Go to your room! – the use of seclusion in youth detention

picture of young person in isolationIn some households at some times, giving a child time-out in their room may be a good solution.  It makes the parents’ point in a non-violent way and it imposes a modest and temporary penalty.  It allows time for emotions to cool. When the child returns to the family setting, there is the opportunity to revisit the issue and start resolving it, with luck, in a calmer frame of mind.


To a child in one of Australia’s youth detention centres, seclusion (also known as separation, segregation, isolation or solitary confinement, depending on the jurisdiction) is quite different.  Most children entering youth detention are already traumatised before they arrive.  Many have a history of of abuse and neglect at home or being in state care.  They are further stressed by their contact with the youth justice system followed by their removal to a secure environment. Being put in seclusion, even where the removal is not physical, is another isolating act in the life of a child where deprivation and isolation may well have been the norm..

And the door is locked..

The people in charge of youth detention facilities can make a strong case for seclusion

The traumatised state of many detained children means that they will sometimes resort to violence. Removing them to somewhere where they cannot harm themselves or others can be the only option.  Some also argue that the use of punishments (often called consequences) is necessary to maintain order and to train the recipient into a better way of behaving.  This claim is on less solid ground. The literature of trauma shows it is more likely that forcible confinement will reinforce a traumatised child’s view of the world as a harsh, arbitrary place and, perversely, perpetuate the anti-social behaviour that is their response to it..

Most Australian youth detention facilities would describe their role in terms of rehabilitating children

They would do this by addressing the situations, behaviours and attitudes that led up to children being in detention. By combining disempowerment and deprivation, seclusion is a powerful punishment – but poor therapy. Seclusion should be used minimally and instances of its use should be diligently recorded and monitored to make sure that the wellbeing and rehabilitation of the child remains the central reason for its use. Where seclusion fails to address a child’s undesirable behaviour it should not be taken as a prescription for even more seclusion.  From a rehabilitation perspective, each incident that leads to seclusion can provide insights for skilled workers into the child’s state of mind and incorporated into a proper therapeutic response..

Seclusion can easily become a tool in the exercise of coercive power

This is most true in closed institutions, especially where insufficient properly skilled staff or unsuitable facilities can make it seem like the only viable option. Children in seclusion for long periods risk missing out on important socialisation, education and recreation opportunities. Strict protocols governing the use of seclusion, diligent monitoring and careful recording of instances of seclusion are needed to safeguard children in a situation where their rights and freedoms are already curtailed..

Where seclusion is frequently used it may point to a poor social climate in a youth detention centre

Detained children have little or no voice and so are easy to put at fault. If the widespread use of seclusion has failed to curtail generalised antisocial behaviour in a youth detention centre then one should question its effectiveness. There is the opportunity and responsibility to initiate new approaches drawn from a wide range of positive and proven ideas about the rehabilitation of child offenders from around the world.1

.So seclusion of children can  be part of a response to dangerous, disruptive or antisocial behaviour in youth detention centres but its widespread and inadequately monitored use can be an indicator of a poor social climate and anti-therapeutic practice that undermines the community’s goal of returning socially adjusted, law abiding children to society.

1 The Missouri Approach

Do Rehabilitation Programs ReallyWork?

Transforming Youth Custody in the UK

Young people in state care are much more likely to enter youth justice detention

The just-released Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report Young people in child protection and under youth justice supervision 2013–14 has confirmed the concerning trend that young people who are in state care are much more likely to enter youth justice detention.

Data from the participating states* shows:.

  • young people who were the subject of a care and protection order were 23 times as likely to be under youth justice supervision in the same year as the general population
  • 7% of those who were the subject of a care and protection order were also under youth justice supervision in the same year (although not necessarily at the same time), compared with just 0.3% of the general population aged 10-17
  • youth justice supervision was most likely for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) young people: ATSI males were 1.4 times as likely to be under supervision as non-ATSI males, and ATSI females were twice as likely
  • just over one-quarter (26%) of those in detention were also involved in the child protection system, which is 13 times the rate for the general population
  • the level of child protection involvement for those under community-based supervision in 2013-14 was also high: more than one-fifth (22%) were also in the child protection system.
  • the younger someone was at their first youth justice supervision, the more likely they were to also be in child protection in 2013-14

*This report drew on data from South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT.

This summary is drawn from the Office’s internal policy briefings. It should not be taken to indicate the Guardian’s position on the subject matter and policy implications should only be drawn from a reading of the full report.

Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians’ November 2015 meeting

At the November meeting were, NSW Children's Guardian Kerryn Boland, WA Commissioner for Children Colin Pettit, NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne, CEO of the Victorian Commission for Children Brenda Boland, Tasmanian Children’s Commissioner Mark Morrissey, ACT Commissioner for Children Alasdair Roy, National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell and SA Guardian for Children and Young People Pam Simmons.

At the November meeting were, NSW Children’s Guardian Kerryn Boland, WA Commissioner for Children Colin Pettit, NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne, CEO of the Victorian Commission for Children Brenda Boland, Tasmanian Children’s Commissioner Mark Morrissey, ACT Commissioner for Children Alasdair Roy, National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell and SA Guardian for Children and Young People Pam Simmons.

The Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians’ (ACCG) met in Canberra on 25 and 26 November 2015.

The purpose of the ACCG is to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of strategic advocacy to promote and protect the safety, well-being and rights of children in Australia, particularly the most vulnerable or disadvantaged.

Aunty Violet Sheridan welcomed to country all ACCG participants.

The ACCG welcomed Colin Pettit as the newly appointed Western Australia Commissioner for Children & Young People.

Among the topics discussed were esafety for children, countering violent extremism and youth justice facilities and the rights of the residents.

The ACCG Communique from the November 2015 meeting is available for download.

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The Guardian’s response to the proposed Youth Justice Administration Bill

There are some important emphases in both the Young Offenders Act 1993 and the Family and Community Services Act 1972 that appear over-shadowed in the summary of principles that are proposed for the Administration Act. Notably these are the ‘care…necessary for [a young person’s] development’ and the ‘proper realisation of their potential’ (Object (1) in the Young Offenders Act 1993).  Read the Guardians response to the proposed Youth Justice Admin Bill 2013.

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Do rehabilitation programs for young offenders actually work?

Professor Andrew Day

Professor Andrew Day

April 9, 2013

The answer is a resounding yes according to Professor Andrew Day, Professor of Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Forensic Psychology Centre at Deakin University.

‘Analysis of studies from thousands of programs around the world show that good programs, well implemented, can reduce re-offending rates by up to 40 per cent.

‘If we don’t intervene we know that most young offenders will re-offend within two years.  Given the enormous social and economic cost to the community of a life of crime, programs to reduce re-offending are great value for money.’

Professor Day notes that in South Australia we have a well developed system of diversion which gives young offenders the opportunities and support to change their offending behaviour.

‘Offending behaviour is deeply rooted in the culture and the environment of the young offender.  Working not only with the offender, but with their families and peer groups offers us the best chance of success. Serious offenders, such as those committing serious assaults and violent sexual crimes can benefit from another layer of treatment that focuses on the causes of the behaviour, on the assumptions, attitudes and environment that triggers offending. This kind of intervention has shown to be particularly effective with some of our most serious young offenders.’

Professor Day notes the recent Productivity Commission findings showing that the disproportionately high rates of detention of Aboriginal young people across Australia are not improving. ‘Successes with Indigenous young people have come from developing culturally relevant programs and delivering them in ways that are engaging. We still have work to do in this area in South Australia.’

So, what would a good rehabilitation program for young offenders look like? ‘Well, there would be a range of initiatives that would ensure continuity between the services offered within detention centres to what is available in the community.  There would be a framework for assessing risk of re-offending and placing young people in the most relevant program to their level of risk, as well as quality assurance to ensure programs are implemented to a high standard. Programs themselves would place an emphasis on how young people think about their behaviour, and manage difficult emotions, as well as working with families or carers and other significant people as young people transition back into the community at the end of their sentence. Programs would be multi-faceted and integrate with and support other services such as education and vocational training and health services.  They would build skills and address attitudes and culture in preparation for the young person’s return to the community.’

Professor Day commented that the effectiveness of a program lies in the quality of its delivery. ‘A moderately effective program that is well run will produce better results than a more effective one that is poorly delivered. The most effective programs are those delivered by well trained and motivated staff with good supervision and support.’

And, of course, that are based on evidence.‘There is a sound base of knowledge to predict what will work in rehabilitating young offenders – and what will not. Increased punishment will not work, and may increase offending in some circumstances, and neither will increased supervision.  Boot camps, with no therapeutic input, have long been known to fail as a means of rehabilitation.

‘The good news is that rehabilitation programs can be effective even in settings such as detention centres.  Ideally we would like to provide the kind of stable and supportive environments that young people need to thrive in the community but for some young offenders detention can provide safety, stability, access to education and training and access to rehabilitation programs that can start them on the road to changing their lives.’

For more about rehabilitation and young offenders see Professor Day’s chapter on the subject in Casey, S., Day, A., Ward, T., & Vess, J. (2012). Foundations of Offender Rehabilitation. Oxford: Routledge Publishing. Other chapters on theories of crime and models of behaviour are also informative.

More research and opinion about rehabilitation for young offenders is on our Twitter feed.

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Tracy Rafanelli on being a Charter Champion

picture of Tracy

Tracy Rafanelli

Charter Champions typically have a strong commitment to the rights of children and a belief in the value of a rights-based approach to ensuring their welfare and happiness.

Tracy Rafanelli, Program Co-ordinator at Magill Youth Training Centre* is no different.  She says ‘Being a Charter Champion is an opportunity to promote the Charter within Magill and provide information and advice on the rights of children and young people in care.

‘I am a strong advocate for the rights of young people and I make sure Charter material is available and accessible to all young people and staff across the Centre.’

Champions come from all levels and roles within endorsing organisation.  Youth workers, supervisors, managers and chief executives are all represented in the ranks of the Champions registered with the Guardian’s Office.

‘By endorsing the Charter, our staff are committed to supporting the rights of young people and acting on their behalf if they identify a need. Young people in Magill now have a clearer understanding of their rights from a range of sources,’ says Tracy.

As a Charter Champion at Magill, Tracy has made sure that the Charter of Rights posters and information sheets for staff and young people are posted in all of the units and program room.   Water bottles and stress balls with rights messages have been provided to staff for distribution to young people in the units.  Boxes of the rights flash cards are in units and available to be used by staff during a young person’s induction.

Tracy has spoken to the Centre’s Training Officer to arrange a presentation about the Charter to be made to Centre staff in the near future.

‘Young people at Magill are encouraged to contribute to their future by better understanding their rights, responsibilities and their options for the future.

‘They are able to better seek out opportunities if they are not provided with them,’ says Tracy.

There are 47 agencies that have endorsed the Charter of Rights and the registration of 19 new Champions since December 2011 brings the total to 135.

The full range of materials available to endorsing agencies for distribution to young people in care is available on our website materials page.

* Tracy is temporarily Acting Supervisor at Restitution Services South with the Community Youth Justice Program.

All the Charter news is first on our Twitter feed.

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Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians Meeting

Children’s Commissioners and Guardians from around Australia had their latest twice-yearly gathering in Sydney on 7 and 8 November.

The Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) promotes children’s rights and participation and ensures the best interests of children are considered in public policy and program development across Australia.

Topics at the meeting included social inclusion, Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander young people and the justice system, children leaving out-of-home care and information sharing and the Commonwealth Privacy Act.

Details of discussions and actions are in the meeting communique PDF.

For further information on the ACCG and the work of Children’s Commissioners and Guardians from across Australia, please contact the ACCG National Convenor, Elizabeth Fraser, on 07 3211 6992.

Get the latest on ACCG activities on our Twitter feed.

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Wellbeing of children and young people in care 2008-09

The Guardian for Children and Young People monitors the circumstances of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister for Families and Communities. The feedback and findings of monitoring activities are reported directly to the agencies involved and to the Minister.

The Report on the wellbeing of children and young people in care in South Australia – 2008-09 summarises the information in one place and makes the general conclusions available to a wider audience.  We will publish a written response from Families SA in the near future.

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