From December, the Youth Court will be able to request that children detained at Adelaide’s youth justice centre be assessed to determine whether they have drug dependency issues, are unlikely to seek voluntary assistance and pose a danger to themselves or others.
The court would then have the power to order those who are found to be drug dependent to undergo mandatory rehabilitation for up to 12 months.
The program, called Youth Treatment Orders, was a Marshall Government election promise, but despite legislation passing parliament in 2019 with the support of the Opposition, it is yet to be enforced.
The Government initially said that court-ordered drug treatment could be requested by parents who are unable to convince their children to engage in voluntary rehabilitation and who, as a measure of last resort, wanted them to be detained to receive support.
Late last year, the Government proposed trialling the program on children already detained at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre in Cavan, before extending it to children across the broader community.
But the plan received significant backlash from a range of social service, medical and legal groups, who warned that the program would breach human rights standards that ban medical experimentation on prisoners.
The groups also argued that there was limited evidence that mandatory drug treatment would work and that the process could traumatise children who are caught up in the criminal justice system.
In response, the Government has announced that it will instead pay a private drug rehabilitation provider by the hour to deliver a “focussed, highly-targeted” treatment program for children detained at the youth justice centre.
Under the new model, only children who are convicted of criminal offences and detained at the youth justice centre will be eligible to receive mandatory treatment at the discretion of the Youth Court.
The Government expects that up to 44 detained children may need to be assessed for drug dependency issues each year, but only five are likely to require mandatory treatment.
Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told InDaily that the program would be used as a “last resort measure” to “break the cycle of addiction”.
“It would act as a circuit breaker in only the most serious of cases, saving children from, potentially, a life of addiction or drug dependency,” she said.
“It would only be used in a very small number of cases, and when all other intervention avenues have been exhausted.”
According to a government document released late last year, the program will be “the first of its kind in Australia”.
It is hard to envisage a system of last resort, when for many young people they cannot access a system of first resort
Advocates say the new model is light on detail and they aren’t convinced that children who are subjected to the orders will benefit.
Australian Medical Association SA president Dr Michelle Atchison said the program was “certainly controversial” and represented a “major change to the way that we view how to manage people who have got a drug and alcohol condition”.
“This is a particularly vulnerable population that they’re seeking to trial this experiment on,” she said.
“These are young people who have got mental health problems, probably have major histories of trauma, and about 40 per cent of people who are in the youth justice system have foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, so perhaps have some cognitive difficulties understanding instructions that they’re given.
“It is always better if people seek voluntary help for their drug and alcohol problems.”
Youth Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright, who is legislated to advocate for children in detention, questioned whether the program would “primarily be therapeutic and rehabilitative, or custodial”.
“I remain concerned the YTOs (Youth Treatment Orders) will disproportionately be applied to children and young people in care, those who are Aboriginal, and those who have a disability,” she said.
Wright’s comments were echoed by the SA Council of Social Service and Youth Affairs Council of SA, which said they were waiting for assurance from the Government that the rights of young people would be protected.
“At the centre of our concerns was the need to first and foremost address the addiction and behavioural issues amongst this young people as a health issue,” SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley said.
“Rather than a short-term mandatory treatment program that has the potential to do more harm than good, we would like to see greater investment in voluntary, evidence-based prevention and early intervention services for young people that recognise and uphold their rights,” Youth Affairs Council of SA CEO Anne Bainbridge added.
SA Network of Drug and Alcohol Services executive director Michael White said the Government should instead fund voluntary drug treatment programs to ensure young people could receive treatment when they needed and wanted it.
“It is hard to envisage a system of last resort, when for many young people they cannot access a system of first resort,” he said.
“The significant resources that this system may require should rather be deployed to better support voluntary treatment, early intervention and prevention in schools and the community and, that where young person requires the provision of intensive support it is done in a health or community rather than a justice-based setting.”
Chapman said the Government “appreciates that mandated treatment is not supported by all health professionals”.
“Lives are at risk if we stand by and do nothing,” she said.
“By looking to the private sector, it will bring Youth Treatment Orders in line with other court-ordered treatments.”
According to government tender documents, the legislation will come into force on November 21, with a contract with a private drug rehabilitation provider to start on December 1.
The documents state that young people will only be subjected to “the least restrictive” therapeutic treatment for 12 months, or once they are released from the Youth Justice Centre.
“The program will sit alongside health services already available to young people at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre, including mental health support, medical treatment, and voluntary drug programs,” the documents state.
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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