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Breaking the Silence: The Brisbane Youth Detention Centre’s Troubling History of Sexual Abuse

The Brisbane Youth Detention Centre (‘BYDC’) in Wacol, Brisbane, established in 2001, serves as a secure facility for male and female minors aged between 10-17 who have been remanded into custody or sentenced for an offence they have committed. Unfortunately, the centre has gained notoriety for the high rates of childhood sexual abuse reported by former detainees.

Some of the sexual abuse has been documented as taking place under the guise of strip searches, where staff members have taken advantage of their position of power to engage in abusive behaviour. However, far more serious reports of sexual abuse by the BYDC staff have been reported by former detainees (including our clients). The reports include youth detention staff members sexually abusing the minors in exchange for privileges such as extra recreational time, assistance with their personal projects, or rewards of sweets and treats such as ice blocks or even cigarettes and drugs. Further rewards were given in exchange for the victim’s silence.

The reports of abuse are horrendous and more often than not relate to young boys being forced or coerced into oral sex and being penetrated by the staff who were supposed to be helping them find a better course for their life. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys appear to have been targeted in particular, which suggests the most vulnerable are the ones being preyed on the most.

The reports are concerning and have already called into question the ability of BYDC to provide a safe and secure environment for minors in their care considering the many victims who’ve suffered psychiatric injuries as a result.

This disturbing pattern is not unique to BYDC, with similar reports of sexual abuse in detention centres across Australia leading to state government inquiries in recent years over the legality of strip searches on minors, and the occurrences of childhood sexual abuse whilst in detention generally.

The Attorney-General ordered an Independent Review of Youth Detention Centres in Queensland in August 2016. The review concluded by making 83 recommendations for reform in their report (PDF, 60MB). The report also acknowledged the significant trauma that many young people in the youth justice system have experienced. Queensland’s Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs have, so far, implemented 13 of the 83 recommendations (as at 15 May 2022).

From the review, it was determined that the lack of CCTV security at the youth detention centres helped to facilitate the abuse and allow it to go on undetected. Further, detention centre staff were often never held accountable for their actions.

A recommendation was to upgrade the CCTV network at the BYDC, including the introduction of body-worn cameras – which has since been implemented. However, the solution to prevent future child sex abuse offences by staff is far more complex. It is essential to address the root causes of the abuse, which include a culture of impunity, lack of accountability, and a failure to properly train and supervise staff. Considering the large volume of abuse that is known to have occurred at the BYDC by the staff, the hiring process of staff should also be more heavily scrutinised.

Youth Crime, Detention and Re-offending

As we enter 2023, media would have you believe that youth crime is at an all time high which is not the case according to the latest published statistics – but it remains a problem at the forefront of current political discussion. As such, the State government is taking a tough stance in response to concerns of the public and calls to send young offenders to detention and for courts to stop issuing ‘slap on the wrist’ punishments.

Today, on 11 Feb 2023, Queensland Law Society President Chloé Kopilović said the government’s tough stance on youth crime does not address the issue.

“Locking up children will not stop crime. It has been proven that after a child’s first interaction with the youth justice system they are more likely to re-offend. Further to this, the longer a child spends in custody, the more likely they are to be pipelined into the adult criminal justice system. And this is no place for them to be.”

From our experience, it is common for young offenders to turn to drugs and alcohol once they are released from detention in an effort to forget the abuse they were subject to whist detained. The drugs and alcohol then often leads to re-offending.

It is important to consider the broader systemic issues that contribute to child sexual abuse in detention centres. This could include addressing the root causes of why children are being placed in detention in the first place, such as poverty, lack of access to education and other services, and systemic discrimination including racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Addressing these larger issues would require a comprehensive, holistic approach that involves all levels of government, as well as community organisations and other stakeholders. The Queensland Law Society believes an urgent injection of funds is needed to address the root causes of child offending, such as family violence, substance abuse health, mental health and education issues that many of these children deal with.

Compensation for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse Whilst in Detention

Roche Legal has a long history of representing clients who have suffered abuse at the hands of state-run youth detention centres, including the BYDC. Our experienced solicitors are dedicated to helping survivors of sexual abuse find justice and accountability for the harm they have suffered through compensation claims.

We understand that coming forward with information about abuse can be a difficult and emotional experience. That’s why we invite survivors to speak with us confidentially about what information they may have, and we will help explain the options available to them.

It is time for the truth about the widespread abuse in the BYDC and other detention centres across Australia to come to light. By speaking out and holding those responsible accountable, we can help ensure that this type of abuse never happens again.

If you or someone you know has suffered physical or sexual abuse at the BYDC, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Roche Legal for a free confidential discussion. You can call us or complete our confidential enquiry form on our contact page to get started.

This commentary is published by Roche Legal for general information purposes only and should not be relied on as specific advice. The content relates to Queensland law only and is subject to change over time. You should seek legal advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any decision.