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Getting serious about children's rights

  • 22 November 2019


Australia continues to be a menacing place for children who find themselves entwined with law enforcement. The most recent revelations in this regard are that 122 strip searches of girls have been conducted by NSW police during the past three years of children with ten per cent of them being Indigenous, including a ten year old.

Strip searches of children are permissible by law in NSW although a parent or guardian should be present, yet there are exercisable exceptions. The response from NSW Police Minister David Elliott to the statistics was less than reassuring, when he stated that he would want officers to strip search his children if the police felt they were at risk of doing something wrong.

According to a report release by UNSW Law, the laws on this issue in NSW require clarification. Like other jurisdictions in Australia, decisions to conduct such searches 'rely heavily on police discretion and a commitment to comply with statutory restrictions'. With regard to children, the report recommends that they 'must not be strip searched unless on genuine child protection grounds' and that authorisation from the court must be obtained before the search is completed.

Questions around such conduct is inextricably linked to the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia, which is ten. An average of 980 children were held in juvenile detention centres across the country on any given night in 2018, with Indigenous young people aged ten to 17 26 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous and largely for very minor offences.

In the ten to 13 age group, 70 per cent of those held in any given year are Indigenous. According to a pediatritian and adolescent physician who spoke to the Saturday Paper, 'The prefrontal cortex, the bit of the brain that controls executive functions, is not fully developed until much later, age 25.' The detrimental effects on development and the high likelihood of reoffending have been well documented.

In September, Dujuan Hoosan, a 12 year old Arrernte/Garrwa boy from central Australia and star of the documentary In My Blood it Runs, addressed the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council advocating for increasing the age of criminal responsibility and for Aboriginal-led education. Within days of his appearance, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child completed a review of Australia's compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which takes place every seven years.

Clarence Nelson, Committee Co-Rapporteur