Learnings from an internship

As our latest law intern leaves our office, Kellie Elmes reflects on her time spent with the Training Centre Visitor Unit, and how her experience has given her ‘a new understanding of a significant human rights issue and the sometimes difficult but rewarding road to enacting change’.

I am now (sadly) at the end of my 22 day internship with the Training Centre Visitor Unit (TCVU), located in the Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People. I have been fortunate to be involved in a number of tasks, including in relation to OPCAT and the South Australian Dual Involved (SADI) project, but a large focus of my time with the TCVU has been on access to mental health care for children and young people in detention. This is a topic of discussion that is undeniably important and complex, with a significant proportion of youth detainees experiencing some form of mental ill-health that is linked to past trauma.

I completed a literature review that discussed the current state of mental health care in Australian youth detention centres. This included a review of the applicable legal framework, which extends to international treaties and conventions. It was concerning to note the generality of the Australian law and practice, which could do more to enforce the right to high quality health care. 

A summary of my findings includes:

  • Children and young people in detention are a vulnerable population, and the sub-groups within that population are considered vulnerable in and of themselves.
  • A significant proportion of children and young people in detention suffer from mental ill health.
  • A significant barrier to change is the lack of a strong evidence base regarding the mental health of children and young people generally, and especially in detention. 
  • The understanding of neurodisabilities in the youth justice system is inadequate, which consequently effects the provision of appropriate screening and treatment.
  • The MAYSI-2 screening tool may be inappropriate for Aboriginal children and young people, resulting in incorrect reporting of mental health issues.
  • Dual involved young people, girls and gender diverse children and young people are more frequently diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Whilst each state and territory is responsible for its own justice system, there was a pattern of issues raised by a number of Royal Commissions and independent studies that were common across the nation. These related to the quality and consistency of mental health assessments, the training and understanding of mental health held by staff members, and the severe lack of resources. However, it is positive to note the increase in studies and investigations in this area, which will hopefully encourage change in the mental health system for those in youth detention.

One of the most insightful moments of my internship was the opportunity to visit the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre. Here I assisted with the review of complaints filed by young people in the centre and had a brief opportunity to meet a number of the young people as well. Having conducted a lot of research on youth detention, it was beneficial to have a more first-hand experience with the young people who are at the focal point of the TCVU’s work.

I am incredibly grateful for the time I have spent with the TCVU team and Office of the Guardian in their work to ensure that the voices of children and young people in detention are heard. I am leaving the experience with a new understanding of a significant human rights issue and the sometimes difficult but rewarding road to enacting change. I hope that the work I have done can contribute to the advocacy conducted by the TCVU so that children and young people have access to the mental health care they are entitled to.

(c) 2021 Guardian for Children and Young People. Terms & Privacy Policy.

We acknowledge and respect Aboriginal People as the traditional owners
and custodians of the land we live and work on, their living culture and their unique role in the life of South Australia.