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Submission to the National

Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from

Sharon Torbet - Statutory


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

8 months).

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

as inadequate.

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”.

Activities available

to children

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:

a. There

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.

Unaccompanied Minors

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

a fortnight).

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.

Reporting of Incidents

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

not reported.

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


General Conditions

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:

  • People

    threatening to harm themselves with razor blades

  • People

    bloody after slashing themselves

  • People threatening

    to jump off buildings

  • People

    with stitched lips

  • People

    collapsing after poisoning themselves with toxic substances

  • Fighting

    among detainees

  • Rioting
  • Fires

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:

A colleague

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

detention centre.

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:

A woman

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

been released.

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.

Lip Sewing

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.