The Northern Territory Government says it will fund more than 200 recommendations from the royal commission into youth detention and child protection in an effort to rebuild its 'failed' youth justice system.
The $229 million package, a record investment for the Territory, will place an emphasis on preventing children and families from entering child protection and youth detention systems.
It will be phased out over the next five years.
"Today is a significant milestone in our reform process for child protection and youth justice services," said Territories Families Minister Dale Wakefield.
"The child protection and youth justice systems have failed to address the challenges faced by children and young people in the care of detention. Indeed, in some cases they have exacerbated the problems. A system which was meant to make the community safer has in fact made more dangerous," she said.
Central to the government's investment is the establishment of 17 children and family centres, across the Territory, which will provide education, health and child care systems, as well as provide services to struggling families.
"They will act as a hub for integrated referral and service support systems. This is about keeping vulnerable kids out of the child protection system," said Minister Wakefield.
The package will also include a new $66.9 million IT system, to better link police and health databases, $90 million to keep young people away from crime and stop offending, $5.4 million to transfer out-of-home care, $22.9 million to improve youth detention operations, and $8.9 million to empower community-led reform.
A further $71.4 million will be spent on replacing the Old Springs and Don Dale Youth Detention Centres.
Darwin's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre garnered global attention in 2016 when an ABC investigation revealed mistreatment of youth inside the centre. The revelations triggered political action and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of the Northern Territory.
John Paterson, CEO, Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) welcomed the announcement.
“This announcement is consistent with the Royal Commission and the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory’s recommendations for a public health approach to focus on greater investment in early childhood and early intervention,” Mr Paterson said.
“We now need the Commonwealth Government of Australia to work with us and look forward to collaboration through the Tripartite Forum.”
While the Law Council of Australia welcomes the announcement, they say the NT government needs to priortise raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and not detain children under the age of 14.
"We understand that the NT Government has a process underway to look at these two landmark recommendations, but we must reiterate that they are at the centre of meaningful and lasting change for the Territory,” said Mr Morry Bailes, Law Council of Australia President.
“Raising the age of criminal responsibly will radically change how the criminal justice system responds to our youngest and most vulnerable children," he said.
Mr Bailes says locking up children should be a last resort.
“Detaining children unnecessarily exposes them to the criminal justice system. This in turn dramatically increases their chances of becoming repeat offenders."
Amnesty International's Indigenous Rights Campaigner Belinda Lowe agrees.
"Whilst the historic investment in community programs is welcomed, unless raising the age is fast-tracked, children under 14 will continue to be harmed under the Minister for Territory Families, Dale Wakefield’s new three year plan. Raising the age immediately is the best step to get kids out of harmful prisons," she said.
"If Minister Wakefield waits three years to take action for children under 14 in her care she will have failed."
Despite the pledge, Territories Families Minister Dale Wakefield said the reforms are about much more than money.
"It is about doing things differently. This is about long-term, systemic changes that will be drivers for a safer community for us all," she said
Last month, the Gunner Government admitted to failing to care, protect and support vulnerable children and promised an overhaul of the system.
Minister Wakefield also explained that 217 of the 227 recommendations related to action by the NT government, while a further 10 required action on behalf of the Federal Government and other organisations.
'Emphasis on Aboriginal voices'
Minister Wakefield says the reforms will place an emphasis on the inclusion of Aboriginal voices.
"It is critical that Aboriginal communities take a lead role in the design and delivery of services that meet the needs of Aboriginal children and families," she said.
Ms Wakefield said the reforms are about long-term, systemic changes that will be drivers for a safer community, including significant investment into intervention.
"It places an emphasis on Aboriginal voices and communities being central to decision-making, leading the conversation and shifting the service delivery to Aboriginal controlled organisations," she said.
"It recognises that a public health approach and investing in the early years is needed to reduce an unacceptable high levels of Aboriginal children going into care."
Ms Wakefield said the $229 million is a significant part of the government's budget.
"The overall investment that this government is doing, putting into our community safety, but investing in our kids' future, is a significant part of the Northern Territory Budget," she said.
"This is about a whole of government approach, and I think for the first time Northern Territory government is genuinely doing this in a way that is coordinated, that is in partnership with the Aboriginal organisations, across the territory, but also our community sector partners."