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Mandatory drug treatment "punitive": Children's Commissioner

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South Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People has labelled the Liberal Government’s plan to introduce mandatory drug treatment for children as a “punitive” approach that breaches young people’s rights.

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Children’s commissioner Helen Connolly has penned an article on self-publishing site Medium criticising the Controlled Substance (Youth Treatment Orders) Amendment Bill currently before state parliament.

The legislation, introduced by the State Government last month, would allow parents or guardians who have been unable to engage their children in voluntary treatment to legally force their children to attend drug treatment programs.

Under the proposed legislation, the Youth Court would be given the power to make an assessment order to determine whether a young person was drug dependent and unlikely to voluntarily seek treatment. The court would then have the option of making a treatment order requesting the young person attend a treatment service.

If the young person failed to follow court instructions, the Youth Court would have the power to detain them for mandatory treatment.

Connolly said the Bill promoted the message that “tough love” was the only way to curb children’s behaviour.

She said the Bill was an example of “things being done to children and young people for their own good”.

“From what is available in the public domain regarding this Bill, it is not protecting children and young people’s rights or providing them opportunities for an advocate, a second opinion or a lawyer,” she said.

“On the face of it, this Bill gives little consideration of children’s developmental ability and their circumstances.

“We know that the punitive approach in relation to children and young people as it stands does not work.”

Connolly said forcing young people against their knowledge or will to undertake treatment was problematic.

She said the discussion about punishment and detention of young people needed to change towards prevention, intervention and support.

“Effective treatment does not come from a simple approach of removing the young person from their day to day life and forcing abstinence,” she said. “Substance abuse is complex and is often associated with disability, mental health issues, family dynamics and social circumstances.

“Treatment, therefore, needs a raft of approaches that involve young people, their families and experts.”

South Australian Network of Drug and Alcohol Services (SANDAS) executive officer Michael White said he supported Connolly’s view.

He said there was very little evidence that mandated treatment allowed people to transition out of drug dependence, and that the draft Bill left many questions unanswered about where young people would be detained and for how long.

“This is a classic example of the government putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff but not putting a fence around the cliff,” he said.

“Our primary clients are concerned, the Commissioner for Children is concerned, the Aboriginal child welfare organisations are very concerned and it goes to a raft of policies this government has implemented that target children – the sniffer dogs in schools is another one – that are expensive, not based on research and an intrusion on human rights.”

White said the state’s drug and alcohol services were underfunded and struggled to meet the demand of people seeking treatments voluntarily.

According to SANDAS, currently only about 60 per cent of people in South Australia seeking treatment for drug and alcohol-related problems are able to secure a place in treatment programs.

White said the draft Bill did not consider national and international acts including the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 201, the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention on Human Rights.

He said the Government could run the risk of being hit with compensation claims in 10 years from the children who would be detained against their will for drug dependency.

Youth Affairs Council of South Australia (YACSA) executive director Anne Bainbridge agreed that the involuntary detention and treatment of young people threatened “the right to liberty and the right not to be subjected to medical treatment without full, free and informed consent.”

She said she had participated in the National Children’s Commissioner’s recent roundtable on the extent to which Australia is progressing in relation to a number of UN instruments including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“We raised the Controlled Substances (Youth Treatment Orders) Amendment Bill 2018 as well as a number of other law and order Bills that we believe contravene young people’s rights,” she said.

“YACSA is concerned by any policy or measure that threatens to detain young people against their will, particularly those who have not been charged with an offence.”

Bainbridge said she would like to see the Bill dropped in favour of an evidence-based approach to drug treatment.

“Prevention and early intervention, and non-compulsory – including coercive – treatment programs have the best chance of decreasing the misuse of illicit drugs in our communities and this should be the focus of policy makers.”

White said he also supported an evidence-based approach created in collaboration with the drug and alcohol sector that focussed on prevention and psychosocial supports rather than detainment.

He said similar models were already being used in countries such as the Netherlands and the UK.

In a statement to InDaily, Health Minister Stephen Wade said the Government’s Bill would provide a last resort for parents and would not replace treatment options for children who are not drug-dependent.

He said a “broad consultation process” would be undertaken with the community, treatment providers and health and child protection agencies to ensure the best model of care.

“All relevant stakeholders, including the Commissioner for Children and Young People, will be engaged as part of that consultation process,” Wade said.

“The legislation would also be reviewed to determine its effectiveness and whether amendments need to be made.”

SA Best has indicated it supports the Liberals’ draft bill but argued it would like to see the measures extended to cover adults.

Greens MP Mark Parnell said his party was currently undecided. He said he was waiting on the Government to provide him with all the public submissions to the legislation before he confirmed his support.

“As a matter of principle I’m not ruling out supporting it (as) sometimes people do need to be incarcerated against their will as a last resort, but there are lots of checks and balances that need to be put in place in terms of rights of appeal,” he said.

Parnell said it was unlikely the parliament would vote on the Bill before the winter break.

Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 shows illicit drug use among 14 to 19-year-olds between 2001 and 2016 declined considerably.

It shows use of cannabis among young people halved, use of ecstasy and cocaine declined by one-third and the use of meth/amphetamines considerably dropped from 6.2 to 0.8 per cent.

If you or someone you know needs help with alcohol or other drugs go to knowyouroptions.sa.gov.au.

You can also contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Service on 1300 13 13 40.

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