Photo: Michelle Rogers says she always made an effort to get to know detained youths. (ABC News: Karen Percy)
A former worker at the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre has spoken out about a system she says is “falling apart”, as a parliamentary inquiry is told the “inhumane” treatment of young inmates is creating hardened criminals rather than rehabilitating them.
“The basics of the human connection and feeling safe has been taken out,” former youth worker Michelle Rogers wrote.
“The crimes may seem adult but alone and scared they are still kids.”
Ms Rogers spent eight years at the Parkville centre and said she always made an effort to get to know the youths.
“We explained the expectations of the unit and asked about them,” she said.
“We made a connection that can then be carried back out on the floor and the kid welcomes not just being thrown to the wolves.”
Police cars leave Melbourne Youth Justice Centre at Parkville
Photo: There have been several riots at the Parkville detention centre. (ABC News: Seraphine Charpentier-Andre)
The 54-year-old left Parkville in January 2014, terminated after investigations into misconduct which she denies.
She laments that Victoria’s youth justice system is “falling apart right now”.
After joining the centre in June 2006, Ms Rogers experienced her fair share of drama.
In July 2012, she was involved in a four-hour-long siege at Parkville, negotiating with youths who had stabbed one officer and dragged another through the centre.
Armed police had wanted to intervene during the crisis.
Afterwards she wrote “I had a breakdown” in documents to the parliamentary inquiry seen by the ABC.
“I could not think. Upset is probably an understatement,” Ms Rogers wrote.
“At the end of the day all staff were in various state[s] of emotional stress.”
The incident was barely reported but had a big impact on Ms Rogers and other members of staff.
Police outside Melbourne Youth Justice Centre at Parkville
Photo: A parliamentary inquiry into youth justice has received more than 60 submissions. (ABC News: Seraphine Charpentier-Andre )
Documents submitted to the parliamentary inquiry and seen by the ABC showed Ms Rogers complained about the handling of the incident, in particular that little was done to manage one of the youths involved.
A year later she was reported for pushing a young girl into the pool while mucking around with a colleague.
She apologised but an investigation found she used “unreasonable force” and she was given a final warning.
Melbourne Youth Justice Centre at Parkville
When she complained about the outcome and raised issues of morale within Parkville, she was accused of threatening then-director of Youth Justice Services, Ian Lanyon.
An investigation found against her and her position was terminated.
“We made that place safe because we made connections and relationships. And they for some unknown reason, didn’t value those relationships,” she told the ABC.
Ms Rogers said she was one of more than 100 workers effectively forced out of the system by Mr Lanyon in what was termed a clearing out of “deadwood”.
It was “quite confronting that … our experience was being dismissed by the director,” she said.
Mr Lanyon has since been removed from running the state’s juvenile centres.
The parliamentary inquiry has received more than 60 submissions by the Parliament probing a system that has lurched from crisis to crisis in the past 18 months.
There have been numerous riots at the Parkville and Malmsbury detention centres and a controversial move to put some youths into the maximum-security Barwon prison which was ultimately overturned by the courts.
‘Grave concerns for wellbeing of children’
The Victorian branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) is highly critical of the way young people are being treated.
“The AASW has grave concerns for the wellbeing of children and young people currently detained in youth justice centres in Victoria,” its submission reads.
“We are of the view the recent use of isolation, separation and lockdowns amounts to cruel, inhumane and deeply unethical treatment of children and young people.
Michelle Rogers, a former worker at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre
“These actions appear to be in direct contravention of a number of key human and children’s rights instruments.”
The association has raised concerns about the high levels of remand among youth detainees – as many as 80 per cent of youths in detention are awaiting resolution of their court cases.
It has also worried about the number of youth offenders who have been in state care.
Youth Parole Board figures showed 45 per cent of youths in detention had been in child protection and 63 per cent had been victims of abuse or neglect.
“Children who’ve been exposed to abuse, particularly physical abuse and neglect, are at higher risk of becoming involved in particularly violent crime later in their adolescence,” AASW national president Karen Healy said.
The AASW’s submission said: “There is a strong association between a child or young person’s involvement in the child protection system and their subsequent participation in the youth justice system.”
At her home in rural Victoria, Ms Rogers now communes with the roosters and chickens and horses but she occasionally hosts troubled youths at the farm.
“They start off saying f** this and f** that – I’m not going to get off there,” she said.
“And to see their faces and see their reactions that a chook and an animal can bring,” she smiles as she recalled the response of a young boy on a recent visit.
“These kids are our future. At the end of the day they’re still kids.”
Families and Youth Minister Jenny Mikakos has been contacted for comment.