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Heroes of Victoria's juvenile justice reform

Tom Keating |  16 November 2015

I watched with some sadness the proceedings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse as it dealt with allegations of abuse in Victoria's state run institutions. The case studies given were heartrending for anyone who worked within that system in the 1960s and '70s. At the time I was in my first job as a youth officer in the social welfare department, taking young people out of Turana and Winlaton and working with them in the community.

Hobbies at TuranaThe case studies given were not entirely a surprise. Life for most children in the system was brutal and unforgiving. What did come as a surprise was that some of the abuse came from very senior carers and managers.

It must have been particularly hard to watch for those who were managing and trying desperately to reform the system at that time. These were the great reformers: Ian Cox, David Green, Ken Williams, Mike Olijnyk, Lloyd Owen, Jim Murray and others; the people who will always be my professional heroes.

The 1960s were the peak of the baby-boom. Vast Housing Commission estates were constructed that stretched across the north-west of Melbourne from West Heidelberg to Sunshine and the south-east from Frankston to Dandenong. With the inner city high-rise flats, they were places where families with meagre resources worked hard to create a better life.

They also became places of concentrated disadvantage and inadequate services.

The social welfare system was unable to cope with the scale and complexity of demands. It developed large institutions, Turana for young men, Baltara for younger adolescent boys, Winlaton for girls and Allambie for babies and young children. The conditions were poor, the service model unsophisticated and focused largely upon containment, and the staff largely untrained.

Congregate and institutional arrangements militate against appropriate child development and safety. The individual needs of children become lost. Children and young people who have been exposed to trauma and neglect have heightened needs which require an individual response. Institutional arrangements rely upon structure and regimentation which discourage individual initiative and problem solving. Children develop a diminished capacity for independent action. Institutions have significant power imbalances. Where this is the case, child-to-child or staff-member-to-child abuse will take place.

Closed systems encourage abuse and the suppression of information. In the mid '70s Turana still had a population of more than 300. Most were not on a custodial sentence. Most young people were taken into care as being 'likely to lapse into a life of vice and crime' or 'exposed to moral danger'. Children could be incarcerated 'Returned Director's Orders' on the basis of a phone call, with no process of adjudication.

The reformers put in place deinstitutionalisation and diversion initiatives and systems redesign. Numbers were reduced by alternative programs; staff were required to attend at least six months training; placement planning became based upon the needs of the child, and the grounds for incarceration were becoming more formalised and rigorous.

The most important change was the introduction of case planning which placed the child or young person in the context of their family and their community, through the department's newly established regional centres. Previously planning took place by untrained youth officers who focused upon the child in isolation. This over-emphasised the responsibility of the young person to change their circumstances.

So, as was told in one of the Royal Commission case studies, a young girl could attend triad groups week after week and be told that she was not taking responsibility for herself, while carers ignored the fact that she was being repeatedly raped by her father.

The reformers' management of change created the environment for the first Cain government's rights based legislation. TheMental Health Act, the Intellectually Disabled Persons Services Actand the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA), which were enacted at this time, were what criminologist Stan Cohen has described as 'do less harm' rather than 'do more good' legislation. They limited the reach of government action with respect to vulnerable people.

The CYPA separated the jurisdictions of juvenile justice and family welfare such that a child could be contained only after due process and for an adjudicated reason.

By the mid-'80s and through the '90s Victoria came to have the most progressive and effective juvenile justice system in the country and was a leader internationally, with low incarceration rates and low recidivism. Critical elements were strong rights based legislation which promoted diversion and limited incarceration, a regionalised, professional workforce and a treatment technology grounded in psycho-social case work rather than punishment or retribution.

Much has been lost in the intervening years. An hysterical response to a few abscondings, a review by a former police commissioner with a correctional rather than rehabilitation focus and a shift in community expectations towards retribution have made positive outcomes more tenuous.

Regional juvenile justice teams however continue to work with young people at risk and their families in the context of their communities.

Tom KeatingDr Tom Keating was a regional director for Human Services in Victoria for over 20 years. He is a former pro vice chancellor of La Trobe University and has held senior academic posts in Australia and Ireland.

Image: Hobbies at Turana. Source


Tom Keating


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Submitted comments

As we watch the proceedings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse it takes more and more strength for all of us to stay with what is being revealed. Tom's article reminds us that many good and decent people worked within a flawed system. We can continue to hope that one of the outcomes of this Royal Commission will be to alert every single one of us to the sensitivity required for each individual child and young person or groups of children and young people. We cannot avoid a compassionate response.

Pam 14 November 2015

I worked at Allambie in the 60s and 70s. Yes it was overcrowded but children were cared for by a variety of trained staff, registered nurses, mothercraft nurses, child care workers, social workers, doctors and psychiatrists. School and kindergarten were on site. Many of these children had histories of abuse and neglect and the staff made every effort to provide a nurturing secure environment. We also tried to provide more than that, giving of our own time to take children on outings, arranging special events. As Allambie was a reception centre it was essentially a place of transit, children either returned to their families or were assessed for a permanent placements in 'more suitable' facilities. Much care was taken in choosing a child's destination with input from all involved in caring for that individual child. Sadly the names of those homes chosen figure significantly in reports of abuse. Those children trusted us just as we trusted that we were sending them to a safe and caring environment. In fact they were safer in the noisy overcrowded cottages at Allambie. Individual attention may have been in short supply but they were never alone.

Jude 15 November 2015

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