Recent events at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and other facilities in the NT have shocked the nation. It begs the question, “where would these children be if not detained?” The answer is – “school”.

In that case, why not consider youth detention as just another model of boarding? We already have traditional boarding schools and a range of other options to improve educational opportunities for students. A great deal of expertise exists in these organisations so that an effective residential program can facilitate positive educational outcomes and ultimately a better future for these young people.

There are almost 20,000 secondary students in boarding in Australia, and almost one third are Indigenous students from rural and remote communities – places from which there is significant over-representation in the youth justice and prison system. The bulk of these students board in schools and residences that are Indigenous-only or have a high proportion of Indigenous students. Given the appropriate opportunity, these students achieve educational outcomes on par with their peers.

These children often come from highly complex and challenging backgrounds that are remarkably similar to those of the young people in Don Dale. Why is it that residents of Don Dale are treated so differently?

How can we ensure that those who leave residential care, including custodial settings, leave better equipped than when they arrived? Evidence has emerged that ‘graduates’ of Don Dale leave with the burden of additional trauma and being less equipped for dealing with the complex worlds in which they live. The social, economic and community costs of recidivism demand a different response.

Don Dale’s story of punishment and abuse of children is perpetuated by a culture that is the antithesis of that which exists in education. It is inarguable that if we change the culture of the penal system, the destination of all children that experience that system will be significantly different. In order for that to happen, all people working in that system must shift their mindset from that of a warder to that of an educator. This does not mean that we necessarily need to increase investment, as significant resources are already allocated to traditional detention settings, which need to be redirected.

There is broad agreement – from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – that education is the key to a different future and is a basic human right. When this thinking is applied to the youth detention setting, what better way to rehabilitate than to educate? Imagine the educational impact that could be achieved in the 16+ waking hours a day that these children are in care in these settings.

With Indigenous young people around 15 times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system than non-Indigenous young people, approaches that are culturally appropriate are critical. Boarding staff have seen the benefits of restorative practices in their relationships with students, particularly Indigenous boarders. Similar positive outcomes have been seen in youth justice settings – enabling children to continue their education and be diverted away from custodial settings. Restorative practice has a focus on building and restoring relationships by acknowledging the impact that inappropriate behaviours and actions have on others, rather than continuing the cycle of blame and punishment.

This also highlights the importance of the recruitment and training of staff who work with young people. These people play a critical role in the direction that the lives of those in their care will take. Recruitment and training practices must reflect this. Qualifications that focus on youth work and residential care, rather than security and control, could provide staff with different skills and attitudes to help manage what is undoubtedly a challenging and complex role.

Finally, there is the need for standards and practical ways to implement them. The current standards for juvenile custodial facilities provide guidance in terms of: the need for detainees to have an experience that is free from abuse; the availability of non-punitive options for staff when dealing with difficult behaviour; and the accessibility of vocational and educational programs. With these standards having been in place for nearly two decades, we are left wondering how the Don Dale situation arose.

A new national voluntary standard has been developed for boarding schools and residences, with materials to drive continuous improvement in the sector.  However, the mere presence of a standard in human services has historically proven to be an insufficient safety net. All residential settings – be it aged care, disability services, out-of-home care, boarding or youth detention – would benefit from the assignment of mandatory standards and professional training.

It will be interesting to see the common threads that emerge from recent inquiries in NSW and SA, as well as the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. We suspect there will be many similarities. The NT Royal Commission is likely to again highlight the need for clear standards, a change of culture and transparency in the operations of these institutions.

With so much evidence about what doesn’t work, perhaps it is time for a different approach that centres on education and respectful treatment of children, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Anthony Bennett, Chair and Dan Cox, CEO of Boarding Australia

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