Aboriginal legal services have once again called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised following revelations that children in Queensland have been held in adult watch houses for weeks at a time.
Cheryl Axleby, the co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said she was “horrified” that hundreds of children aged between 10 and 17 have been held in watch houses, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in suicide smocks.
She said that the police and detention centres “seemed to be above the law” when it comes to providing a duty of care to children.
“I was horrified to see how many children are going through the city watch house facility,” she told NITV News.
“We have to look at why that is happening.”
Her comments came after Monday's Four Corners program on the ABC, which detailed cases of children enduring lengthy periods in adult holding cells because the state's youth detention centres are full.
One was a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy who was held for 34 days.
The boy had been found permanently unfit to plead and assessed as having the cognitive function of a child younger than six.
Ms Axelby said it would be better to spend money on early intervention and prevention programs.
“It’s a situation where harm could be caused to children, particularly emotionally and mentally,” she said.
“We should be looking at other ways to deal when children get themselves into situations with the criminal justice system rather than locking them up.”
Paediatrician Dr Mick Creati, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said he was "extremely concerned" about the damage being inflicted by holding children without access to proper nutrition, hygiene and medical care.
"Until we see proper recognition of the fact that children under the age of 14 have less capacity than adults to process information, plan, recognise the consequence of their actions and minimal impulse control - we'll continue to see very unjust and cruel outcomes," he said.
"The RACP wants all governments to move to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years, in line with the significant body of evidence on child brain development and United Nations recommendations."
Queensland's Child Safety Minister Di Farmer has conceded the situation is not ideal, but could not say when the practice would stop.
Last month, the state Labor government said it would spend $150 million on a new 32-bed youth detention centre in Brisbane, and $27 million on 16 more beds at the existing Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.