Building an Australia Fit for Children

Keynote presentation delivered at the 8th National Conference of the Association for the Welfare of Child Health (AWCH) - "Children on the margin: addressing the health care needs of marginalised children and young people", 11 October 2001, Dr Sev Ozdowski

1. Introduction

I am delighted to be invited to speak today at the 8th national conference of the Association for the Welfare of Child Health. Thank you for your invitation and your kind introduction.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand.

I am especially pleased to be given the opportunity to speak at this conference on the health care needs of marginalised children and young people in Australia today.

Consulting and partnering with key health care professionals such as you is a central plank of the Commission's goal in promoting the human rights of children and young people in Australia. It is your invaluable day to day dedication and expertise in delivering proper health care to children in Australia which brings the Convention on the Rights of the Child to life. Today I acknowledge and applaud your ongoing commitment in building an Australia fit for children.

Nearly eleven years ago Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Over the past decade, significant progress has been made in enshrining children's rights in Australia. As Federal Human Rights Commissioner, it is my task to promote and protect the human rights of all people in Australia. In particular, the Commission can:

  • Inquire into acts or practices that may infringe on human rights - both as raised in individual complaints alleging infringement by or on behalf of the Commonwealth and as evident in systemic violations including those established by law;
  • Make recommendations to the Federal Parliament on measures needed to prevent future violations and/or remedy past breaches; and
  • Report on any actions that should be taken by Australia in order to comply with relevant international instruments.

With respect to children's rights, the Commission can

  • Monitor respect for the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Australia;
  • Receive complaints from children of alleged violations of their rights under the Convention;
  • Review new legislation and policy to check Convention compatibility;
  • Conduct public education campaigns on children's rights; and
  • Produce Briefing Notes on specific areas of children's rights.

So what can we say about the situation of children and young people in Australia? Australia has a good record in caring for its children. For instance, to pick 2 areas at random:

Immunisation coverage

According to Government figures, in 1996, only 56% of one-year olds had been immunised against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, TB

By 2000, that figure was 90%.

Deaths due to injuries in 5-19 year olds

In 1988, the figure was 28.6 per 100,000

By 1998, it had been reduced to 16.1 per 100,000

These figures are commendable. However, we still need to address the serious problems faced by Indigenous children, children in state institutions and the nearly 15% of children living below the poverty line (according to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling). Too often, Australia's most vulnerable children slip through the net. This is just not good enough.

Australians, through our governments, community and professional organisations, schools and businesses need to take greater responsibility to ensure that no child misses out on the enjoyment of their inherent human rights.

The rights I am speaking of are basic education, good health services and protection from violence, both institutional and within the home. It is the duty of the state, and indeed the entire community, to look after children and young people on the margins. Young people can fall into more than one category of disadvantage. A homeless child can face multiple discrimination if, for example, she is a girl and is drug-dependent, or if she is Aboriginal and has a disability. These children are more likely to miss out on educational and employment opportunities, in some cases because they are unaware of the opportunities that are theoretically available to all. And as you will all be well aware, without proper education and development programs, the physical and mental health of children suffers.

2. Consultations

I have recently conducted a series of consultations around the country on the challenges facing children and young people today. These consultations were to precede the planned UN Special Session on Children which was to take place in New York in September but postponed due to the tragic events in that city. The Special Session was to evaluate the 10 years since the World Summit for Children, and to set new goals for the survival and development of all children. The Special Session will now take place next year.

Some common themes have emerged during my consultations. The first one is participation. It is crucial that children and young people have a meaningful say in those issues that affect them on a daily basis. Even very young children can express their views; the key is finding ways for them to do so. Where children are involved in the decision-making, it greatly increases the chances of programs actually working.

Participation by young people in decisions about their education is vital. Young people tell me that they need more civics and democracy education in Australian schools. They need more information and guidance on how to participate effectively in the democratic processes. Culturally appropriate and flexible schooling that takes into account of the needs of children with behavioural problems or language difficulties can go a long way to addressing low school retention rates. Rather than trying to mould the child to fit the system, the system must be changed to fit the child.

Another emerging theme was discrimination by police against young people, especially those of Asian or Indigenous descent. Over-policing of certain areas, where police have the power to 'move on' young people who are in a public place, further alienates the very young people that the community should be embracing. There are no police cautioning guidelines - as part of national standards for juvenile justice - which means that young people can be discriminated against on the grounds of geography. Many young people I consulted said that the police do not take them seriously if they want help.

The abuse of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people is an issue that would require a separate address. But let me give you some figures:

49.8% of the Indigenous population is under 18 years of age, compared with 28.3% of the non-Indigenous population. This highlights the need for increased resources for Indigenous children - in the areas of health, housing, education, employment and training.

32% of Indigenous young people complete secondary school compared with 73% of non-Indigenous young people.

42% of all juveniles in custody are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and the figure is 50% for girls. The over-representation points to the need for better diversionary programs and strategies for reducing the involvement of Indigenous young people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

It is clear that there are not enough community resources to help children and young people on the margins, particularly where there has been family breakdown. This results in a lack of connection with others - because there is no family or trusted adult to turn to for guidance - and it leaves children vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. These are the children who slip through the net. These are the children who must be reached before they become prey to homelessness, suicide, substance abuse, crime or mental illness. We need to listen to their views when formulating policies and laws.

In many states, people raised the need for an advocacy structure for children to be put in place. Participants at the consultations recommended the creation of Children's Commissions at the State and Federal level, as well as an independent office for children which could monitor and collect data on children's well-being and rights.

There was criticism of the legal system in some states for providing inadequate protection and claims that the standards of proof for cases of child sexual abuse were too high and the sentences too light. Also, there was considerable concern about the number of children who are primary carers for parents and therefore unable to attend school. Their right to education is compromised through the lack of flexible arrangements for home schooling.

When the UN Special Session on Children is rescheduled I will report on my consultations to the Federal Government through the Prime Minister's representative to the Special Session. The Special Session will offer Australia a unique opportunity to re-evaluate its policies towards children and to recommit itself to finding practical goals to improve the situation for children on the margins.

The ongoing challenge for me is promoting an understanding and acceptance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which requires regular monitoring of the cases of children in difficult circumstances. These children are hard to reach and therefore hard to help. We need to ensure regular independent review of their treatment, in order to know whether we are properly reaching them. I would like to turn now to a case study of a particular group of marginalised children and young people in Australia.

3. Children in immigration detention

One of my priorities is the care and protection of children and young people in immigration detention. These children are among the most vulnerable in Australia today, especially those who have come here without their parents.

The precise number of children held in Australia's six immigration detention centres will vary from week to week. However, it is possible to say that approximately five hundred children are held at any one time and that the figures are comparable to the country's entire juvenile detention population.

But who are these children? Most people can only rely on newspaper reports, however, I and the Commonwealth Ombudsman inspect each detention centre on an annual basis and have the opportunity to meet them during those inspections. These visits reinforce the fact that we must never lose sight of them being children. And because they are children seeking asylum, they are entitled to special care and protection under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children in a refugee situation are particularly vulnerable. By refugee situation I do not mean that they necessarily qualify under the refugee definition in the Refugee Convention, but it is a helpful way to describe who these children are. The refugee experience brings with it elements of war and persecution, of fear, flight and displacement and of arriving in a strange country after a long journey, where a different culture, language and religion is often practiced. Confronting and traumatic as these experiences are for adults, how much more so for children? And when we add the fact that some children may have either suffered or witnessed the torture or murder of family members prior to or during flight, we begin to see how vulnerable and fragile these children are. And how these experiences impact upon the emotional well-being, health and development of the child.

One thing is clear: if Australia decides to detain children, it must accept that this policy brings with it certain obligations to do right by the children.

During their time in detention, children are entitled to the same rights as other children in Australia by virtue of the principle of non-discrimination in the Convention. In all decisions concerning them, the best interests of the child are meant to be paramount.

However, in practical terms, detainee children cannot have access to the health and education services other children in Australia can, by virtue of this detention. The detention centre does provide health, education and other services, but I am not convinced these services are sufficient to meet their needs or indeed their rights under the Convention. Whereas children whose parents arrive on a tourist visa and then seek refugee status, have certain rights, for example to attend school and receive support services such as counselling, these services are not available to the same degree in detention centres.

Children who experience abuse or violence can display a wide range of symptoms: anxiety, sleep disturbance and nightmares, bedwetting, depression, behavioural problems, either introversion or aggression, problems with relationships, emotional numbness, learning difficulties, eating disorders and psychosomatic health problems. Under the Convention, all countries are obliged to take steps to rehabilitate child trauma victims, help them recover and reintegrate into society "in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child". What does this mean in practice? Does it require Australia to identify a child's past trauma at an early stage and to facilitate the child's recovery either through treatment by trained specialists in the detention centre or through early release into the community of the child and their family, if this is in their best interests, as decided by medical experts? Does this happen in practice? Can it happen under the current law?

What concerns me greatly are the cases of long-term detention, where children and their families cannot go backward or forward. Their refugee application may drag on and on, be rejected but the family cannot be deported to another country because of the difficulty of procuring travel documents or because they come from a country such as Afghanistan or Iraq where people cannot be practically returned at the present time. And during the impasse they remain in detention for months, sometimes years. This is unacceptable in my view and finding a solution will be one of my priorities as Human Rights Commissioner.

This is why I am considering inquiring into the treatment of children in immigration detention in Australia, with reference to the rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I hope to engage with you, the experts, in ascertaining what precisely we need to put in place in our detention policy, to secure the care and protection of this marginalised and vulnerable group of children. I believe that creative solutions can be found to ensure that children whose emotional well-being or mental or physical health needs require their early release from detention, can indeed be released into the community.

Children in immigration detention have already seen, heard, learnt, feared and faced an incredible array of challenges before reaching Australia. Recently during an inspection visit of the Villawood immigration detention centre, I met with a number of families who are detained there. I will call one young person we interviewed "Lisa". Lisa is 13 years old and arrived with her family from Iran earlier this year. We asked Lisa what she was learning at school. She learns English, maths and handicrafts, but not geography. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We asked her. "A doctor", she replied instantly, her face lighting up. At that moment, Lisa's father smiled at his daughter and this image of what the future might bring.

Now I will not say that Lisa and her family are refugees under the Refugee Convention as I am unfamiliar with their claims. Nor will I say whether Lisa should become a doctor in Australia or in Iran or a third country. But what I will stress is that Lisa is a child. She is a child who, during her time in Australia, is entitled to all the rights children are entitled to in this country. And it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that the children like Lisa in immigration detention receive the care and protection they are entitled to, and that under no circumstances should detention further harm children's well-being.

We cannot rest on our laurels until we have reached the most marginalised children and young people. Then we can finally say we have built an Australia truly fit for children.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you today and I look forward now to your expert observations.

Last updated 1 December 2001