Friday, 14 November 2008

Report calls for programs that divert young people from incarceration

A new report released today by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma calls for the ‘skilling up’ of existing services that work with Indigenous young people with cognitive or mental health issues, in an effort to halt their slide into the juvenile justice system.

Releasing the report, Preventing crime and promoting rights for Indigenous young people with cognitive disabilities and mental health issues, Commissioner Calma outlined the disturbing fact that Indigenous young people in juvenile justice were at least four times more likely to have an intellectual disability than the general population.

“This report details many stories of young people with cognitive disabilities or mental health issues – such as developmental disability or autism - who have fallen through the cracks of social services and ended up in custody,” Mr Calma said.

“We need to strengthen early detection and assessment programs and give health workers, educators and the judiciary the tools that can help them distinguish a cognitive or mental health problem from bad behaviour.”

Rather than reinventing the wheel, Mr Calma said the report profiled successful holistic early intervention programs that were already making a difference in young people’s lives.

The Commissioner said that promising practices such as Tirkandi Inaburra Early Intervention Program in South Western NSW should be replicated around the country.

Tirkandi, an Aboriginal community-controlled early intervention centre, provides a culturally-based residential program for 12-15 year old Aboriginal boys at risk of falling into the juvenile justice system. It is the only program of its type in Australia, providing educational, recreational, life and living skills, and cultural awareness activities to develop skills and abilities while strengthening self-worth, cultural identity and resilience.

Tirkandi Inaburra Executive Officer Colleen Murray said while they don’t target young Indigenous people with cognitive disabilities or mental health issues, they make up a sizeable proportion of the Centre’s clients who are achieving good results.

“In far too many instances it is evident that no-one has taken the time to consider that underlying medical and psychological conditions may well be contributing to the educational deficits and poor behaviours displayed by the child in the home, school and community environments,” Ms Murray said.

“Even worse is the fact that when conditions are identified, almost without exception, no significant others, who have responsibility for the welfare of the child, have facilitated the medical, surgical or psychological interventions required. Unfortunately, far too many adults are abrogating their responsibilities and simply writing the child off as a naughty boy who needs to be disciplined or incarcerated,” Ms Murray said.

The report also recommends that governments focus on working with Indigenous communities and health workers to skill them up in how to assess and deal with cognitive disabilities and mental health issues.

“We know the likely consequences of juvenile detention: graduation to the adult criminal justice system; poor life outcomes; and the passing on of disadvantage from generation to generation,” Mr Calma said.

“These are compelling reasons for continued commitment to diversion and rehabilitation programs.”

The report was funded by the Indigenous Law and Justice Branch of the federal Attorney-General’s Department. It can be sourced online at

Media contact: Louise McDermott (02) 9284 9851 or 0419 258 597.