Detained children's mental health problems covered up, inquiry told
Inquiry into children in detention also hears that asylum seekers’ medications were seized and destroyed on arrival
The immigration department has attempted to cover up statistics
showing alarming rates of children’s mental health problems in
detention, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into
children in detention has heard.
Doctors who worked on Christmas
Island also recounted shocking details of medical neglect, including
stripping asylum seekers of basic medication when they arrived.
Peter Young, the former medical director for mental health for IHMS -
the private healthcare provider in immigration detention – was compelled
to attend the public hearing in Sydney, where he said a set of data
presented to the department within the past two weeks had received a
“negative” response and that the department “reacted with alarm”.
Young then said the department “asked us to withdraw the figures from our report”.
evidence drew gasps from the gallery as a projected image of the
statistics showed that 15% of children in detention on the mainland and
on Christmas Island were scored three-four on the HoNOSCA (Health
of the Nation Outcome Scales for Child and Adolescent mental health)
for symptoms of emotional distress – Young said a score of two was
The senior former official told the
inquiry statistics compiled by IHMS showed a third of people held in
detention in Australia had mental health problems. He told the inquiry
it was “clearly established” that prolonged time in immigration
detention caused mental health problems.
Young told the commission
he was aware of self-harm incidents involving asylum seeker children,
including poison attempts. He told the inquiry that there was no
full-time child psychiatrist on Christmas Island or on Nauru, but that
staff rotated the role.
Young said the immigration department
often overrode medical advice for the treatment of asylum seekers in
detention, which he described as “troubling”.
Asked if it was
appropriate to hold asylum seeker children in prolonged detention, Young
said: “Any prolonged detention is harmful, therefore it’s not
Later in the afternoon three
representatives from the department for immigration and border
protection, department secretary Martin Bowles, deputy secretary Mark
Cormack and assistant secretary Katie Constantinou, told the inquiry
they were not aware of the request to withdraw the figures.
said he accepted that the HoNOSCA scale was a “national outcome scale”
and it was “highly likely” it would be introduced into the system.
He said if any department staff had acted “inappropriately” he would “deal with that”.
department conceded on a number of occasions that prolonged detention
had adverse affects on asylum seekers’ mental health. Asked by counsel
for the commission if prolonged detention affected the rate of self harm
among asylum seekers, Cormack said the department was “not contesting”
the body of research that found prolonged detention produced a “whole
range” of effects.
Bowles was also quizzed about the fate of the
157 Tamil asylum seekers now held at Curtin detention centre. He was
asked how many were children and how many were babies but said he could
not respond as the department was still addressing the “biodata”.
The response drew derisive laughs from the gallery.
Bowles was asked if detention conditions were designed to “break people”
Visibly frustrated, he said: “I’m actually quite offended by these statements.”
He suggested they prevented detention centre staff doing their jobs properly.
two doctors who worked in detention on Christmas Island gave evidence.
Dr John-Paul Sanggaran and Dr Grant Ferguson both signed the Christmas
Island doctors letter of concern, reported by Guardian Australia in December.
and Ferguson relayed a number of details documented in the letter,
including substantial delays for medical treatment on the island,
shocking facilities and medical neglect.
A policy of stripping
asylum seekers of basic medications when they arrived at off-shore
detention centres caused a three-year-old girl to suffer repeated
seizures, Sanggaran said.
Another asylum seeker had parts of a
prosthetic leg removed, while glasses and hearing aids were also seized
and could not be reclaimed without considerable efforts by medical
staff, the inquiry heard.
“This was a major problem,” said Sanggaran, who worked at Christmas Island detention centre in 2013.
of the more concerning, systematic things I saw was a couple of nurses
standing around a garbage bin popping pills from a boat of new arrivals
straight into the bin, with no records being taken of whose medication
Ferguson, who worked at the centre about the same
time, said a three-year-old girl had medications stripped from her when
she arrived and began to have fits shortly afterwards.
Health services on Christmas Island subsequently were able to provide her with only one of the two medications she needed.
“She started having seizures,” Ferguson said. “She was left on that one medication.
eventually got supply of that medication she arrived with, but they
only ordered a month’s worth, so in a few weeks’ time they ran out and
she was back to one [medication] again, and this whole time she was
He said a third medication was tried and the
girl was eventually transferred off the island after a long wait and
repeated requests by medical staff.
The doctor also described intense time pressures in making medical assessments of asylum seekers.
“There was one doctor who somewhat braggingly mentioned that in an eight-hour shift he had gone through 90 people,” he said.
the inquiry, the president of the Human Rights Commission said the
immigration minister, Scott Morrison, needed to come clean about the
conditions in off-shore detention.
“The inhumanity, the cruelty of
these processes is very apparent and when it’s repeated without any
conditions attached by all of these medical experts, as Australians we
have to ask have we gone too far?” Gillian Triggs told journalists.
“The minister has a responsibility to be much more transparent about what is happening.
trying to get facts right when frankly it would be much simpler for the
minister to provide the Australian public with this information in the
Tony Abbott told reporters in Hobart no one
wanted children to be held in detention, but the best thing the
government could do was stop the people-smuggling business.
could be more horrific than the idea of children perishing at sea
because their parents have fallen for the false promises of the people
smugglers?” the prime minister said.
The Greens criticised his reasoning as immoral.
best way to ensure the suffering of children comes to an end is to
release them from detention,” immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young
The hearings continue.