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'A circus': Alarming safety incidents in Juvenile Justice

Rising assaults, horrific self-harm incidents and insecure cells have undermined safety for staff and young people in NSW Juvenile Justice, reports and statistics leaked to the Herald show.

In one case this year, a detainee in youth custody alleged he had been sexually assaulted in his private cell by another staying in the one next door. Only after the allegation did staff realise that a metal panel separating the two rooms could be removed and its screws were stuck in with toothpaste.

Corrections Minister David Elliott will face a parliamentary estimates hearing on Tuesday to answer questions about Juvenile Justice, which has failed to prevent a range of serious incidents this year.

At one custody centre where self-harm incidents have surged, a teenage boy cut off part of his ear and flushed it down the toilet. A detainee at the same centre who punched and kicked a corrections officer unconscious had to be held back by his peers.

“It’s a circus,” said one source, who worked in the agency’s operational arm. “The focus is on glossy brochures and theoretical visions, as opposed to common sense safety strategies to protect staff and stop young people mutilating themselves.”

The agency’s executive director, Melanie Hawyes, said keeping young people busy and interested in programs, school and work was her common sense strategy and not “some highfalutin’ theory”.

“I take safety really seriously,” Ms Hawyes said. “We do everything we can to keep people safe."

Juvenile Justice hired 22 new caseworkers to help with its 266 detainees and introduced 24-hour access to psychological help. It has spent more than $1 million putting staff through a two-day risk de-escalation course as well as further training around protective tactics and countering violent extremism.

But since the Herald revealed the use of solitary confinement in Juvenile Justice in 2016, the agency has faced a number of worrying security incidents.

An independent report into the use of force and isolation – which the minister had said he hoped to receive last January – remains unfinished.

On January 23, Mr Elliott received a briefing note about an alleged sexual assault against an 18-year-old man in Juvenile Justice, which looks after people aged up to 21 ½.

The young man at the Acmena centre in northern NSW had reported that an 18-year-old in the cell next door had entered his room via an air vent and sexually assaulted him, according to Juvenile Justice.

“I was deeply concerned by the alleged assault at Acmena,” said Mr Elliott. “The room has undergone urgent maintenance to secure the panel. I am advised no other room within the state’s facilities has the same issue.”

Police interviewed both boys but were unable to find any other evidence and decided not to press charges.

“The wishes of the alleged victim are obviously a clear factor in that,” Ms Hawyes said.

A professional standards review found no fault with supervision on the night of the alleged assault, she said, although one of the checks meant to occur every 20 minutes was delayed by 10 minutes.

South of Acmena, there has been trouble at the state’s biggest Juvenile Justice centre, the central coast’s Frank Baxter facility.

On August 7, a detainee punched a 62-year-old corrections officer until he was unconscious. Other detainees held back the aggressor, but he broke free and began kicking the officer in the head.

Ms Hawyes said there were no indicators that the detainee was going to become violent. The attack occurred in a low-risk unit. She said the victim was being supported by Juvenile Justice and was expected to return to work when he had recovered.

Another form of violence challenging staff is the kind young people inflict on themselves.

On June 30 at Baxter, a teenage boy was found to have cut himself with a sharpened rock, after spending time confined on his own. Staff were told the boy had “self-harmed by cutting his right earlobe off” and ordered an ambulance to take him to Grafton Hospital, according to an incident report from the time.

Ms Hawyes confirmed the boy had cut a piece of his earlobe off. A NSW ambulance source said the incident was reported as a “serious haemorrhage” and that the injured teenaged boy was suicidal and violent.

Both the number of assaults on staff and incidents of self-harm have risen steeply at Baxter, according to leaked documents that compared the periods from January to mid-August this year and last.

Physical assaults on staff – which range from spitting to violent attacks – jumped from eight to 25, while self-harm incidents doubled, rising from 52 to 100. Incidents requiring medical help or hospitalisation rose from 30 to 49.

Ms Hawyes said statistics fluctuated from year to year, cohorts of detainees changed in character over time and “a large number of incidents are often associated with a small number of detainees”. For instance, half of the assaults at Baxter were committed by 10 detainees.

The number of staff requiring medical attention after an assault had gone down, Ms Hawyes said.

Several Juvenile Justice sources have expressed frustration to the Herald about a lack of direction within the organisation and a fear that the cultures in individual centres were contributing to violence.

Ms Hawyes said a recent staff survey showed rising levels of satisfaction across a range of measures.

By Patrick Begley and Jacqueline Maley

3 September 2018 


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