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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
Sharon Torbet - Statutory
at the WIRPC
available to children
Minors and Minors Management Team (UMMMT)
I , Sharon Torbet, of [address removed], youth worker
do solemnly and sincerely declare as follows:
1. I am a qualified youth worker who was employed by
Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) at the Woomera Immigration
Reception and Processing Centre (the WIRPC) from May 2000 to January 2002.
2. I make this statement for the purposes of the Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Inquiry into Children
in Immigration Detention.
3. I have asked for my evidence to the Inquiry to be
confidential because I am concerned about the effect it may have on future
employment as a youth worker, particularly in a detention environment
(such as juvenile detention in which I am currently employed) if my evidence
were to be made public. [Later agreed for the evidence to be made public].
4. Prior to employment at the WIRPC I worked with young
people in a variety of contexts. In particular, I worked for 2 years as
a youth worker at the Woomera township recreational youth centre, and
for approximately 14 months as a student services officer (in a role similar
to that of a teachers’ aide) at [a school] in Woomera (for 6 months)
and with the SA Department of Education, Training and Employment (for
5. I am currently employed by the [details removed].
at the WIRPC
6. I commenced employment with ACM at the WIRPC in May
2000 performing general administration. After 4 months I was transferred
to the Programs Department where I performed administrative duties for
3 months. For one month while I performed administrative duties I also
worked as a teachers’ aide in the WIRPC.
7. In January 2001 I was employed by ACM at the WIRPC
as an Activities Officer and Youth Worker. I was “employee of the
month” in June 2001.
8. I left employment at the WIRPC shortly before the
expiry of my contract in January 2002. At the time I left the WIRPC I
was extremely distressed by what I had witnessed there. I was diagnosed
by my doctor as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result
of my experiences at the WIRPC. I have no history of depression and have
never been diagnosed with PTSD before.
9. I was unable to work for a period of about 2 months,
but am now fit again for full-time work, and feel as if I have recovered
from the PTSD at this time. I have made a claim against ACM for lost wages
for the period that I was unable to work 08 February 02 to 25 February
02, and also medical expenses for my injury, but have not made any claim
for ongoing injury.
10. My role as the Activities Officer and Youth Worker
was very broad. I was essentially tasked to implement activities for children
and given a wide discretion as to how to provide those activities. I worked
under the supervision of the Programmes Manager.
11. No training in child management was made available
to staff upon employment in the centre. Some staff, such as myself, had
experience and qualifications in relation to working with children, but
others did not. One hour of our induction dealt with mandatory reporting
requirements in relation to child abuse and harm. I regarded this training
12. There was hostility directed by some members of staff
at those who were perceived as being too friendly to detainees. I was
amongst this group. We were commonly called “care bears”.
13. The level of activities available to children depended
largely upon the availability of Activities Officers. Rooms available
for children to play in were not generally left open largely because of
property damage during disturbances and also because items went missing.
Therefore, activities for children took place when Activities officers
were available to supervise.
14. It is hard to generalise about the level of activities
and excursions available to children in the WIRPC as it varied greatly
in the time I was working there. When the centre was full staffing levels
were higher and there was a variety of activities available daily while
Activities and Education Officers were on duty (generally between about
9am and 5pm). Activities included art, games, watching videos and going
on excursions out of the WIRPC. However, when the numbers of detainees
in the centre was low, staffing levels were completely inadequate and
little by way of activities was available.
15. I would estimate that during my time at the WIRPC
the maximum hours of activities available to children was 6 hours per
day and the minimum was 2 hours per day. This does not include education
(which was also sporadic), and does not include times when there were
disturbances such as riots. In general, my assessment of the availability
of education and recreation for children was that it was inadequate.
16. During disturbances all activities and education
ceased. They only recommenced a few days after the disturbances. There
were countless disturbances while I was employed at the WIRPC and they
could last for 5 or 6 days during which time everyone was kept locked
in their compound.
17. The following were generally available, subject to
the provisos above:
was an “after school club” which was open for two hours
a day, and provided for 20-60 children depending upon numbers in the
b. A “kids club” was also set up in a room in a demountable
building which was run by detainees. It opened in about February or
March 2001. It was open most of the day and had a TV and video and toys.
It was closed when an Activities Officer was not on shift.
c. There was also a “sports club” that was run by detainees
and provided mostly for boys and men. It had sporting equipment such
as soccer balls and a Playstation video game.
18. One significant problem with equipment and resources
for activities was that because of property damage during disturbances
and through wear and tear (such as cheap soccer balls on the stony ground),
things would no longer be available and were not always replaced. Things
would also go missing – I thought that this was indicative of kids
needing to have things as their own. As a result there were times when
activities were very limited simply by the availability of resources.
19. I can recall one occasion on which we were told that
we were not allowed to spend any more money, even though we had money
in our budget. I was aware that the ACM contract was being renewed at
this time. This meant that things could not be purchased and the range
of activities available was significantly limited. For example, games
for the Playstations were not able to be purchased and as a result the
Playstations could not be used.
20. Excursions were infrequent and often cancelled. I
can recall on several occasions having 30 or 40 kids ready at the gate
to go on an excursion and then it was cancelled. Whether or not excursions
went ahead depended up on the mood of the camp and the attitude of the
transport and escort officers. Some officers made excursions difficult.
Also, if the camp was full not all detainees were able to participate
in excursions, so some missed out.
21. A common reaction when returning children to the
centre after excursions was sadness, children became withdrawn and sullen.
This was particularly the case for long term minors. Early in January
2002, I was returning to WIRPC from an excursion with a group of long
term minors. Three girls pleaded with me not to take them back to the
centre, they cried when they realised I had to return them. This behavior
was reported informally and formally by other programs staff returning
children to WIRPC after excursions and most often involved long term minors.
22. No special provision was made for children with disabilities.
We tried to include them in the activities available for other children.
23. There were also few activities specifically tailored
for girls. They were able to join in the yoga and relaxation classes with
the women, and we tried to include girls in suitable general activities
such as art classes and playing, but with limited success. Sometimes cultural
factors played a part as I noticed girls from some countries were more
willing to get involved in activities with boys than others.
24. In my opinion, from my experience at the WIRPC, the
main problem in providing activities for children was logistics. There
were simply not enough staff available to provide appropriate activities
for children in the detention environment, even with a full complement
of staff. Staffing levels were a particular problem when detainee numbers
were low and staff were cut.
25. For example, for out-of-hours school care, the legal
carer:child ratio is about 1:15. The ratio at the WIRPC during my time
there was on average 1:60. At one stage a colleague reported to me that
she was responsible for 130 children. Of course, this caused a high degree
of staff burn-out.
26. Especially when detainee, and therefore staff, numbers
were down, there was reliance by the centre operators, ACM, on detainees
to fill roles that staff were not filling. For example, detainees worked
for one dollar per hour in the kitchen and yard. In relation to children,
detainees were employed on this basis to provide education and activities
for children. Some of the detainees providing teaching apparently had
some teaching experience, but others did not. I regarded this practice
as an attempt to save money.
27. I was also concerned about an absence of grass at
the WIRPC. During my time at WIRPC the only grass planted was outside
the Administration building. Comments were often made by detainees regarding
the absences of greenery, and how this contributed to their feeling sad.
I recall taking a group of children on an excursion to St Michaels school
in Woomera, when I took the children to the oval, the whole group became
overexcited began laughing with delight and ran directly to the grass
making comments like “Play, play, play” – “Very
happy” – “Run, run”. The children behaved as if
they had never seen grass before. They did not want to leave the grass
when it was time to go.
and Minors Management Team (UMMMT)
28. I was a member of the UMMMT, which was generally
comprised of a nurse, a psychologist, all members except interpreters
of the Programmes Department and a DIMIA representative (attending once
29. Minutes were taken at the weekly meeting and a weekly
report was prepared. A report was also prepared for FAYS, which was generally
a modified version of the weekly report.
30. From my experience physical, educational and recreational
needs of unaccompanied minors were met at a higher level than those children
who were in detention with their parents because of the extra attention
that was paid to the needs of unaccompanied children.
31. Staff were made aware of the mandatory reporting
requirement in relation to suspicion of child abuse or neglect. I was
not aware of any matters that should have been reported to FAYS that were
32. However, in general record keeping and incident reporting
was very difficult because there was simply not enough time and not enough
staff to get the job done. Shortly before I left the WIRPC we were told
that we were required to make fortnightly case notes on each child, but
that just was not possible given the amount of work we had to do. I was
aware that some staff filled out generic entries such a “attends
programmes” for the children, but I refused to do so.
33. The Programs Department were, to my knowledge, good
at completing incident reports. The system was that one incident report
was provided to the Intelligence Officer at the WIRPC, one to the Operations
Manager, and one copy was placed on the detainee’s file.
34. There was not generally feed-back or follow-up of
incident reports. The system was, in my view, more about recording incidents
than ensuring any response to them. We ensured that matters requiring
medical follow up were properly attended to by hand-delivering medical
35. During my time at the WIRPC, standards of child protection
did improve. However so much is still not done to secure the safety and
wellbeing of children. In general I was of the view that children at the
WIRPC received a lower standard of protection and services compared with
children living in the Australian community generally and also compared
to children in other forms of detention such a juvenile detention.
36. My general opinion of the conditions in the WIRPC
is that they are very damaging to the mental, emotional and physical health
of children and prevent the development of children’s normal social
37. I observed a high incidence of self harm among long
term minors and their carers. Some of the self-harm committed by children
was extreme, such as a 13-year-old boy carving “freedom” into
his arm and a15 year old girl attempting suicide by cutting her wrists.
38. Children were exposed to countless acts of violence
by adult detainees, including their own parents. The kids saw everything.
I was present when children witnessed:
threatening to harm themselves with razor blades
bloody after slashing themselves
- People threatening
to jump off buildings
with stitched lips
collapsing after poisoning themselves with toxic substances
39. As just one example, I was in a room at the WIRPC
with about 30 or 40 children watching a video when a group of about 10-15
unaccompanied minors formed in a group outside. They had taken their shirts
off and proceeded to slash their chests with razor blades. They were all
covered in blood. A number of the children saw this and some went outside
to where this was taking place.
40. Children were always caught up in the riots and other
disturbances at the WIRPC. Nothing was done to remove them immediately
at the time of a disturbance. They were generally removed to another compound
away from the disturbance when things had settled down, but while the
disturbance was going on, the compounds were just “locked down”.
41. I often saw children through the fences when there
were riots and other disturbances, screaming and crying. Children and
parents reported to me after disturbances that they were frightened and
had asked officers to be let out. In one case I can remember a 12-year-old
boy screaming frantically and running around in circles aimlessly while
men around him rampaged through the main compound, smashing windows, recreation
facilities and tearing at fences. Eventually a person running by to get
away from the chaos grabbed the terrified boy by the scruff of the neck
and dragged him to relative safety within the compound.
42. In another incident the following occurred:
and I were locking up the recreation room after a children’s art
program. We had in our care a boy who was two or three years old. We
heard a “CERT” called over our radios and commenced to vacate
the main compound with the toddler in a trolley. The moment we left
the recreation room door a riot broke out. Smashing and screaming was
going on all around, people were running frantically in one direction
us in another, scores of men whizzed across our path as we ran for the
gate, the toddler sat quiet and still in the trolley the whole time.
By the time we got to the gate a crowd had begun to push
and pull at the fence about 100 metres away, the sound of breaking glass
and scores of chanting men resounded loudly, the fence was shaking. The
remaining officer on the gate was in a panic. We all got out of the compound
safely and we turned the little boy over to medical staff.
The young toddler was witness to the whole scene. The
boy’s father became mentally unstable after residing in the detention
centre for some time and a programmes staff interpreter told me the father
slashed himself in front of the boy, and I was aware that the father later
threatened the life of the boy. I do not know if the boy is still at the
43. Children were also exposed and subject to frequent
presence and intervention of the Critical Emergency Response Team (CERT),
comprised of officers in full riot gear.
44. I could see the effect this exposure to violence
had on the children. As just one example, children on an excursion to
school in the Woomera township displayed signs of utter distress at hearing
a truck drive past the classroom. The children had been exposed to burning
buildings in the detention centre and associated the noise of the truck
with fires. This incident clearly illustrated to me the extreme fear children
experienced during times of disturbance at the detention centre.
45. I also witnessed the behaviour of children degenerate
over time. Some children had been in detention for over 16 months. Apart
from widespread self-harm amongst long-term detainees, children sometimes
became more aggressive, while others became very withdrawn and would not
46. Children witnessed their parents commit acts of self-harm.
They watched their parents’ mental and physical states degenerate.
The distress that this caused children was noticeable.
47. There was a lack of physical security for children.
While families were able to sleep in separate rooms in the one compound
other compounds comprised of shared rooms sleeping up to twenty (20) detainees.
The rooms could not be locked and I was aware of incidents in which male
detainees attempted entry into rooms with women and their children.
48. I was aware, in particular, of one young girl who
had been subjected to sexual harassment by male detainees and had attempted
suicide by wrist-slashing. The matter was reported to FAYS but she remained
at the WIRPC with her mother. Her mother was also extremely distressed
by the situation. (I had news two weeks ago that this family is now held
at the Woomera Immigration Detention Housing Project). At the time there
was no secure area available for them from which men could be excluded.
49. Another example was as follows:
woke in the middle of the night to the sound of her children screaming
at the man who had entered their room and shut the door behind him.
The children’s screaming had drawn attention from other detainees,
the attention caused the man to flee the room and run away. A colleague
and myself were alerted to this situation and tried to work with operational
staff to have the woman and her three young children moved to alternative
safer accommodation. The family had been housed in a predominantly male
accommodation block. When we tried to resolve the woman’s problem,
we were confronted with comments such as “Are you sure she’s
not just making it up?”, “Was she dreaming?” and “She
just wants to move to a room with an air conditioner, they’re
all trying it”. Eventually my self and my colleague had to tell
woman she would have to push her bed against the door to protect her
family during the night. She was ultimately moved to different accommodation
almost 48 hours after the incident. Fortunately the family have since
50. Some staff in the WIRPC called children by their
numbers rather than their names. I always called children by their names.
There was not, to my knowledge a policy either way while I was employed
there - it depended upon the attitude of the individual officer.
51. Children witnessed lip-sewing by adult detainees.
I was aware of two young boys, about 12 and 13 years old, who had sewn
their lips together in January 2001. The elder of the boys did this twice.
There was no evidence of which I was aware that adults had sewn the lips
of children, or encouraged them to sew their lips together.
52. Attached to this statement and marked “Annexure
1” and “Annexure 2” are two statements prepared by me
in relation to my experiences while working at the WIRPC. [Annexure 1
and Annexure 2 removed due to identifying details].
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.