Therapeutic facilities are urgently needed in Victoria for children

Drug-addicted teenagers should be required to live in rehabilitation centres, with the current system failing to help many of the state’s most vulnerable get clean, a magistrate says.

Children’s Court Magistrate Jennifer Bowles realised how little she could do to help such children when confronted by the mother of teenager Greg,* who had tried and failed six times to complete a voluntary drug treatment program. In open court, the mother asked the Magistrate some years ago: “What can you do? I am watching my son die before my eyes.”

“And all I had after the voluntary de-tox had not worked was ‘We can detain him in custody’. And when it’s a health issue, it’s not a punitive response that we’d like,” Ms Bowles said.

Last year, she travelled on a Churchill fellowship to Sweden, where children can be ordered to live in secure homes to treat their drug problems and mental illnesses.

Ms Bowles said such therapeutic facilities were urgently needed in Victoria for children aged about 13 to 17 who were often abused or, like Greg, self-medicating their mental illnesses. “We’d like to be able to have somewhere to treat (children like Greg) with specialists … to try to work out the underlying issues for why young people are using substances.”

In her fellowship report ‘What can be done?’ she said, “These young people will lead the most damaged lives and be the most resource-intensive unless their needs can be addressed now.”

Currently, magistrates can order children to attend treatment for drug and alcohol problems and mental health issues, which can include weekly counselling sessions. But because these rehabilitation  facilities are voluntary, children cannot be compelled to attend them, and often struggle to do so.

Ideally, Ms Bowles said that children in different age groups would be separated, with specialist help to move back into the community as soon as possible. The court would also monitor their treatment to protect them from potential abuse while they were inside.

While the magistrate stressed that she was not critical of voluntary facilities, without “radical” change, she said the system risked perpetuating harm. Almost 90 per cent of young people in custody have a history of alcohol and/or drug misuse and 59 per cent have a history of being in child protection.

“We have to do something to stop this cycle because some of my colleagues … have seen nearly three generations of parents coming through our court,” she said.

Ms Bowles understood the community’s reluctance to contain children but said this would be a last resort for those who could not benefit from voluntary treatment: “Their lives are really tragic and they’re not only hurting their own health, they’re limiting their options for the rest of their futures. I really worry about where they’re going to end up.”

A spokeswoman for Families and Children Minister Jenny Mikakos said: “The Minister will soon be meeting with Magistrate Bowles and looks forward to discussing her report and recommendations then.”


* Not his real name

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