Skip to main content

Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

Click here to return to the Submission Index

Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Katie Brosnan

My name is Katie

Brosnan. I am a permanent resident of Australia and a citizen of Ireland.

I qualified as a high school teacher in Ireland in 1995 with a bachelor’s

degree in education. I have taught in Ireland, Poland and Australia in

mainstream educational facilities as well as with marginalized groups

e.g. refugees in Ireland, gypsies in Ireland.

I worked at Port

Hedland IRPC from August 2001 until April 2002 as a teacher. I was employed

through an agency named [name removed]. The man who runs this agency is

[name removed]. After a brief interview, I was contracted to ACM for a

six week period. I was to be paid $27 per hour, have my accommodation

paid for in [a] Caravan Park in Port Hedland and have return airfares

to and from Perth.

I received a thirty

minute induction upon arrival at Port Hedland IRPC. This induction largely

dealt with security issues e.g. what to do in a hostage situation, how

my keys were now “my life”, not to bring anything in or out

of the centre and always to be on the lookout for potential weapons. There

was no information regarding cultural awareness or the nature/ nationalities

of my students. This induction was conducted by the training officer,

[name removed].

In August 2001, there

were approximately 120 children in detention in Port Hedland. They either

came to school in H Block or received instruction in “separation”.

I was officially

assigned the Upper Primary class which in theory children ranged from

10 to 12 years of age. In reality, I was teaching 8 to 15 year olds. I

was also assigned a small amount of teaching hours in separation. In addition

I was to teach male adults from 3pm to 5 pm each afternoon. I was told

my priority was teaching English as a second language.

My immediate manager,

Programs Manager, was out on sick leave at this time as was the permanent

teacher. All this information was conveyed to me by the two other contract


I started work at

7am and officially finished at 5pm from Monday to Friday. I worked on

Saturday afternoons teaching male adults.

The contact teaching

hours are far larger than the average school. The norm is usually approximately

20 hours per week. I was doing 32/ 33 hours contact teaching per week.

The school facilities

and resources were poor. There were 4 classrooms in H Block. The furniture

was old and unsuitable for the children. Children often had to stack chairs

in order to reach the desk. I had two to three students sitting to a single

desk at times. There were grills on all windows so there was little natural

light. Artificial light was necessary at all times.

Books were available

in the school. Most were unsuitable as they had been donated by local

schools. They were outdated and not aimed at ESL students. Requests for

the purchase of new educational materials were continually turned down

until January 2002 when a new Programs Manager was appointed.

A school photocopier

existed until October 2001. It broke down and was replaced by one from

DIMA. This also broke down in the same month. After that, there was no

school photocopier. This was despite repeated requests to ACM from teachers

regarding the need for one. Teachers were to go to K Block which is the

administration block to photocopy. We often had no access to this machine

as teachers were not considered a priority. To my knowledge, this situation

has not altered since I left.

The lack of access

to a photocopier made teaching more difficult as children did not have

individual textbooks. Each child was issued one pencil, one exercise book

and if they were lucky an eraser and a ruler. These resources were often

in short supply and one had to wait until the following month’s

budget came through before a child received an eraser.

There is a whiteboard

in each classroom in H Block. I often did not have a whiteboard marker

to use due to the limitations of the budget. I normally purchased my own.

In H Block, there

were 4 main levels: Kindergarten, Lower Primary, Upper Primary and High

School. In my time there, the kindergarten class was taken by an unqualified

detainee. He received no training. When teachers had spare time, they

would access suitable material for him. The Lower Primary was largely

taken by an unqualified detainee as the permanent teacher ,whose class

it was, was often on stress leave. She resigned in December 2001.

I was never asked

by centre management as to the material I was teaching. This led me to

believe that ACM and DIMA were not interested in the quality of education

being delivered. The only times ACM and/or DIMA visited the school was

when delegations came to the centre. Teachers were then told to beautify

the school as best we could.

So education was

solely at the discretion of the teacher. I found that teaching English

for 4 hours per day was not appropriate for my students. I varied my programme

by adding maths, society and environment, art and crafts, music and singing

and drama. I observed other teachers to be less creative in their teaching


There was no programme,

no curriculum or syllabus in Port Hedland IRPC. As a teacher, this astounded

me. There were no handover periods between incoming and outgoing teachers.

Hence new teachers did not receive any information on their classes. There

were no student records or files. Children receiving TPVs did not get

an exit form. Teachers often did not know a child had received a TPV until

they were leaving. Hence no time even to pass on their school work to

them. Teachers were not informed of any situations regarding the children

in their care.

I consider this a

serious situation especially when children’s parents were involved

with self-harm incidents. Teachers were not informed of decisions regarding

the application process of the students. Negative decisions handed down

to the detainees often had a huge impact on the children. For teachers

not to be aware of these decisions made our job more difficult than necessary.

UMs did not at any

time attend kids school in H Block while I was there. After the National

Inquiry was announced in November 2001, a special class was established

for UMs. This took place from 1pm to 2.30pm from Monday to Friday excluding

Wednesdays. [Name removed] and I took this class in turns. Once we left

for the Christmas period, this class ceased.

Three UMs occasionally

attended my male adult class in February and March. They told me they

did not feel comfortable with either the adult class or the children’s

school. I would have liked to have devoted more time to them but there

simply were not enough hours in the day. I felt they were a particularly

vulnerable group due to the lack of family in detention.

From August 2001

until the end of February 2002, children ate breakfast outside in the

visitor’s yard. Detainees and teachers assisted with food distribution.

Children ate from dirty wooden tables with little shade. There was no

drinking water available at this location. Their breakfast diet consisted

of cereal, UHT milk, white bread, jam and processed cheese. They ate from

plastic container with plastic spoons. They did not have any knife for

putting jam on bread. There was no tap even for washing hands. Teachers

repeatedly asked management for a change in breakfast location due to

the heat and lack of shade. Breakfast was transferred to the “mess”

in February of this year. This was a marked improvement. I am however

concerned with the lack of variation in the diet. Children received one

piece of fruit at recess time. I sent this fruit back to the kitchen a

number of times as it was mouldy or overripe. There was little variation

in the fruit.

Working in the confines

of Port Hedland IRPC is a challenging experience. Children often came

to me with their concerns and problems. They did not like to go to the

counsellor in the centre. I found myself ill-equipped to deal with their

difficulties. As a result, I requested “debriefing” or “supervision”

on a number of occasions. This was always turned down.

As mentioned earlier,

I worked a little in India and Foxtrot Blocks. These are both separation

areas. Here school was held in the common room. This was not a suitable

space. There was no whiteboard and often no tables. I used the window

as a whiteboard. There were numerous interruptions from both detainees

and ACM officers. As detainees get limited time outside whilst in separation,

I sometimes took class outside. Their time outside appeared to be solely

at the discretion of the officers. If I was outside, I usually played

games and sang. Officers often made scornful comments about what I was

doing. Comments like, “Is this what teachers are paid to do nowadays?”

Children and adults in separation received on average 1 to 1.5 hours of

education from Monday to Friday.

The people in separation

seemed distressed at all times. They treated my arrival as the highlight

of their day. I always left this area upset. Detainees would plead with

me to stay longer with them.

I had a number of

difficulties with ACM officers and their treatment of detainees. The general

attitude of most was these people had done something wrong and should

be sent back to their homelands in boats. There was little sympathy or

empathy for the people. A small number of officers were the exception

to this.

Detainees were always

called my number. Teachers refused to do this. Officers often entered

classrooms without knocking or saying, “excuse me”. Sometimes

they would be looking for a detainee and would call them by number; never

by name. Other times, the officer would simply walk into the room and

see what was going on. Others stood at the internal window and stare into

the class. I found this distracting. One officer once came into my class

while I was tutoring and started writing on the whiteboard as well as

talking to me. I found this unprofessional and disrespectful.

However I felt I

was not in a position to comment on this as officers write reports to

management. This can lead to instant dismissal. I did not have a written

contract and so was wary of creating waves. After one of my colleagues

was sacked in late February, I felt I was being constantly watched by

ACM officers. Their presence in the school was constant.

On a number of occasions,

I heard ACM speak inappropriately to children. I heard officers stating,”

If you do X, you will not get a visa.” This scared children. They

were fearful of the power of ACM.

One child with a

disability said hello to a male officer in late February 2002. The officer’s

response was, “fuck off.” He said it quietly but loud enough

for me to hear.

In February 2002,

a female officer spoke rudely to me at breakfast. I complained to the

Programs Manager as I was upset. At recess, this same officer denied a

child milk. She said something to the effect of, “Oh you know what

milk is. Do you have milk in your country?” This officer also called

a child a “shithead” in the yard of H Block. This officer

then called [another officer] and gave out about the behaviour of the

children. [The second officer] immediately backed the [first] officer.

[The second officer] spoke very harshly to the children. I got the Programs

Manager who requested the female officer be relieved of her work in H

Block that day. [The second officer] did not want a report to be submitted.

The Programs Manager did however did submit a report.

Every morning I dreaded

discovering which officer was assigned to the school in H Block for the

day. It could make a large difference to one’s day. I found most

officers unable to deal professionally with children. Officers used bad

language to children, threatened children with using their power with

regards to their visa process. Officers did not show any sensitivity towards

cultural issues.

We kept sanitary

pads in the school for women and teenage girls. Some girls mentioned their

discomfort at asking male officers for these pads. Most of these females

do not speak to males outside the family unit in their country of origin

and now they must ask male officers for sanitary pads. This illustrates

the lack of understanding of ACM.

Prior to November

2001, there were no school excursions. However after the national inquiry

was announced, there was an effort on the part of ACM to organise excursions.

We went to Cemetery Beach in Port Hedland twice. On the second occasion,

[an ACM staff member] threw a teenage girl with a disability into the

ocean. She was terrified. The manager claimed he did not know she could

not swim.

After Christmas,

I think I went to the swimming pool with children three times. I think

each child had the opportunity to go to the pool twice. Trips came under

the control of activities. I found the activities officer to be inefficient.

On one occasion I was left alone with 8/9 children at the pool without

an officer. While I had no problem with this, I knew it was a security

issue. Afterwards I brought to the attention of ACM and DIMA. Neither

appeared concerned.

In late November

or early December 2001, all teachers received a memo from [name removed],

the Programs Manager. It stated that teachers were not to approach DIMA

staff. We were not to talk to them regarding any matter in the detention

centre. We were instructed to use the ACM chain of command i.e. talk to

the Programs Manager who in turn would talk to his superior etc.

From December 2001

onwards, there was a weekly meeting between ACM and DIMA concerning UMs.

They were actively encouraged to attend school. The teachers organized

a Valentine’s Night Disco for the children in the centre. One DIMA

personnel asked me at least twice to inform him of any UMs attending.

He said this was more information for Canberra to know.

Around this time,

two DIMA personnel received photographs of children at the swimming pool.

I was present while they selected photos of children “looking happy.”

They were searching for photos were the children’s faces were blurred.

After this incident,

I discouraged children from having their photograph taken. I realized

these photographs were being used for some form of propaganda.

In November or December

2001, one mother was put into a cell in K Block. She was suicidal. She

had three sons in the compound. When they were allowed to visit her, they

were searched by ACM staff. In my opinion, this added to the children’s


When the boat with

353 people went down in October 2001, the children were very upset. The

counsellor agreed to one session with the children. I do not know if this

session actually took place. If so, it was inadequate as children were

crying for many days at school.

I also witnessed

the same counsellor asking a teenage boy if she could read a letter he

had just received. The letter came in February 2002 and was a result of

the Freedom Bus to Port Hedland. He consented. The counsellor read the

letter in a public area, announced it was “stupid” and asked

the boy if she could throw it in the bin. Once again, he agreed.

When my colleague,

[name removed], was sacked in February 2002 the children were distressed.

They had not had the opportunity to say goodbye to their teacher. After

some days, I suggested they might benefit by talking to the counsellor.

Approximately twenty children requested to see the counsellor. She consented

to this but only in groups. She said to me that so many students would

take up too much of her time. After their group sessions, the general

feedback from the children was that this time was wasted as the counsellor

was just another ACM “mafia” officer. They did not appear

to have any confidence in the mental care team.

The mental care team

wear ACM uniforms. This immediately puts up a barrier for all detainees.

I found the children

to be clingy with me and other teachers. Their behaviour was often irrational.

They physically clung on to me regularly. They often asked me to stay

with them overnight in the blocks. They spoke of their anxieties with

regards to their process. They talked matter of factly about other detainees

on hunger strikes. They relished the thought of “trouble’

in the compound. A favourite topic of conversation was the riot of May

2001. They spoke of how guards wore riot gear and how they were scared

of the detainees. The children frequently tried to antagonize the officers.

Children were also

withdrawn and introspective. On one occasion, a child hid under a table

at school for over an hour. The counsellor told me she would deal with

the child. Half an hour later, I went back to the classroom. An ordinary

ACM officer was standing guard beside the table. This officer told me

the counsellor had given up and left. I eventually coaxed the child out

from under the table which was covered with a tablecloth. The counsellor

had placed the cloth over the table which made no sense to me. Why cover

the child in darkness?

ACM officers did

room searches in Port Hedland. They would collect any pencils or books

they found children to have. These would then be deposited at the school.

So instead of actively encouraging children to read or draw or write in

the family block, they would have all materials removed from them. As

a result, children resented the officers.

Headcounts are also

conducted at night which disturb the children’s sleeping. A torch

is shone in faces. A few children spoke of how this reminded them of past

experiences in the country of origin.

There was one family

where bedwetting was a problem for all three children. They ranged in

age from 10 to13 years. They had regular sessions with the psychologist

in the centre. He made no progress with this problem. Eventually he used

the bell-ringing method which I believe is out of date.

There is a Child Liaison Officer [CLO] employed by ACM. This woman was

an ordinary officer with an arm injury. Hence she was put in an office.

She had no prior experience in this field. She was ineffectual in her

work. In February 2002, there was a feeling of despair amongst the children

regarding visas. One family of five children stopped coming to school.

They stayed in their room all day with their mother. I asked both the

Programs Manager and the CLO why these children were not attending school.

They did not know. After a few days, the CLO told me the children were

sad and bored at school. The issue was not pushed any further by the CLO.

I unfortunately did not have access to these children to encourage to


In general, absences

were not considered to be of importance. Rolls for the children’s

attendance at school were often doctored by the Programs Manager.

A new Programs Manager,

[name removed], was appointed in January 2002. The situation in the school

improved with his appointment. He purchased much needed resources e.g.

colouring pencils, coloured paper, A4 exercise books for the high school

students, a small amount of resource books for the teaching staff. He

also bought individual maths workbooks for the children in March 2002.

These books were

unsuitable as we did not have the textbooks that precede the workbooks.

It was difficult to work from them.

Children in detention

for long periods of time have lost the ability to read and write in their

native tongue. I repeatedly suggested to management that they should have

instruction in their first language. This did not happen.

The teachers had

one detainee aide per class. Their job was to translate. They worked hard

for an unacceptable amount of money. Their wages were reduced in March

2002. They received no training for this work.

A volunteer music

and art teacher began to visit the centre in February 2002. This was wonderful

for the children as not only did it break the monotony of their day but

they also had the opportunity to express themselves through art and music.

It had taken many months for ACM to agree to this teacher coming in. The

matter was first raised in my presence in November 2001. The Programs

Manager said she would nothing but a headache for all.

I truly believe ACM

and DIMA are not concerned with the quality of education being provided

in Port Hedland IRPC. They never questioned my content nor did they issue

me with any instructions. In fact, they showed no interest in my work.


Updated 30 June 2003.