Review – Volume 15: Contemporary detention environments

Chapter 15 of the Royal Commission (RC) final report focuses on the risk of child sexual abuse in detention environments since 1990, as well as the responses of governments and institutions to the abuse. In particular it considers youth detention and immigration detention and recognises that children are generally safer in community settings than in closed detention.  It also makes 15 recommendations to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in detention environments and, where it does occur, to help ensure effective responses.

Lawful detention and detention-like environments include physically ‘closed’ and community-based detention environments, and otherwise ‘open’ institutions in which children are subjected to restrictive practices, such as physical restraint.

Detention environments may present higher levels of risk of child sexual abuse, as compared to many other institutional contexts. Characteristics of contemporary detention environments include lack of privacy afforded to children, opportunities for staff to be regularly afforded opportunities to be alone with, and have authority over, children and general cultures of disrespecting children.

Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time and, where a government detains children, it should take all appropriate steps to ensure the care and protection of those children including providing staff with resources and children to have access to services to meet their needs.

Youth detention is intended to provide a secure environment for the detention and rehabilitation of children convicted or accused of criminal offending.

The RC was told in private sessions about the sexual abuse of 515 children in youth detention, 91 of whom told that they were abused after 1990.  Many victims described a cycle of re-offending and incarceration that they have struggled to break, often driven by substance abuse and mental health problems.

The nature of youth detention environments means they are high-risk institutional settings and this is influenced by factors such as placement decisions, institutional culture, the level of access children have to trusted adults, the level of vulnerability of the children and the extent to which procedures and environment provide opportunities for abuse.

Responses did not take children or their complaints of sexual abuse seriously.  Many children said they were not believed or their complaints were dismissed. Some did not know who they could confide in.  Others failed to remove children from risk of harm, including following an allegation of child sexual abuse.

The Australian Government’s policy is to detain children in ‘held’ immigration detention only as a last resort and for the shortest time practicable. Children who arrive in Australia by boat are taken to Nauru. For other children, community detention is now the main form of immigration detention although it remains open to the federal government to return to a policy of detaining children in held indefinite detention.

Specific impacts to children in immigration detention include the particular vulnerability of victims to cumulative harm, difficulty recovering from sexual abuse while in held detention and fears about disclosing abuse.  These impacts may be exacerbated by the extent of detainees’ dependency on the department and the perceived effect that disclosure may have on immigration-status decisions.  A further challenge can be adapting to a new country in the aftermath of abuse.

Held detention has unique features that combine to create a high risk environment including a lack of privacy, the close proximity of children and adults, the clustering together of higher risk groups and aspects of organisational culture.  Institutional risk is likely to be lower in community detention due to protective factors such as access to stronger and more positive social networks, more stable housing, and social services. Yet a number of factors contribute to the risk of abuse including inadequate resources, training and support for carers and staff and the inappropriate placement of, and support for, children with harmful sexual behaviours.

Vulnerability to child sexual abuse is likely to be accentuated for many children in immigration detention. Reasons include that the children are likely to have experienced abuse and trauma previously, acquire trauma in the detention environment and experience social isolation.  The ability of parents to provide support is compromised by the detention environment.  Relatively high numbers of children in immigration detention are also ‘unaccompanied’ and many suffer a profound sense of loss.

Many of the immigration detention services are contracted to third parties and the level and adequacy of monitoring and supervision of such services, including responses to reports of abuse, is unclear. Even so, institutional responses included the lack of capability to manage complex cases of child abuse effectively, ineffective risk assessment systems, inadequate staff training, incomplete and unreliable records of child abuse incidents and inadequate information sharing.


  1. All institutions engaged in child-related work should implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the RC.
  2. The National Preventive Mechanism(s) should be provided with the expertise to consider and make recommendations relating to preventing and responding to child sexual abuse as part of regularly examining the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in places of detention.
  3. Youth justice agencies in each state and territory should review the building and design features of youth detention to identify and address elements that may place children at risk.
  4. State and territory governments should review legislation, policy and procedures to ensure appropriate and safe placements of children in youth detention, including a risk assessment process before placement, that children are not placed in adult prisons, that frameworks take into account the importance of children having access to trusted adults and best practice processes are in place for strip searches and other authorised physical contact between staff and children.
  5. State and territory governments should consider further strategies that provide for the cultural safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in youth detention.
  6. All staff should receive appropriate training on the needs and experiences of children with disability, mental health problems, and alcohol or other drug problems, and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
  7. State and territory governments should improve access to therapeutic treatment for survivors of child sexual abuse.
  8. State and territory governments should ensure that all staff in youth detention are provided with training and ongoing professional development in trauma-informed care.
  9. State and territory governments should review the current internal and external complaint handling systems.
  10. State and territory governments should ensure they have an independent oversight body with the appropriate visitation, complaint handling and reporting powers, to provide oversight of youth detention.
  11. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should publicly report within 12 months on how it has implemented the Child Protection Panel’s recommendations.
  12. The Australian Government should establish a mechanism to regularly audit the implementation of the Child Safe Standards in immigration detention.  The outcomes of each audit should be publicly reported.  The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should contractually require its service providers to comply with the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission, as applied to immigration detention.
  13. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should identify the scope and nature of the need for support services for victims in immigration detention.
  14. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should designate appropriately qualified child safety officers for each place in which children are detained.
  15. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should implement an independent visitors program in immigration detention.

As seen, men face charges relating to abuse at Medomsley Detention Centre, Co. Durham with reports of abuse close to 1500 former inmates it is clear that the potential for abuse in detention environments is not specific to Australia. The IICSA is currently considering applications for core participant status in its investigation in to Custodial Institutions and it will hold a preliminary hearing on 1 February 2018. It will no doubt be utilising the RC recommendations when it addresses this investigation.

Written by Michael Lee at BLM

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