Young detainees missing school, medical visits due to staff shortage

Young people detained at Adelaide’s youth justice centre have been unable to go to school or attend medical appointments while the government deals with a “significant” staffing shortage, union officials and advocates claim.

Sep 23, 2021, updated Sep 23, 2021
Kurlana Tapa youth detention centre at Cavan. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Kurlana Tapa youth detention centre at Cavan. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Public Service Association general secretary Nev Kitchin told InDaily that “on any particular day” over a dozen youth workers are on leave from Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre at Cavan, prompting the centre’s management to restrict detainee movement as a safety measure.

He said staff are absent for “multiple reasons”, including sick, long service, maternity, or workers compensation leave, or because they have been seconded to work for different government departments.

Kitchin described the current staffing situation at Kurlana Tapa as the “most complex” and “significant” he’s seen, with the union and government desperately working together to recruit additional workers to cover shifts.

He said there had been staffing issues at the centre for over a year, and the union and government were “trying to deal with them as best as we can”.

“What is happening is that with the staff shortages, all of the issues around how you manage children in a confined environment are becoming more exacerbated and very difficult to deal with,” he said.

“It is a really complex environment at the moment trying to work through multiple issues and making sure that people actually feel safe at work.

“At the moment people are feeling very unsafe in the workplace and that can lead to an increase in absenteeism for whatever reason, so that compounds the issue.”

Kitchin said when Kurlana Tapa is short-staffed detained children can have their movement restricted or access to education “compromised” to ensure safety.

“That may mean that education classes that we desperately want children to go to in the hope that it will help turn them around so they’ve got a future, we may not be able to conduct those classes,” he said.

“They may not be able to run classes, they may not be able to arrange visits with certain professional bodies because we have a lack of staff.”

Asked whether school classes and service visits had recently been cancelled due to the current staffing shortage, Kitchin said: “that has been the case”.

Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright, who is legislated to advocate for young people detained at Kurlana Tapa, said she was aware of “ongoing staffing issues” at the centre.

This staffing crisis would not have happened overnight and nor will it be resolved quickly

She said the issues were having a “direct impact” on the lives of young people in detention.

“Young people have raised their concerns with my team about the problems they have experienced because of staff shortages,” she said.

“These include being unable to attend school some days, reduced access to medical and other appointments, and being forced to spend excessive time locked in their bedrooms.

“I raised these issues in the first formal inspection report of the Centre, released in June last year, and I’ve continued to talk with the Centre’s management and DHS (Department of Human Services) about my concerns.”

Wright said she understood there were “various contributing factors” to the staff shortage, including COVID-19 arrangements and staff morale.

“The department is making efforts to address these issues including recruiting new staff,” she said.

“In the meantime my staff and I are supporting the residents to have their voices heard when they are unduly affected by staff shortages within the Centre, including getting to medical appointments and other important reasons for leave, like funerals.”

Meanwhile, Kitchin said three more youth workers could be out of action this week, after they were allegedly injured while trying to restrain an 18-year-old detainee on Tuesday night.

“It’s my understanding that one of the alleged offenders who would have been of an adult age was in fact arrested by the police and removed from the centre,” he said.

“Three (staff) have been injured, but how long they are going to be off work or if they’re going to be off work I can’t confirm – we’ll just have to wait and see how that unfolds.

“I think one of them might have suffered a broken finger, as to the others it could have been abrasions, sprains, those types of injuries.

“There will absolutely be an investigation.”

A Department of Human Services spokesperson confirmed to InDaily that an “incident” involving Kurlana Tapa residents and staff occurred on Tuesday evening.

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“Staff responded appropriately, with one resident being removed from Kurlana Tapa,” the spokesperson said. 

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink told parliament on Tuesday that the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre had a “very dynamic environment” and her department was in the process of finalising the recruitment of two youth workers.

“The advice that I have from my agency is that at Kurlana Tapa the staffing ratio is one staff member to four residents, which is one of the best ratios in Australia for youth custodial facilities,” she said.

“The Department of Human Services has been working collaboratively with the Public Service Association and has a positive working relationship with them.”

Asked if young people had been confined to their rooms and unable to attend school, Lensink responded: “it is a pretty serious allegation about confinement.

“We take any of those seclusion issues very seriously.

“The safety of young people in the centre is always of utmost concern for the Government, to make sure that young people are receiving appropriate services while they are in the centre.”

The Department of Human Services currently employs 178 full-time equivalent staff, 12 of which have recently been recruited while nine are in the process of starting.

An additional recruitment process is currently underway.

The Department of Human Services spokesperson confirmed the government was working with the PSA on “staffing matters”.

“Kurlana Tapa maintains a staffing ratio of four residents to one staff member. This ensures sufficient and appropriate supervision while promoting close attention to individual needs,” they said. 

“Children and young people in Kurlana Tapa receive a diverse education program in a modern environment to ensure they maintain appropriate schooling for their needs.”

Shadow Human Services Minister Nat Cook said the Government had a responsibility to ensure young people in detention were not missing out on education or access to supports.

“Consistency and reinforcement of skills is vital for young people in the training centre so as to enable them to exit the justice system in a way that sees them able to succeed in their lives,” she said.

“This staffing crisis would not have happened overnight and nor will it be resolved quickly.”

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