Children Opinion

Blood on our hands: Banksia Hill is failing our children

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Cruelty and mistreatment within the walls of Banksia Hill lead to increased trauma in the children incarcerated (Screenshot via YouTube)

Suicide and incarceration statistics from Banksia Hill prison highlight a lack of proper rehabilitation for our troubled youth, writes Gerry Georgatos.

THE SINS of the nation, of abandoning and demonising our most vulnerable children, must end. Western Australia can lead the way. There is no child who cannot be helped.

WA needs to reform child bail laws and ensure more options for children to remain with families where possible, or for them to be with identifiable responsible adults. It needs to invest in safety nets where there are substantive outreach supports, mentors and in local secure psychosocial community-based facilities, where a child can be aptly nurtured equivalent to what should be provided in the general community.

Children as young as ten should not be transported to the children’s prison, Banksia Hill, which serves as a holding pen and, I argue, has degenerated into a corral of human misery.

Testimonies to me and my colleagues, Megan Krakouer and my law/psychology student daughter Connie Georgatos, from hundreds of former and recently released Banksia detainees describe the same fails and horrors.

The children of Banksia are our most impoverished, most traumatised children.

The majority were without a chance at a good life from the beginning — born into multiple disadvantages and cruel unfairness.

Ceaselessly, I argue, 100% of these children have experienced major traumas. A significant proportion must be recognised as having no safety nets. In fact, many are without parents. Many come in from transience and homelessness. Many return to such loneliness.

In my view, governments spend more on criminalising a child – whether regional or city-living – than it would cost to provide local, wrap-around services for them and their families where possible.

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

I am haunted by the suicides of 18 and 19-year-old former Banksia detainees who finished up on the avoidable train wreck journey to adult gaols.

I remember foremost not those who I helped but those who we could have helped had we and so many others been resourced to do so.

Why are we investing in brick-and-mortar child prisons and in prison guards when we should be investing in social care workers, substantive in-reach and outreaching, and psychosocial supports?

Also needed are fully resourced positive community facilities, 24/7, rich with mentors, with love and salt-of-the-earth approaches.

Banksia isn’t even an interim safety net. The Banksia experience, in general, diminishes children to the worst of themselves, fast-tracking disaster – some paying with their lives – suicide, grievous misadventure, drugs and unnatural deaths.

Being heard matters; it connects us all. I have been seared emotively by children wanting to be heard, wanting to see historic sweeping changes.

I will never forget eight siblings orphaned as children after their father’s unnatural death and mother’s suicide. Five of the orphans would be incarcerated as children — three of them in Banksia Hill. One of them at age 12 was gaoled 12 times in the one year at Banksia. Some of these children were homeless. We are gaoling homeless orphans — what’s wrong with us?

One of the three who experienced Banksia, aged 15 years, took his life early last year. In the last few years, I have relentlessly supported three of the orphans, turning their lives around and shining the light to hope.

The juvenile detention rate gets higher the further west we travel across the continent, with the WA rate highest.

Children scream for help and instead of listening to them, we brutalise them; maltreating, abusing, degrading, diminishing, bashing and isolating them. Why do we enforce 23-hour lockdowns? Why do we enforce long-term separation from other detainees, from human contact?

The hurt is deep and damaging. It goes to the psychosocial and the cognitive, destroying prospects of a positive self and robbing one of all hope. Lost boys and girls queued up, marched inside and locked up.

What is missing from the criminal justice system and the penal estate are cultures of understanding and nurture. Without understanding and contextualising, there are no pathways to forgiveness and redemption, to the restorative or to building lives from scratch for those who never had a chance from the beginning of life — born into unfairness and extreme disadvantages.

If all today’s children and the unborn are to share in hope, the nation’s eyes and ears need to lend focus not on dissension and whistleblowers but on loving every child.

Many of our most vulnerable children’s parents are gaoled or dead because we went tough on people who offend, most who never had a chance.

Sometimes I feel the stories I’m telling – and the relentless advocacy – are more important than the fears I feel from the recriminations I endure.

Because the adults are not listening, it is why I shone the light on Banksia Hill children’s prison. It is for these demonised children I was stubbornly instrumental in galvanising the class action (Levitt Robinson Lawyers) against Banksia Hill and its overlord, the State Government.

I am driven not just by the abhorrence I saw in Banksia Hill, but also by what I did not see. I did not see nurture. I did not see humaneness. I did not see genuine educational activities. I did not see journeys to any transferable skills. I did not see rapport and resonance. Bitterly, I witnessed only betrayals, divides and cumulative, compounding traumas.

Children sitting in gaols instead of schools. Orphans, abandoned children, vulnerable children in and out of children’s prisons, many homeless and transient.

When are we going to change Banksia Hill? From a carceral experience to a transformational one.

More than 100 Western Australian children on any night are hovelled in Banksia.

Yearly, at least 500 unique child prison entrants come in and out of Banksia Hill. More needs to be done for our most vulnerable children. Reprehensibly, less is being done and it does not make sense.

If there were genuine diversionary programs for these most vulnerable children – many who are homeless, transient or orphaned – the Children’s Court would be referring the children to such programs. Governments boast of mythical diversionary programs but come the day aberrant children front the Children’s Court, judges have nowhere to turn them to.

Where children can be released, we must vest support via intensive outreach, often of age-sensitive psychosocial and psycho-educative content, but these models do not exist in WA, nor Australia-wide.

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

Where children need to be remanded to secure facilities, they must be tiered by age bracket — ten to 11 years, 12 to 13, 14 to 15 and 16 to 17. The content of nurture 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 and the love can be spread with salt-of-earth approaches.

The children of Banksia need intense psychosocial and psycho-educative transformational models that must be crafted around one-on-one support and nurture. If Banksia has a detainee population of 100, then deploy 100 nurturers and you will not have children returning dozens of times, nor the hideous statistic of 70% finishing up in adult prisons.

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

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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