The Banksia Hill Youth Detention Centre features heavily throughout the eighth volume of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability report.
In fact, the commission dedicated a whole chapter to the troubled facility, where a high proportion of detainees have intellectual disability or cognitive impairment.
Although the commission states clearly there have been no findings about the conduct of WA’s Department of Justice, this chapter is explicitly scathing of it.
And it can also be seen indirectly from the scrupulous dissection of the evidence given by the man in charge, Director General Adam Tomison.
In October last year, Dr Tomison told the royal commission that Banksia Hill was in a “state of emergency”.
He said critical incidents like detainees self-harming, causing damage to cells, escaping from cells and assaulting staff were occurring each day or every other day between January and March 2022.
Director general’s ‘euphemistic language’ criticised
But the commission said Dr Tomison “appeared not to accept” the opinion of the Inspector of Custodial Services that a suitable therapeutic environment did not exist at the facility.
Dr Tomison said he did not think Banksia Hill was “perfect by any means” but it was “generally okay” before trouble in early 2022.
The director general also did not accept that locking up a 14-year-old child with Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other developmental disabilities in a cell for 23 hours a day was a cruel and unusual punishment.
“Nowhere in Dr Tomison’s evidence did he deplore the treatment of the children at Banksia Hill, the conditions in which they found themselves or the unlawfulness of the practice of confining detainees for long periods,” the report said.
“Rather, he preferred to use language such as ‘not ideal’ and ‘not perfect’ and insisted the long lockdowns were justifiable.”
The commission said this form of “euphemistic language” distracted attention from the serious harm caused to children.
It pointed to the fact that while Dr Tomison accepted the inspector’s show cause notice in 2021, which referred to possible “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” in the ISU (intensive support unit),” he did not accept that description.
He instead preferred to characterise it as not the “best possible”, according to the report.
“It’s not like we were sitting on our hands trying not to do anything,” Dr Tomison said at the time.
“I’ll just say that.”
Detainee behaviour should not be blamed: RC
The report further drilled into Dr Tomison’s explanation for the excessive lockdowns in 2021 and 2022, including that the behaviour of detainees was mostly to blame for the centre’s dysfunction.
“In our view, detainee ‘behaviour’ should not be blamed for the continuing lockdowns,” the report said.
“The department had ample opportunity to address the problem of staff shortages over many years.”
The commission said it was “difficult to accept” Dr Tomison’s proposition the department had no other option but to lock up a 14-year-old boy for up to 23 hours a day over an 11-week period.
It was an act the Supreme Court of WA declared to be unlawful.
Dr Tomison, who is internationally recognised as an expert in the prevention of child abuse, having done a thesis on professional decision making in the management of suspected child abuse and neglect cases, was asked if he characterised treatment of the boy as child abuse.
He replied: “I wouldn’t.”
Then there was Dr Tomison’s evidence on staff shortages, which the commission said the department had known for a long time to have been a cause of excessive lockdowns of detainees.
“He did not know when Banksia Hill last had a full complement of staff or what the annual attrition rate was,” the report said.
“We think it is surprising Dr Tomison did not have that information.”
Staffing issues ‘tolerated’, not addressed
The royal commission’s findings on Banksia Hill, while damning, were not new.
The commission found many children with disabilities had regularly been subjected to unlawful confinement to their cells – amounting to solitary confinement.
It found children admitted to custody were not routinely assessed for cognitive disability.
More importantly, it concluded the Department of Justice knew about the Banksia Hill staffing issues but “tolerated” and failed to address them for years.
These and many other issues have been raised by multiple experts, judges, lawyers, academics, and detainees themselves, multiple times.
The recommendations included an immediate review of the youth justice staffing and recruitment model, legislation to prohibit solitary confinement, and the release a clear timeline for publication of its new operating philosophy and service model and the associated implementation plan.
Changes already afoot: WA government
In response to the report, a WA government spokesperson said change was already afoot, with many measures — announced by the Cook Government in June — working to enhance safety and welfare at Banksia Hill Detention Centre.
“The state government acknowledges the important work undertaken by the royal commission,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“The Department of Justice has already undertaken extensive work to address matters raised in the report, with significant progress made in recent months.
“There are a number of royal commission recommendations which intersect with this review, and all will be considered.”
In his forward to the report, the commission’s chair Ronald Sackville wrote transformational reforms could not occur without fundamental changes in attitudes towards people with a disability.
It’s hoped this message will reach the top, where change starts.