Opinion

Siyavash Doostkhah
Children’s rights suffer in Queensland

As Queensland reels from the deaths of a number of innocent people as a result of car theft by teenagers in recent weeks, community members are, understandably, desperately seeking answers to how such needless deaths can be prevented. But the Queensland Liberal National Party and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) have successfully used the community anger and grief associated with the recent tragic road incidents to once again push their antiquated ideas on to the government.

Kneejerk reactions will do nothing to enhance our community’s safety and cohesion. The LNP’s call for the reintroduction of breach of bail as a criminal offence is not based on any sound evidence. Neither is the Queensland Labor government’s introduction of electronic monitoring devices (GPS trackers), a presumption against bail or enshrining in legislation that offending while on bail is an aggravating circumstance when the court is imposing sentences.

For the Queensland premier to start dancing to the LNP’s tune this early in the election cycle shows a lack of leadership necessary to de-escalate tension in the community and educate the public. Labor, the LNP, QPS and the Murdoch press have united in trying to put fear into our community and making monsters out of a group of highly neglected and vulnerable children.

The appointment of the former head of the Security and Counter-Terrorism Command, Cheryl Scanlon, to lead a youth crime taskforce is an overreaction, to say the least. According to recent crime statistics, less than 1 per cent of children aged between 10 and 17 in Queensland had a proven court offence last year, and the repeat offenders responsible for almost half of the offences total about 47 per cent. Police and the government have been dehumanising this group of children, referring to them as the
“10 per cent”.

For the past 30 years, I have worked with and researched this group of children in places such as Townsville and other low socioeconomic communities. I have firsthand knowledge of how investing a fraction of the cost associated with criminal justice responses turned a community that had the highest youth crime rate in Queensland into one with the lowest. In recent decades, I have seen governments of all persuasions, hand in hand with the mainstream media, paint a picture of these children as hardened gangsters and little terrorists. This is far from the reality of a desperate group of children whose cries for help have been falling on deaf ears. They have been neglected by all adults around them and then further brutalised and neglected by government intervention through the so-called “child protection” and “juvenile justice” systems.

A better name for these vile institutions and the way they treat our children would be “child neglect” and “youth injustice” – they do little to facilitate genuine care and healing for these children. For all intents and purposes, not only has society forsaken these children but we have also condemned them to a life of suffering in various government institutions.

There is an African proverb that says, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” We are the village and we have been failing in our responsibility to embrace our children. These children are a mirror, reflecting back to us what we as a society have shown them – a lack of care and respect.

QPS and, in particular, the police union in Queensland have a lot to answer for. For too long they have prioritised accumulation of power and resources above community safety. Successive governments historically have not only failed to curtail the police union’s ever-expanding thirst for political control, they have also played into the union’s hands.

The Mundingburra byelection in 1996 is an example of the police union’s intervention into state politics. The police union played a decisive role in unseating the Goss Labor government by running a highly politicised fear campaign. It used TV ads, mobile billboards and radio talkback appearances to highlight the dangers to public safety if a raft of demands by the union totalling more than 14 pages was not met.

The QPS has become a powerful corporation, with its tentacles spread far and wide, sucking the lifeblood of our community’s resources and peddling fear and anxiety in exchange. They have the hide to threaten to withdraw protection for cabinet members if one of their rank were to be investigated. Just remember the aftermath of Mulrunji’s murder on Palm Island.

Queensland’s current youth strategy and also the youth justice strategy were both more or less developed by police. The so-called 10 per cent of children who are now the target of the anti-terror squad were not considered in either strategy. In fact, none of the children or young people on the margins of our society took part in consultations or were considered by the authors of these strategies. Most youth workers, the only people who have any connection with marginalised children and young people, are unaware of the existence of these documents.

The youth sector in Queensland has been gutted by both Labor and LNP governments. The resources and support available to this sector are now less than half of what they were 20 years ago. The youth sector has lost a number of highly successful programs with direct impacts on youth crime numbers, such as the Youth and Community Combined Action Program and the Youth Support Coordinator Initiative. These two programs alone injected almost $40 million to front-line youth services. The total funding of all youth programs now sits just above $20 million. All three peak bodies representing the youth sector at policy and advocacy levels were defunded by the Newman LNP government in 2012. Despite promising when in opposition that it would reinstate their funding, the Palaszczuk Labor government has failed to do so. It seems one of the few bipartisan issues in Queensland politics is the silencing of the voices of advocacy organisations.

Youth workers have a proven history of using their skill sets to build trusting relationships with young people at risk of lashing out at a society that has so badly neglected them. Youth workers have demonstrated that once they form trusting relationships with this cohort they can slowly introduce various options and support young people in making choices that are conducive to both their health and wellbeing and that of the community at large.

For the equivalent cost of keeping one young person in a youth prison for a year, you can establish an entire youth service in a community. The former approach further traumatises young people and trains them to become more sophisticated criminals. The latter facilitates a path for young people to reintegrate and to take their rightful place in society. Both these models have been researched and there is much evidence available to decision-makers. For example, the Australian Law Reform Commission conducted a major inquiry and released a report with recommendations that specifically emphasised, “All Australian governments must direct resources into developing effective juvenile crime prevention programs to ensure community safety and to stop young people from getting caught in an escalating cycle of offending. These could include primary and secondary education modules, early intervention programs and family support schemes. However, these programs must be carefully structured to avoid a risk of net-widening, that is, of identifying ever larger numbers of young people as ‘at risk’ and bringing them under community and government scrutiny.”

Another simple solution that can complement the youth work approach is to disband the monumental failure that is the Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC). Originally named the Police Boys Club and with the aim to “subordinate the individual to the welfare of the nation”, PCYC clubs purport to be based on three pillars: youth development, crime prevention and community engagement. But in fact, these clubs have done nothing to improve the relationship between marginalised young people and police. They have taken police officers away from their core duties and attempted (mostly failed) to turn them into sports venue managers. A much better use of these police officers’ time would be to have them engaged in community policing: walking the streets, getting to know locals, building relationships and supporting children and their families where needed.

The only reason we seem to be stuck in the Dark Ages in our approach to young people, the only reason why we keep shooting ourselves in the foot, the only reason why we waste so many tax dollars on the criminal justice system/youth prisons instead of investing a fraction of the cost in youth services seems to be what is called the “political reality”. There is a misconception that the public believes a competent government is one that is tough on crime. And so, the law-and-order auction between the political parties continues, each trying to portray themselves as tougher than the other. And in these muddy waters, the police/prison industrial complex vies for more and more revenue and drains the resources that could/should be directed at building our community and its safety.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Neglecting the children".

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Siyavash Doostkhah is the director of Youth Affairs Network of Queensland.