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08 Dec 2017

Two recent Royal Commissions have inquired into systemic and institutional failure to protect vulnerable young people. The formula is roughly consistent. Both inquiries, Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory and Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, began with an initial exposé which generated enough public outrage to force a Government response.

In both cases, the subsequent investigations uncovered layers of abuse and neglect far more pervasive than anybody could have ever imagined. What remains to be seen, is the extent to which these Royal Commissions generate enough momentum to result in meaningful and positive change.

The findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory are abhorrent. Children as young as ten serving custodial sentences in conditions that could not be deemed appropriate for any child, let alone some of our most vulnerable.

The final report of the Royal Commission delivered 43 recommendations, all with a subset of more detailed recommendations. In essence, the Report demands a drastic overhaul of the entire juvenile justice system.

A major finding from the Royal Commission is the relationship between Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and juvenile incarceration. FASD occurs as a result of fetal alcohol exposure, and results in lifelong neurodevelopmental impairments. At present, we do not know the extent of its prevalence in Australia but it is thought to be endemic in some custodial settings.

Overseas studies have found that young people with FASD are almost 20 times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than their peers. Unsurprisingly, this carries a significant financial burden for both adult and youth justice systems. The relationship between FASD and the criminal justice system is dual in that FASD increases the likelihood a person will come into contact with the system, and then subsequently impedes their ability to navigate it. A particularly troublesome aspect of FASD is that many of its manifestations can simply appear as disobedience or behavioural problems to the untrained eye.

Young people are not routinely screened for FASD upon entering the juvenile justice system, and the Commission was told there are currently no plans to implement such an initiative. The Department of Health maintains that rates of FASD within the Northern Territory custodial settings are likely to be relatively low due to the high proportion of alcohol-free communities in the NT. However, the Commission received expert advice to the contrary, suggesting that as many as a third of all of the young people in youth detention could have FASD.

While there is no cure for FASD, behavioural and education interventions can improve outcomes for people with a diagnosis of FASD. Routine and psychosocial support are both beneficial to people with FASD, yet if the findings of the Royal Commission are anything to go by, these were not on offer to any of the young people in the care of the Northern Territory detention and protection systems.

In 2016, the AMA released a position statement Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) – 2016. The statement calls for strategies to identify and support people with FASD who come into the education, criminal justice and child protection systems consistent, broadly similar with the findings of the Royal Commission.

So far, these calls remain unmet.

It is vital that the findings of the recent Royal Commission are not simply a catalyst for collective shame, but for meaningful and positive change. Remorse and reflection can do very little for the young people in the youth justice system, and those that are yet to enter it, but they stand to benefit a lot from systemic changes to the youth criminal justice system.


Published: 08 Dec 2017