“Stop Failing Our Kids!”

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Hui Zhou: “This is a system that is founded in the history and the present reality of breaking up families and community, that is founded on the Stolen Generation.”

A young man stopped his bike on Spring Street. He saw a group of people of varying ages and different backgrounds standing together on the steps of the Victorian State Parliament. The red and black signs in their hands read “Stop Failing Our Kids.” They were denouncing the appalling conditions and entrenched racism in the Victorian juvenile justice system. The rider remained to listen with many other people who were on their lunch break, as the speakers shared personal accounts and appalling statistics and raised demands.

What the curious cyclists witnessed that Thursday, 25th May was the public launch of the “Stop Failing Our Kids” campaign, organised by the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne (ISJA). The campaign is a focused community response to the recent scandals in youth justice facilities, coupled with the long history of racism in the justice system.

Riot is the language of the unheard. Children in youth detention centres in Parkville and Malmsbury have protested repeatedly to expose the appalling conditions inside: overcrowded facilities, poor food, unsanitary conditions, beds without mattresses, use of lockdowns. These horrible conditions were reported by the Victorian Ombudsman in 2010, but seven years later the problems persist.

Instead of fixing the problems, the sensationalist media and the government have framed these acts of rebellion as “riots.” After a widely reported protest in the Parkville centre last November, the government made an arbitrary decision to re-classify the Grevillea unit of the Barwon Maximum Security Prison as a youth justice centre. The children who had been part of the protest were transferred to this adult prison, where they were exposed on multiple occasions to capsicum spray and held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day.

The detention of children at Barwon was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court in early May. And while the young people are no longer being held there, this does not mean the government has ceased to punish children for protesting their brutal treatment. At the time of writing, it is considering a proposal to use the anti-riot squad to control residents in youth detention facilities. This means that protests by children in detention centres could be met in the future with dogs, capsicum spray, batons and firearms.

Systemic failure of our children. The “Stop Failing Our Kids!” campaign provides critical perspectives and proposes real solutions to the crisis in the system. At the campaign launch, social justice activists argued that the system is failing children through inappropriate community support, the excessive use of incarceration and brutal abuse in detention facilities.

Author, Youkyoung Lee, listens to the speakers.

These factors harshly impact on girls and Aboriginal children. “What has been completely invisibilised in this predatory debate against young people is the hyper-racialised and gendered criminalisation of women and girls,” Hui Zhou from Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre, told the campaign launch. There is a long history of Indigenous over-representation in the juvenile justice system. Figures for 2015-16 quantify the racist over-representation of First Nations youth. In Victoria, 15.5% of young people in detention are Indigenous, but only 2% of state population, aged 10-17, is Indigenous.

Hui Zhou also criticised the system for historically destroying Indigenous communities and punishing people for being disempowered. One shocking statistic is that half the kids in youth detention centres have come from the child protection system. Children in residential care are more likely to be charged with a criminal offence than those who stay with their families. Few of these children engaged in any criminal behaviour before coming into care. Speaking at the launch, Alison Thorne, a founding member of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, noted “the child protection system has become a pipeline from child removal to child ‘protection’ to child incarceration.”

It is a shocking statistic that 80% of the young people who are imprisoned are on remand and have not even been sentenced. Furthermore, detainees are frequently the victims of racial profiling. Susannah Augustine gave a powerful and personal speech, pointing out the bias towards Aboriginal kids in the justice system. As a mother of two Aboriginal teenagers, Susannah once taught them that the police were there to protect them. But she had to face the reality that Aboriginal kids are racially profiled and abused by the police. She saw that teaching her kids to have faith in the system is dangerous and will not keep them safe. She changed tack and now teaches them to question the system.

Making the campaign demands visible!

The excessive use of incarceration and mistreatment of youth in detention centres has a destructive impact on all children unfortunate enough to encounter the system. However, Indigenous children are heavily impacted because of the historical and present child removal practices and racial profiling. Indigenous over-representation in the juvenile justice system should be understood in this context, and the efforts must be made to “stop failing our kids.”

Launched on the steps of state Parliament on the eve of Sorry Day, the campaign will run through to the state election in November 2018. As part of the launch, Alison Thorne addressed each campaign demand. She concluded, “we’re living in a society that has its priorities all wrong. Victoria has the lowest crime rate in Australia, yet the state government has cash to splash in its budgets for cops and jails but little for the social supports that are so urgently needed. The budget announced the addition of 3,100 more police and $288 million for a new youth justice supermax jail. ISJA’s campaign is designed to counter the law-and-order hysteria and hold the Andrews government to account.”

Action needed now! The “Stop Failing Our Kids” campaign has six demands:

  • Stop failing Victorian children — keep young people out of adult facilities!
  • An immediate end to the practice of lockdowns, isolation and other forms of punishment
  • Reject the use of the anti-riot squad: guns, capsicum spray and batons have no place in Victorian juvenile justice facilities
  • Rehabilitation, not punishment! Provide high-quality education, recreation and healthcare programs within the juvenile justice system
  • Reject the imprisonment of untried juveniles. Implement all 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, including that imprisonment must be the last resort
  • Stop the ongoing cuts to housing and social welfare programs, and fully fund culturally appropriate services to keep young people out of the failing child protection system.

ISJA calls on Jenny Mikakos, the Minister for Families and Children and Youth Affairs, to stop the discriminatory practices and act on its demands. During the first phase of the campaign, which ran from its launch through to Children’s Day on 1 June, members and supporters of ISJA contacted Jenny Mikakos by phone and emails to discuss the issues.

ISJA will build momentum for the “Stop Failing Our Kids” campaign by educating the public about the issues and collecting signatures on a petition. Community campaign stalls will be held twice a month across the city and suburbs. The petition is also available online at change.org. ISJA will present the petition to Minister Mikakos in November, on the first anniversary of the state government’s decision to gazette Barwon Grevillea Unit as a youth justice centre. ISJA is determined not only to keep young people out of adult facilities but to address the systemic issues that continue to fail the children of this state.

Lee represents Radical Women in the Indigenous Social Justice Association. You can contact her at radicalwomen@optusnet.com.au

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