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Submission to the National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Dr Marie O'Neill


I, Dr Marie O’Neill, [address

removed], Psychologist do solemnly and sincerely declare as follows:

1. I make this statement

for the purposes of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

2. I have asked for my

evidence to the Inquiry to be confidential. [Permission later granted for

the statement to be made public].

3. I am a qualified and

registered Psychologist, and hold a BA, MA, Teaching Certificate, and PhD.

I have been working as psychologist in Australia since 1978, and worked previously

in Canada as a psychologist and teacher. I have also previously worked for

Family and Youth Services in South Australia.

4. I worked for Australasian

Correctional Management (ACM) at the Woomera Immigration, Reception and Processing

Centre (WIRPC) as a Psychologist for 7 and-a-half months. I worked for one

week in March 2001 and then again from mid-May to December 2001.

Ability to

provide for Children

5. One of problems for

us in providing adequate psychological services to detainees was the numbers

of people for whom we were required to provide care. The WIRPC was crowded

during my employment there and a lot of people were arriving sick and deeply

distressed. These people were mostly adults, but because of their numbers

we could hardly ever get to the children.

6. We had to respond

to those needs that appeared most urgent and we were driven off our feet by

adults’ needs which were more immediate, and more obvious - adults are

able to be more demanding and can refer themselves for help. People on high

risk were also mostly adults and took up a lot of our time. I therefore generally

had to leave the children to the teachers, social worker and counsellor to

provide help that I might have provided.

7. Sometimes parents

asked for help for them in relation to their children’s behaviour and

if parents really wanted help this often worked. But very many of the parents

didn’t have coping skills and were more concerned with their futures.

Some hated themselves for having brought their children there. Their needs

were heavily expressed and children just tagged along. I don’t feel

that we got enough chance to give children sufficient attention.

8. The care available

could have been improved by increased staff. A children’s centre would

also have been useful. But it would have had to have been separated from rest

of WIRPC or it probably would have been damaged or destroyed by rioters.

9. There was not enough

assistance available to parents who were not coping. We could help if parents

knew how to ask and had the confidence and the will to seek us out. But there

were so many people and we could not always be free to help.

10. We were unable to

do any screening or routine checks. The only screening I did was of unaccompanied

minors in my first visit. I would have liked to have screened all children

on their arrival but could not. Children had medical screening and sometimes

things would be picked up and referred to us by caseworkers and teachers and

DIMIA, but this did not happen often.

11. Because of the frantic

pace we could not give treatment that we could have given in, for example,

an ordinary schooling situation. Simply by having an experienced person observe

children in a classroom, problems such as those with emotional disturbances,

hearing, sight, speech and mental capacity can be identified. However this

was not possible in this environment.


12. Children react not

only to their physical environment, but also what is going on within and to

their family. Most of the problems children faced in detention were in my

view related to the stresses experienced by families and the coping ability/strategies

of their parents. Families lived in small quarters and in close contact with

others. They were exposed to stress and were often living in the same compounds

as people from religious and cultural backgrounds which created tensions between


13. Children who were

in the WIRPC for a short time, perhaps 4-5 weeks, were briefly exposed to

these stresses. Those who were there for longer would also pick up on the

anxiety of the WIRPC caused by the uncertainty of the progress of visa applications.

14. The worst stress

in detention is caused by not knowing what will happen and when things will

happen. No estimates of time were given to detainees.

15. In addition to the

uncertainty, the fact that we were never told what was going to be happening

to detainees meant that we could never prepare them for outcomes. It was also

difficult to provide appropriate services when you didn’t know who would

walk out the next day, and who would walk in.

16. There were particular

groups of people within the detention centre with various problems. Mandaeans

and other Iranians, for example, had particular problems because they lacked

hope of release. This caused depression amongst parents and accordingly their


17. If parents of children

were incapable of taking care of them ie when they were sick or emotionally

disturbed, we tried to find other parents to “foster” the children.

FAYS knew that we were doing this and maintained formal supervision of those


18. Children also witnessed

and were drawn into riots and disturbances. Some also witnessed self-harm,

although public demonstrations of self-harm were not common in time I was


19. I observed children

whose parents were on hunger strike and were drawn or forced into this as

a result. I tried to encourage parents to allow me to take children to meals

if they refused to do so themselves.

20. I regarded unaccompanied

minors as being relatively well taken care of. Indeed, because other children

had to rely on their parents to provide care, and sometimes the parents were,

or became, unable to do this, unaccompanied minors sometimes received better

levels of care.

21. From my observation,

staff generally treated children appropriately. Sometimes they were stressed,

but I regarded them as doing their best for the main part.


Security and Medical Care

22. Children were brought

in when they had physical injuries such as cuts and grazes and received prompt

and adequate medical care. From my observation, people were also provided

with hospital care when it was needed.

23. Self-harm amongst

children was not common at the WIRPC when I was employed there. For a long

time, there was none. Near the end of my time there one boy cut himself superficially

and his mother brought him to me. He said “all the adults do it, I’m

going to do it”.

24. FAYS was notified

whenever we had concerns about child abuse. I did not regard child abuse as

being prevalent, although I did regard denying children food by hunger strikers

as child abuse, and told parents so. In my experience, child abuse was taken

seriously by ACM in Woomera. We had good contact with FAYS officers and direct

access to them, and they visited the WIRPC.

25. The High Risk Assessment

Team (HRAT) was in place while I was there. One psychologist was present at

the meetings of the team which were held at least twice a week. Often this

was me. People making threats of self harm and those who had actually elf-harmed

were registered as “high risk” and were isolated and guarded 24

hours per day. At the end of my time this included some teenage boys, but

they were taken off “high risk” as soon as possible once they

had calmed down.

26. Anyone on “high

risk” was visited at least once a day by psychiatric nurse and psychologist.

Intensive reports were kept and people would be monitored closely. I regarded

the HRAT as generally effective. However, conditions for isolating people

were not always ideal because the facilities were just not adequate –

isolation accommodation consisted of demountable buildings with guards either

inside the room or outside an open door.

I make this solemn declaration by

virtue of the Statutory Declarations Act 1959 as amended and subject to the

penalties provided by that Act for the making of false statements in statutory

declarations, conscientiously believing the statements contained in this declaration

to be true in every particular.

Signed 2 July 2002


Updated 30 June 2003.