing their difficult job, which does not stop when a decision is made to close something.
Regarding the pathway we are on, the decision and the announcement was made that we are going to close Ashley and establish new therapeutic youth justice facilities. Very clearly, we do not want, and we do not think the public expects us, to build two new smaller Ashleys in different postcodes, like that makes the whole thing go away. Work is being done on working out what it is that we need to build, what we expect it to do. That involves deep analysis of who is in Ashley and why, both because they are sentenced but also because they might have been referred there as a remand option while their sentencing and other matters are taken account of. There are some young people in Ashley who do not end up being sentenced to be in detention. These are the sorts of matters that are going backwards and forwards between me, my office, my department, our advisers, our consultants and the people we have engaged in round tables and forums on developing our new blueprint for our new youth justice system, in the hope that what we might design and build is a facility for a smaller group of young people.
We already have the lowest rate of detention of young people in Australia: on average, fewer than 10 kids on any given day in Ashley. The vast majority of young people who come into contact with our youth justice system are cared for and directed to community-based youth justice, diversion and rehabilitation options. We want more of that. That is why we have announced that we are going to raise minimum age of detention to 14. That is why we are taking more time, not just finding two sites and designing two buildings but working out how many kids they are for - what type, what age, what their needs are, who they are not for, what other services need to be co-located with them; ideally in terms of secure mental health, drug and alcohol services; and other types of support for the smaller number of people who actually need to be in that facility.
If, as a result of that, I can deliver a smaller, more specialised facility for an even smaller cohort of people, complemented potentially by new bail house-type options in communities in different parts of our state where remandees might be able to spend their shorter period of time in something which is not a detention environment, I will go for that. I believe that is what people expect us to be doing.
For those who are calling for the closure of Ashley, I get it. If we could just turn this off and make it go away we would. However, I am the guy responsible and we are the Government with responsibility for making sure that we are providing the best care and therapeutic solutions for these young people and ensuring there is an appropriately trained workforce around them and that they are supported to do the difficult, messy, horrible work that they sometimes have to do to support these young lives and try to get them on better tracks.
If those options existed right now, we would be on them. At the moment, Ashley is the worst and the best option we have available to us. We will wrap support around that until something better exists. We are going to get there as soon as possible. What we will get to is not going to be decanting Ashley into two smaller packages just to make it go away. Hopefully we will end up with nation-leading, best possible care for the fewest possible kids entering detention as a very last resort, with the services they need to try and turn those lives around. Meanwhile, the vast majority continue to be diverted into other forms of therapy and care that mean they do not end up in incarceration.