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Estimates Reply – Minister Jaensch

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Tags: Ashley Youth Detention Centre, Commission of Inquiry, Child Abuse

Ms O'CONNOR - Before I talk about the substantive issues that came out of Mr Jaensch's Estimates, I remind Ms Standen that the reason we only had one-and-a-half hours for Human Services was a choice that your party made, to take time away from Human Services - just so the record is accurate, Deputy Chair.

A significant part of the Estimates with Mr Jaensch this year dealt with that terrible, unsafe place that is Ashley Youth Detention Centre. While the minister told the Estimates Committee that Ashley is a safe environment, we do not believe him. The evidence does not point to that. We have spoken to staff who disagree with the minister. It is one thing to focus on historical allegations and historical events. It is not all historical. Something is rotten at Ashley now, today, here. That is a fact.

I went back through the Hansard transcript last night to prepare for today and I could see no recognition on the minister's part that this is not all historical. Until he accepts the reality that there are significant, unresolved problems at Ashley that impact on the outcomes for those children and young people, he is not going to be able to administer this portfolio effectively. The evidence is clear.

In fact, the evidence is in the Ombudsman's report of an event at Ashley Youth Detention Centre in December 2019. The report talks about a January 2018 incident, a complaint from a young person about the use of force against them during an incident at Ashley in November 2017. Communities Tasmania instigated a review of the use of force against the young person, and several other use of force incidents that happened around the same time. It made a large number of recommendations. One was that an assessment be made to determine if action needed to be taken against the staff involved in the use of force against the complainant.

You would think that some sort of action should be taken when there is evidence that staff have used force - that is a euphemism for being violent - towards a young detainee at Ashley. The Ombudsman says in the subsequent assessment that he department decided not to take any formal action against staff due to 'gaps in training and procedures'. We looked at the department's assessment of whether it should take formal action against the staff involved in the use of force incident. The allegation is - and here is the kicker from the Ombudsman -

Although we did not make any findings about the use of force it did not seem reasonable despite any gaps in procedures or training to throw a 12-year-old from a bench and pull the complainant by their handcuffed arms while they were lying on their stomach after being restrained.

After the use of force incident the young person was left handcuffed in their room for two hours without constant supervision.

This is not stuff the Greens have made up - and we were accused of that a lot last week.

This is in the Ombudsman's report, where he says the assessment did not obtain all the facts. The department's assessment of this incident was basic and the decision to take no action against staff was based on little or no evidence. The department did not get some facts or did not mention them in the assessment such as - •

details of the harm the complainant suffered including photos taken by correctional primary health services of bruises and physiotherapy appointments relating to shoulder pain;

the complainant's version of events.

Whatever happened to the rights of the child? •

evidence of the training provided to youth workers or outline which specific procedures were not clear; and •

the experience of the youth workers and how long they had been working at Ashley, which combined was in excess of two decades.

Not having these facts meant that the assessment had not been adequate and as the Ombudsman notes -

I understand there have since been three Ashley Youth Detention staff suspended as a result of use of force incidents.

It is not true to say that Ashley is a safe environment for young people. It is delusional to think all of this happened in ancient history. There is a reason three staff have been suspended and there is a question mark hanging over a number of others. Yet, when I put testimony to the minister, from people we have spoken to who worked or have worked at Ashley Youth Detention Centre about a culture there - the minister rejected that. The minister put it back on the Greens and said if you have any evidence, present it.

The minister has the Department of Communities Tasmania at his disposal. These issues were raised in a parliamentary forum. They are now on the table. It has been brought to his attention, and we are not going to ring up the referral line. We are parliamentarians. That is where we will bring this up. I wonder about the quality of the information that is being fed up to the minister. There are vast contradictions between what we heard at Estimates and what we are hearing from people with experience of Ashley.

Ashley needs to be closed. It is the most damning indictment on this Government that they know that place is such a harsh environment for young people and they do so little to give them an opportunity for a good life. It is a damning indictment on the Government that they have put $7 million in this year's budget to fix up Ashley. It cannot be fixed. That $7 million presumably is for infrastructure. Where is the money going into extra clinicians, therapists and mentors? It was a political decision to keep Ashley Youth Detention Centre open, and that $7 million should be withheld until the Commission of Inquiry has done its work, because presented with the evidence of the failed Ashley model, surely that commission of inquiry will recognise that Ashley needs to close. It is failing those children.

We heard that there were 223 strip-searches in the past year. We would like to know how many of those young people who underwent strip-searches had modesty gowns on, which was a recommendation of the commissioner for children. First of all, we should not be strip-searching children. Second, a recommendation was made to provide some dignity to those children who were being strip-searched with the use of modesty gowns. We understand there has been a problem procuring those modesty gowns and a big question mark hangs over whether that recommendation of the commissioner for children is being implemented.

We heard some very tricky language around the question of isolation of young people. What is happening is that children are being put into their rooms for extended periods; it is just not being called isolation. We know from a number of sources that after that incident on the roof at Ashley Youth Detention Centre in December last year a number of the young people involved were isolated in their room for an extended period. That is isolation.

We want to see that commission of inquiry undertake its work and the infrastructure money for Ashley, which is about politics, be held off until that is done. We would also like some real clarity about why young people who are brought in by Tasmania Police are not provided with a lawyer before they are sent to Ashley on remand. That question was not answered. We contend that that is in contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also a denial of access to justice for the children and young people who come before the Magistrates Court on matters that Tasmania Police have brought them in for. We will not let Ashley go.