Sydney
20 January 2002

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‘Safe house’ seen as jail for kids

By Kathleen Carmody

Centacare in South Australia has rejected a ‘safe house’ proposal to detain children found roaming the streets of Port Augusta at night because it could be interpreted as a “child jail”.

Groups of up to 30 juveniles, some as young as five, roam the streets of Port Augusta until the early hours of the morning.

The mainly Aboriginal gangs have been blamed for vandalism and property damage.

The proposed safe house – behind the police station – would offer food and accommodation; children would be held until a social worker had evaluated their living arrangements.

Centacare South Australia’s director, Dale West, claims, however, that proposing to collect people on the basis of age and time of day and locking them away is “an arrest circumstance”.

“If you’re locking a child up and calling it a safe house you’re still locking them up,” he said.

“I don’t know what characteristics a safe house would have that would make it different from a child’s jail.”

Mr West agreed that children should have to bear the consequences if they broke the law – causing damage to property, for instance – but the ‘safe house’ option could lead to children being locked up on the basis of their age and time of day, regardless of whether they had committed a crime.

Rather than offering a solution, it would cause further problems and lead to a situation where some children were locked up every night.

“If a 12-year-old is locked up overnight,” he said, “what happens when they release him? If the parents are unable to control him he’ll be back there the next night.”

A preventative solution was needed instead which could involve working with the parents to develop better skills in dealing with their children.

The safe house proposal is a Port Augusta Council initiative and has received qualified support in the community.

Some Aboriginal representatives, however, have likened it to a detention centre.

While the safe house option is on hold, the SA Government has agreed to fund a youth mentoring program in the area under which a senior person in the community would assist wayward children; and youth workers patrolling streets at night would encourage them to return home, but not detain or hold them.