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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.
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.