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Adelaide's youth detention centre is not a 'new path' but a dead end


The Kurlana Tapa Training Centre at Cavan is in crisis, a “constricted and dangerous” place which is failing the children it’s meant to help, says Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright.

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For five years, I have been privileged to work with the children and young people in Kurlana Tapa Youth Training Centre.

But as my term reaches an end, I am concerned I am leaving them in the midst of a crisis which has been years in the making.

Kurlana Tapa means ‘New Path’ in the language of the Kaurna people. This name reminds us the centre is not a place to lock up children and young people deemed ‘difficult’, but an opportunity to equip them with the care, education and guidance they need.

Kurlana Tapa Youth Training Centre at Cavan. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Recently a young man detained at Kurlana Tapa bluntly asked my staff ‘how is this a pathway?’ And I don’t know how to answer that question.

The centre is in the grips of a long-term staffing crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

These staffing issues have a severe impact on the mental health and lives of children and young people at Kurlana Tapa, where the staff have a pivotal role – not only are they responsible for facilitating access to supports like education, rehabilitative programs and medical assessments, they are often the only source of immediate emotional support for the vulnerable children detained there.

My office is seeing rising rates of incidents involving violence, use of forceful restraints against young people, and self-harming behaviours from children as young as 12. Both staff and young people commonly attribute these issues to the excessive time young people are being confined to their bedrooms.

We’ve seen health issues go untreated and medical assessments cancelled due to insufficient operational staff. School lessons are frequently impacted or cancelled due to staffing shortages, despite many young people being of compulsory school age.

I fear the constricted and dangerous environment at Kurlana Tapa has become the ‘new normal’ rather than a temporary aberration, and South Australia is at risk of seeing the types of extreme incidents that are occurring in youth detention centres across the country.

My office is seeing rising rates of incidents involving violence, use of forceful restraints against young people, and self-harming behaviours from children as young as 12

We are living in challenging times, and I respect the ongoing efforts of those involved in the administration and front-line delivery of youth justice services. But the challenges of these times do not relieve our society of the responsibility to uphold basic human rights for children and young people deprived of their liberty.

Instead, it requires the best of our creativity, collaboration and compassion. This is an emergency for the future of our most vulnerable young people and we cannot afford inaction.

Penny Wright’s five-year term as Guardian for Children and Young People ends today. Former Reconciliation SA CEO Shona Reid will take up the position on Monday. Listen to Penny Wright’s InDaily podcast on her experiences here.

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