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Exclusive: Over 1,500 children held in Qld watchhouses for at least a week

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Over 1,500 children spent at least one week detained in a Queensland police watchhouse from 2018 to 2023, according to data given to TDA.
watchhouses at least a week

Over 1,500 children spent at least one week detained in a Queensland police watchhouse from July 2018 to June 2023, according to data given to TDA under Right to Information laws.

Watchhouses detain people for short periods of time. Until August this year, laws required police to transfer young people from watchhouses to youth detention centres “as soon as practicable”.

However, this law has now changed to allow police to hold children in watchhouses “even if it would not be compatible with human rights”.

What are watchhouses?

Watchhouses are designed for overnight or short-term detainment and are often attached to police stations or local courts. Child offenders kept in watchhouses risk detainment in a cell with adults.

Prior to August, police needed a special direction to keep a child in a watchhouse for longer than necessary. They now do not under new laws.

Unlike watchhouses, youth detention centres are designed to house young people. They typically have rehabilitation, education and cultural support facilities for children.

The context

In August, the QLD Supreme Court found police had unlawfully detained eight children. The ruling came after the State Government failed to prove police had permission to hold the children in watchhouses.

QLD Police Service Commissioner Katarina Carroll faced questions in a public hearing after the court ruling.

When asked how many unlawful child detainees were in watchhouses, Commissioner Carroll couldn’t answer, but said she was working to “get those numbers very quickly”.

The figures

Documents given to TDA showed 1,526 children stayed in watchhouses for at least one week from July 2018 to June 2023.

The largest intakes were in 2018/19 and the most recent financial year, when 641 children and 603 children stayed in watchhouse detention respectively for at least one week.

About half of total detainments were in Brisbane.

Length of detention

The most common watchhouse stay for long-term child detainees was seven days. However, 49 children remained in watchhouses for 30 days or longer.

One child remained in watchhouse detention for 61 days during the 2019/20 financial year. Over 60% of long-term child detainees were First Nations people.

Most child detainees were teenage boys. The number of female detainees between 2019 and 2023 almost doubled.

Changes to the law

Two weeks after the Supreme Court challenge, the QLD Government passed new laws allowing police to hold children in watchhouses until there is space available in a youth detention centre.

Children cannot be guaranteed segregation from adults or access to education while in a watchhouse. This overrides the state’s human rights laws, which says that authorities must keep detained children “segregated from adults”.

Next steps

QLD Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk exclusively told TDA last month that she is “very confident” the government will repeal the human rights amendment next year, once it completes a dedicated remand facility.

The amendment was initially due to expire in 2026.

Parliament’s response

A spokesperson said the QLD Government took its responsibilities to young people “very seriously”.

Shadow Assistant Youth Justice Minister Laura Gerber said young people spending “weeks on end in watchhouses” was making communities more dangerous, and speeding up “the revolving door of youth crime” in QLD.

Greens MP Amy MacMahon called the figures “disgusting” but unsurprising.

Advocate’s response

Non-profit agency Youth Empowered Towards Independence (YETI) brought the Supreme Court challenge. They said they were “absolutely horrified” by the figures.

CEO Genevieve Sinclair told TDA they “never could have imagined that so many children” were being detained for “extraordinarily long lengths of stay”.

“The figures clearly demonstrate that long watchhouse stays weren’t some anomaly or rarity but it was known to be occurring frequently – for many years – to many, many children,” Sinclair said.

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