A new report tabled in parliament last week by Guardian Penny Wright details the circumstances of 51 South Australian children in state care who were caught up in the criminal justice system between February and July this year.
It found young people who are looked after in groups homes cared for by rostered staff – called residential care homes – are at increased risk of participating in crime, with some preferring life at Adelaide’s youth detention centre to living at their care placement.
Of the 16 “dual involved” children interviewed by Wright and her staff, “almost all” reported being held in custody at the City Watch House (CWH) – an adult facility run by SA Police to hold people when they are charged.
Some told Wright’s office that they had been held at the CWH on numerous occasions, with one reportedly claiming the watch house staff knew them by name.
“It is alarming that they regularly are being detained in an adult facility, potentially exposing those with significant trauma backgrounds to unnecessary stress and risk,” Wright wrote.
“Core human rights instruments make clear that minors should only be detained for the shortest time possible, and only as a last resort, and that they must be held separately from adults.”
Wright wrote that the young people did not report sharing a cell with adults, but some said they were in “direct view of adults”, including when using the toilet.
She wrote that it had become “apparent” that every child who passes through the CWH is required to undergo a strip search “as a matter of course”, despite the Department for Human Services phasing out the use of strip searches at the state’s youth detention centre last year.
But SA Police has denied that young people are routinely subjected to strip searches, telling InDaily that the procedure is only used on extremely rare occasions.
It has a bed, a toilet, a sink and you can’t even hide yourself when you go toilet
SA Police has also denied that children are placed in holding cells in “direct view” of adult offenders.
While Wright is legislated to advocate for children and young people detained at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre at Cavan, she is not mandated to provide oversight of minors detained in police custodial facilities.
She wrote that reports of children being detained at the CWH would be explored by her office in more depth as part of a final report to be handed down early next year.
Her interim report, tabled last week, contains testimonies from children in care who reported being detained at the CWH.
“It’s weird, man. Like you can, the old men, …you can see them, you know, and they just look at you and you’re just like sh*t*** yourself,” one reportedly said.
Another said: “Old men stare at you through the thing when you’re going toilet. … No, it looks feral. It’s feral. … Glass windows and then it has a bed, a toilet, a sink and you can’t even hide yourself when you go toilet. … Us kids go on the same floor as them [adults].”
A spokesperson for SA Police told InDaily that the CWH is a facility where any person who has been arrested is charged regardless of their age.
“When a youth has been arrested they are charged at the CWH (or another charging facility) and if they are refused police bail they are conveyed to a youth detention facility as soon as practical, or presented before a youth court,” they said.
“If they are granted police bail they are released into the care of a parent/guardian to appear in a youth court at a later date.”
The spokesperson denied that children are subjected to strip searches every time they pass through the CWH, or that they are placed in cells within “direct view” of adult offenders.
“There is strict criteria for anyone (including a youth) to be subject to a strip search,” they said.
“There are occasions when youths may be placed into an observation cell where an adult may walk past and the youth may be in view for a brief period.
“Where possible youths are held in a separate cell area within the CWH complex away from where adults are held.
“A youth would not be placed into the same cell as an adult.”
Children are able to be arrested, charged and detained in South Australia from the age of 10.
Of the 51 children in care who were detained at Adelaide’s youth detention centre between February and July this year, 14 – or just over 27 per cent – were aged under 14.
Just over 40 per cent of the “dual involved” children were Aboriginal, while the same proportion had a diagnosed disability.
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