Final Report of the Disability Royal Commission – The Guardian’s Guide

On 29 September, the Australian Government tabled the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

The report – which follows four and a half years of hearings, research and evidence – sets out 222 recommendations to better prevent and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability in Australia.

At the heart of the report is a vision for the future; led by the voices and experiences of people with disability, and centred around embedding a human rights approach throughout our society that genuinely values the lives of people with disability and promotes inclusion for people of all abilities.

At the Guardian’s office, we have a legislative (and ethical) obligation to pay particular attention in all aspects of our work to the needs, rights and best interests of children and young people with disability who are in care and/or youth detention. We’ve closely followed the Royal Commission over the past few years, and we look forward to fully engaging with relevant findings and learnings about children and young people – in our own lives and work, and in our ongoing advocacy for systemic reform to make the child protection and youth detention systems inclusive, responsive and safe for those with disability.

With 222 recommendations, 12 volumes spanning thousands of pages and a vision for a more inclusive society, we’re only at the beginning of that journey. But we decided to pull out some of the key points and messages that we’ve picked up so far.

What does the report say about child protection?

The report has a specific focus on First Nations families’ experiences with the child protection system – both for parents and children with disabilities. This includes recommendations aimed at reducing the disproportionate removal of children from First Nations parents with disabilities, the overrepresentation of First Nations children and young people with disabilities in out-of-home care (OOHC) and their vulnerability to abuse in institutional environments, including residential care.

The Commissioners identified a need for a First Nations approach throughout the child protection sector, to promote the right to self-determination and culture across four key priority areas:

  • Involvement of First Nations Community Controlled Organisations at all stages of child protection systems.
  • Culturally safe assessment and diagnosis for children and families that focus on cultural strengths of First Nations peoples, their families and communities.
  • Access to appropriate disability screening in out-of-home care (OOHC) using culturally and linguistically appropriate assessment tools.
  • Prioritising early intervention for First Nations children and families, noting that a lack of early support for parents and children with disability can contribute to contact with child protection systems.

What does the report say about youth detention?

The Commissioners described the overrepresentation of young people with disability in detention – particularly First Nations young people – as a ‘largely hidden national crisis’, with the ‘criminalisation of disability’ as the source. The report identified that this criminalisation primarily occurs through a combination of over-policing the disability community, and disproportionate exposure to criminogenic risk factors such as poverty, homelessness, family violence and other forms of abuse.

The report also outlines evidence of systemic violence and abuse committed against young people in detention, including the disproportionate use of solitary confinement – which is the practice of locking children in their cells for 22 or more hours a day – for young people with disability.

The Commissioners recommend that solitary confinement be banned in youth detention, in all circumstances across all jurisdictions. It was also acknowledged that banning the practice must be accompanied by steps to address the root causes of solitary confinement in detention, which is often inappropriately used as a behaviour management tool or risk mitigation strategy for young people with complex needs and/or behaviours. This includes:

  • Significant improvements in disability screening processes, particularly for First Nations young people, in order to identify and implement appropriate therapeutic supports and interventions.
  • Appropriate training and support for staff and officials in youth detention centres about the needs and experiences of children with disability, including culturally appropriate approaches and trauma-informed care.

What are some other key points?

Other relevant recommendations and findings include:

  • Reportable Conduct Scheme: The report notes that South Australia is one of only three jurisdictions that is yet to establish a reportable conduct scheme, in response to the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commissioners recommended that all states and territories establish these schemes, where they are not already in place.
  • Improved data collection and reporting: The report highlights ongoing issues with collecting and reporting on disaggregated disability information, including risk factors for abuse and violence. The Commissioners recommend that all governments commit long-term support to establishing the National Disability Data Asset, as a national resource for longitudinal analysis of linked data across service systems – including education, housing, health, NDIS, child protection and justice systems.
  • Minimum age of criminal responsibility: the Commissioners recommend improved opportunities for diversion for people with cognitive disability at all stages of the criminal justice process, and concluded that raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years is the most effective way to prevent very young children from ‘experiencing the trauma of detention’.
  • Disability awareness in OPCAT monitoring: The report notes the importance of disability awareness for National Preventive Mechanisms performing OPCAT monitoring functions, and called for all states and territories to urgently establish independent monitoring bodies that are complaint with OPCAT requirements.
  • NDIS supports and criminal justice: The report raises ongoing issues regarding respective responsibilities of the NDIS and state and territory criminal justice systems. The Commissioners recommend that the relevant rules and agreements be reviewed to resolve areas of where a lack of clarity is a barrier to disability supports, and agree on joint funding mechanisms where issues cannot be resolved.

What comes next?

The Commissioners have recommended that all governments, including the South Australian government, consider and publicly respond to the recommendations in the report by 31 March 2024. Reflecting on what this report means going forward, the Guardian said:

This report is not just about recommendations for governments, it’s about changing the way we see disability. It’s about making sure that children and young people with disability grow up safe and feeling good about themselves, by building communities that are designed to include them.

That’s why this report is so important, because there are learnings for us all about how we can be a part of making that happen, in our personal, professional and community lives.

There is significant alignment between many of the recommendations in the report and existing advocacy positions I (and my predecessors) have put forward for systemic reform in the child protection and youth detention systems. I encourage the South Australian government to engage deeply with the experiences behind these recommendations, and I look forward to working with government towards implementation – including through involving children and young people with disability in all stages of design and rollout.

To read the report – including summaries, recommendations and easy read versions – you can go to the Royal Commission’s website.

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