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Building an Australia Fit for Children: Dr Sev Ozdowski (2001)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Building an Australia
Fit for Children

Keynote presentation
delivered at the 8th National Conference of the Association for the Welfare
of Child Health (AWCH) - "Children on the margin: addressing the
health care needs of marginalised children and young people", 11
October 2001, Dr Sev Ozdowski

1. Introduction

I am delighted to
be invited to speak today at the 8th national conference of the Association
for the Welfare of Child Health. Thank you for your invitation and your
kind introduction.

I would like to acknowledge
the Gadigal people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we

I am especially pleased
to be given the opportunity to speak at this conference on the health
care needs of marginalised children and young people in Australia today.

Consulting and partnering
with key health care professionals such as you is a central plank of the
Commission's goal in promoting the human rights of children and young
people in Australia. It is your invaluable day to day dedication and expertise
in delivering proper health care to children in Australia which brings
the Convention on the Rights of the Child to life. Today I acknowledge
and applaud your ongoing commitment in building an Australia fit for children.

Nearly eleven years
ago Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Over
the past decade, significant progress has been made in enshrining children's
rights in Australia. As Federal Human Rights Commissioner, it is my task
to promote and protect the human rights of all people in Australia. In
particular, the Commission can:

  • Inquire into acts
    or practices that may infringe on human rights - both as raised in individual
    complaints alleging infringement by or on behalf of the Commonwealth
    and as evident in systemic violations including those established by
  • Make recommendations
    to the Federal Parliament on measures needed to prevent future violations
    and/or remedy past breaches; and
  • Report on any
    actions that should be taken by Australia in order to comply with relevant
    international instruments.

With respect to children's
rights, the Commission can

  • Monitor respect
    for the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Australia;
  • Receive complaints
    from children of alleged violations of their rights under the Convention;
  • Review new legislation
    and policy to check Convention compatibility;
  • Conduct public
    education campaigns on children's rights; and
  • Produce Briefing
    Notes on specific areas of children's rights.

So what can we say
about the situation of children and young people in Australia? Australia
has a good record in caring for its children. For instance, to pick 2
areas at random:

Immunisation coverage

According to Government
figures, in 1996, only 56% of one-year olds had been immunised against
diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, TB

By 2000, that figure
was 90%.

Deaths due to
injuries in 5-19 year olds

In 1988, the figure
was 28.6 per 100,000

By 1998, it had
been reduced to 16.1 per 100,000

These figures are
commendable. However, we still need to address the serious problems faced
by Indigenous children, children in state institutions and the nearly
15% of children living below the poverty line (according to the National
Centre for Social and Economic Modelling). Too often, Australia's most
vulnerable children slip through the net. This is just not good enough.

Australians, through
our governments, community and professional organisations, schools and
businesses need to take greater responsibility to ensure that no child
misses out on the enjoyment of their inherent human rights.

The rights I am speaking
of are basic education, good health services and protection from violence,
both institutional and within the home. It is the duty of the state, and
indeed the entire community, to look after children and young people on
the margins. Young people can fall into more than one category of disadvantage.
A homeless child can face multiple discrimination if, for example, she
is a girl and is drug-dependent, or if she is Aboriginal and has a disability.
These children are more likely to miss out on educational and employment
opportunities, in some cases because they are unaware of the opportunities
that are theoretically available to all. And as you will all be well aware,
without proper education and development programs, the physical and mental
health of children suffers.

2. Consultations

I have recently conducted
a series of consultations around the country on the challenges facing
children and young people today. These consultations were to precede the
planned UN Special Session on Children which was to take place in New
York in September but postponed due to the tragic events in that city.
The Special Session was to evaluate the 10 years since the World Summit
for Children, and to set new goals for the survival and development of
all children. The Special Session will now take place next year.

Some common themes
have emerged during my consultations. The first one is participation.
It is crucial that children and young people have a meaningful say in
those issues that affect them on a daily basis. Even very young children
can express their views; the key is finding ways for them to do so. Where
children are involved in the decision-making, it greatly increases the
chances of programs actually working.

Participation by
young people in decisions about their education is vital. Young
people tell me that they need more civics and democracy education in Australian
schools. They need more information and guidance on how to participate
effectively in the democratic processes. Culturally appropriate and flexible
schooling that takes into account of the needs of children with behavioural
problems or language difficulties can go a long way to addressing low
school retention rates. Rather than trying to mould the child to fit the
system, the system must be changed to fit the child.

Another emerging
theme was discrimination by police against young people, especially
those of Asian or Indigenous descent. Over-policing of certain areas,
where police have the power to 'move on' young people who are in a public
place, further alienates the very young people that the community should
be embracing. There are no police cautioning guidelines - as part
of national standards for juvenile justice - which means that young people
can be discriminated against on the grounds of geography. Many young people
I consulted said that the police do not take them seriously if they want

The abuse of the
rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young
is an issue that would require a separate address. But let
me give you some figures:

49.8% of the Indigenous
population is under 18 years of age, compared with 28.3% of the non-Indigenous
population. This highlights the need for increased resources for Indigenous
children - in the areas of health, housing, education, employment and

32% of Indigenous
young people complete secondary school compared with 73% of non-Indigenous
young people.

42% of all juveniles
in custody are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and the figure
is 50% for girls. The over-representation points to the need for better
diversionary programs and strategies for reducing the involvement of
Indigenous young people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

It is clear that
there are not enough community resources to help children and young
people on the margins, particularly where there has been family breakdown.
This results in a lack of connection with others - because there is no
family or trusted adult to turn to for guidance - and it leaves children
vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. These are the children who slip
through the net. These are the children who must be reached before they
become prey to homelessness, suicide, substance abuse, crime or mental
illness. We need to listen to their views when formulating policies and

In many states, people
raised the need for an advocacy structure for children to be put
in place. Participants at the consultations recommended the creation of
Children's Commissions at the State and Federal level, as well as an independent
office for children which could monitor and collect data on children's
well-being and rights.

There was criticism
of the legal system in some states for providing inadequate protection
and claims that the standards of proof for cases of child sexual abuse
were too high and the sentences too light. Also, there was considerable
concern about the number of children who are primary carers for parents
and therefore unable to attend school. Their right to education is compromised
through the lack of flexible arrangements for home schooling.

When the UN Special
Session on Children is rescheduled I will report on my consultations to
the Federal Government through the Prime Minister's representative to
the Special Session. The Special Session will offer Australia a unique
opportunity to re-evaluate its policies towards children and to recommit
itself to finding practical goals to improve the situation for children
on the margins.

The ongoing challenge
for me is promoting an understanding and acceptance of the Convention
on the Rights of the Child which requires regular monitoring of the cases
of children in difficult circumstances. These children are hard to reach
and therefore hard to help. We need to ensure regular independent review
of their treatment, in order to know whether we are properly reaching
them. I would like to turn now to a case study of a particular group of
marginalised children and young people in Australia.

3. Children in immigration

One of my priorities
is the care and protection of children and young people in immigration
detention. These children are among the most vulnerable in Australia today,
especially those who have come here without their parents.

The precise number
of children held in Australia's six immigration detention centres will
vary from week to week. However, it is possible to say that approximately
five hundred children are held at any one time and that the figures are
comparable to the country's entire juvenile detention population.

But who are these
children? Most people can only rely on newspaper reports, however, I and
the Commonwealth Ombudsman inspect each detention centre on an annual
basis and have the opportunity to meet them during those inspections.
These visits reinforce the fact that we must never lose sight of them
being children. And because they are children seeking asylum, they are
entitled to special care and protection under the Convention on the Rights
of the Child.

Children in a refugee
situation are particularly vulnerable. By refugee situation I do not mean
that they necessarily qualify under the refugee definition in the Refugee
Convention, but it is a helpful way to describe who these children are.
The refugee experience brings with it elements of war and persecution,
of fear, flight and displacement and of arriving in a strange country
after a long journey, where a different culture, language and religion
is often practiced. Confronting and traumatic as these experiences are
for adults, how much more so for children? And when we add the fact that
some children may have either suffered or witnessed the torture or murder
of family members prior to or during flight, we begin to see how vulnerable
and fragile these children are. And how these experiences impact upon
the emotional well-being, health and development of the child.

One thing is clear:
if Australia decides to detain children, it must accept that this policy
brings with it certain obligations to do right by the children.

During their time
in detention, children are entitled to the same rights as other children
in Australia by virtue of the principle of non-discrimination in the Convention.
In all decisions concerning them, the best interests of the child are
meant to be paramount.

However, in practical
terms, detainee children cannot have access to the health and education
services other children in Australia can, by virtue of this detention.
The detention centre does provide health, education and other services,
but I am not convinced these services are sufficient to meet their needs
or indeed their rights under the Convention. Whereas children whose parents
arrive on a tourist visa and then seek refugee status, have certain rights,
for example to attend school and receive support services such as counselling,
these services are not available to the same degree in detention centres.

Children who experience
abuse or violence can display a wide range of symptoms: anxiety, sleep
disturbance and nightmares, bedwetting, depression, behavioural problems,
either introversion or aggression, problems with relationships, emotional
numbness, learning difficulties, eating disorders and psychosomatic health
problems. Under the Convention, all countries are obliged to take steps
to rehabilitate child trauma victims, help them recover and reintegrate
into society "in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect
and dignity of the child". What does this mean in practice? Does
it require Australia to identify a child's past trauma at an early stage
and to facilitate the child's recovery either through treatment by trained
specialists in the detention centre or through early release into the
community of the child and their family, if this is in their best interests,
as decided by medical experts? Does this happen in practice? Can it happen
under the current law?

What concerns me
greatly are the cases of long-term detention, where children and their
families cannot go backward or forward. Their refugee application may
drag on and on, be rejected but the family cannot be deported to another
country because of the difficulty of procuring travel documents or because
they come from a country such as Afghanistan or Iraq where people cannot
be practically returned at the present time. And during the impasse they
remain in detention for months, sometimes years. This is unacceptable
in my view and finding a solution will be one of my priorities as Human
Rights Commissioner.

This is why I am
considering inquiring into the treatment of children in immigration detention
in Australia, with reference to the rights guaranteed in the Convention
on the Rights of the Child. I hope to engage with you, the experts, in
ascertaining what precisely we need to put in place in our detention policy,
to secure the care and protection of this marginalised and vulnerable
group of children. I believe that creative solutions can be found to ensure
that children whose emotional well-being or mental or physical health
needs require their early release from detention, can indeed be released
into the community.

Children in immigration
detention have already seen, heard, learnt, feared and faced an incredible
array of challenges before reaching Australia. Recently during an inspection
visit of the Villawood immigration detention centre, I met with a number
of families who are detained there. I will call one young person we interviewed
"Lisa". Lisa is 13 years old and arrived with her family from
Iran earlier this year. We asked Lisa what she was learning at school.
She learns English, maths and handicrafts, but not geography. "What
do you want to be when you grow up?" We asked her. "A doctor",
she replied instantly, her face lighting up. At that moment, Lisa's father
smiled at his daughter and this image of what the future might bring.

Now I will not say
that Lisa and her family are refugees under the Refugee Convention as
I am unfamiliar with their claims. Nor will I say whether Lisa should
become a doctor in Australia or in Iran or a third country. But what I
will stress is that Lisa is a child. She is a child who, during her time
in Australia, is entitled to all the rights children are entitled to in
this country. And it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that
the children like Lisa in immigration detention receive the care and protection
they are entitled to, and that under no circumstances should detention
further harm children's well-being.

We cannot rest on
our laurels until we have reached the most marginalised children and young
people. Then we can finally say we have built an Australia truly fit for

Thank you for the
opportunity to share these thoughts with you today and I look forward
now to your expert observations.

updated 1 December 2001

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