Stop children being sent to Banksia Hill

Protesting outside Banksia Hill Detention Centre in December 2021. Photo: Been to Banksia/Facebook

Abandoning and demonising our most vulnerable children must end. Western Australia can lead the way by reforming its child bail laws and ensuring children can remain with their families where possible.

Children as young as 10 should not be transported to the children’s prison, Banksia Hill, which has degenerated to a corral of human misery.

If they cannot stay with family, a responsible adult can be found. The state also needs to invest in safety nets, with substantive outreach supports, mentors and local secure psychosocial community-based facilities to provide a nurturing environment.

Testimonies given by hundreds of former and recently released Banksia detainees to colleagues Megan Krakouer and Connie Georgatos and myself describe the failures and horrors.

The children of Banksia are the state’s most impoverished and most traumatised children.

The majority was born into multiple disadvantages and 100% have experienced major traumas. A significant proportion have no safety nets; many are without parents.

The WA government spends more on criminalising children, whether regional or city-living, than providing local, wrap-around services for them and their families.

Because of this, about 70% of the children from Banksia will finish up incarcerated as adults.

The suicides of 18 and 19-year-old former Banksia detainees who went to adult jails haunt me.

Why are governments investing in child prisons and prison guards when they should be investing in social care workers, substantive in-reach and outreaching, and psychosocial supports? Fully resourced community facilities are also needed.

Banksia is not an interim safety net: it fast tracks disaster to grievous misadventure, drugs and unnatural deaths or suicide.

I will never forget eight siblings orphaned as children after their father’s unnatural death and mother’s suicide. Five of the child orphans were incarcerated, three in Banksia Hill.

One, aged 12, was jailed 12 times in the one year at Banksia. Some of these children were homeless. One of the three who experienced Banksia, aged 15 years, took his life early last year.

The juvenile detention rate is growing, with the WA rate the highest. Why are 23-hour lockdowns enforced? Why is long-term separation from other detainees, from human contact, enforced?

The cultures of nurture is missing from the criminal justice system. Without this, there are no pathways to restore or build lives from scratch for those who never had a chance.

Many vulnerable children’s impoverished parents are jailed instead of being supported and, hence, reoffend and many of their lost children offend.

Many children who offend have lost one or both of their parents to a death in custody, suicide or unnatural death.

WA is the nation’s mother of jailers with laws which target marginalised people who offend - mandatory sentencing, long sentences, and draconian post sentence supervision orders.

I galvanised a class action led by senior counsel, Stewart Levitt, against Banksia Hill and its overlord, the WA government, for those who have been and those presently in Banksia children’s prison.

Each year, at least 500 children come in and out of Banksia. I am driven by the sight of children sitting in jails instead of schools.

More than 100 WA children on any night are hovelled in Banksia. When are we going to change Banksia Hill from a carceral experience to a transformational one?

We need diversionary programs for these vulnerable children, to which the Children’s Court could refer such children.

Where children can be released, there must be support via intensive outreach, age sensitive psychosocial and psycho-educative content. But these models do not exist in WA, nor in Australia.

Where children can be bailed, well-resourced community-based facilities, must be accessible.

Where children need to be remanded in secure facilities, they must be tiered by age-bracket — 10 to 11 years, 12 to 13, 14 to 15 and 16 to 17. A nurturing approach is age sensitive.

These secure facilities must be places where one-on-one support is guaranteed, of equivalencies to “familial” settings. The one-on-one support must be delivered by seasoned expertise where rapport and resonance are core.

If Banksia has a detainee population of 100 then we need to deploy 100 nurturers. This way children will not be returning dozens of times, nor will 70% finishing up in adult prisons.

In the last two decades, there have been more than 100 deaths after being held at Banksia Hill — most by suicide.

[Gerry Georgatos is working with National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project colleagues, Megan Krakouer and Connie Georgatos on the class action led by Levitt Robinson Lawyers.]