Tasmanian mother Sarah knows exactly the kind of trauma that can be caused to children who are strip searched in custody.
- Strip-searches of Tasmanian children in custody are no longer routine, but about 70 children were strip-searched in nine months
- Aboriginal children were over-represented, making up more than 20 per cent of searches
- The State Government plans to release draft legislation this year addressing some concerns about children in the justice system
Her teenage son has been searched numerous times.
“It causes shocking anxiety for him and for me. It’s horrible,” she said.
Sarah, who can’t be identified for legal reasons, said she and her son had made complaints.
“Even though, yes, they may have done the wrong thing to be going there [reception prison], he’s still a child, he’s still my child.”
She said in one instance, an apology had been issued to her son from the Director of Prisons, after a review of one search at the Hobart Reception Prison found procedures were “not fully complied with” and may have caused him “distress and confusion”.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People in Tasmania, Leanne McLean, described strip searching of children as “extremely undignified”.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of a child in that position, it would be an awful process,” Ms McLean said.
Last year, Ms McLean called for the routine strip-searching of children in custody to end.
“As a routine practice, it can’t be justified. That is the advice I gave the Government. And the Government have accepted that advice,” she said.
She said following operational changes, including the introduction of a risk assessment process, the number of children strip searched at both the Hobart and Launceston Reception Prisons had reduced significantly.
Where, previously, almost all young people were strip-searched, between July 1, 2019, and the end of February 2020, that had dropped to about 35 per cent, or about 70 children.
Those children were subjected to either a “full personal search”, in which the child removes half their clothes at a time, and is required to bend at the waist and part their buttocks, or a “modified personal search”, in which the buttocks inspection is not required.
“I remain concerned at the numbers of children continuing to be strip searched, and will continue to monitor the effect of the changes in practice and policy and the effect of the proposed legislative reforms,” Ms McLean said.
Aboriginal children over-represented in searches
Despite making up 4.6 per cent of the Tasmanian population, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people made up 21 per cent of the 199 young people strip searched.
Michael Mansell, from the Aboriginal Land Council, said police were still using discretion in who they searched.
“We need to change the law and the Parliament needs to legislate to prevent police and custodial officers from strip searching children, and unless that legislation is in place nothing’s going to change,” Mr Mansell said.
“The Parliament needs to take that discretion away, and make a statement saying this is forbidden.”
Of the nine recommendations Ms McLean made regarding the strip-searching of children in custody last year, the Government has accepted six, and three “in-principle”.
In a statement, the Attorney-General Elise Archer said the Government would consult on draft legislation later this year to address the recommendations.
“We remain committed to implementing any measures that will ensure the dignity and self-respect of children and young people in the custodial process.”
Rodney Dillon is the Aboriginal advisor to Amnesty International, and said technology like that used in airport screening should be replacing strip searches.
“This is only about money and we should invest in the appropriate machines so we can have this done with the least amount of privacy invaded.”
A spokeswoman said the Department of Justice was considering electronic security as part of a broader upgrade of technology, and would continue to explore technologies that might offer an appropriate and effective alternative to personal searches.
Tasmania, along with other states and territories, is looking at whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised.
Both Mr Dillon and Ms McLean would like it raised from 10 to 14.
But Ms McLean said that could only happen once Tasmania had a supportive and therapeutic youth justice system.