15/08/2016 5:39 AM AEST | Updated 15/08/2016 5:40 AM AEST

Somewhere In This Adversity Is A Chance To Make Things Right

Paediatricians and other health professionals are well placed to advise on the health needs of children and young people in juvenile detention. With the right people, and a shared focus, we can ensure that child abuse of this nature does not happen in Australia again.

Four Corners

In a scholarship interview once, I was asked to nominate the one movie that I thought best represented what it meant to be 'Australian'. Not a question I was prepared for.

How could I answer that? Should I highlight our history with Gallipoli, our stereotype with Crocodile Dundee or our beautiful outback with Red Dog? In fact, I said the first thing that came to mind -- The Castle. After a laugh from the panel, I went on to explain that I thought this movie demonstrated many Australian truisms in the most Australian of ways, with humour.

To me it's about a 'fair go' for the underdog, standing up for what is right, the importance of family and the importance of land. And I'm proud of that. But recently I was not proud to say I am Australian.

The horrific revelations about the treatment of young people in the juvenile justice system in the Northern Territory made me want to turn off the television. The Four Corners program aired multiple examples of what can only be considered as child abuse.

Children being tear gassed. Held in solitary confinement. Stripped naked. How could this happen in my backyard? In my name? Along with our now infamous poor treatment of asylum seekers, Australia is turning its back on our own and the world's most vulnerable people. How is that the Australian 'fair go' I thought I knew?

I do wonder how many people turned off the television. Looked away. These children and many like them are the 'great unseen'. People who face trauma and turmoil on a daily basis and we don't, can't, won't see them.

But as a paediatrician, that is not what I was taught to do. We are trained to look out for and look after vulnerable children and do everything within our power to put things right. There are more than 4000 paediatricians within the RACP membership and too many have seen the negative impacts of incarceration on detainees and the community.

These paediatricians offer invaluable expertise and experience in difficult environments. They care for those who are often left uncared for.

Adolescence is a critical time in human development. We know that many of the victims we have heard about are now at risk of long-term physical and mental health problems. But, more importantly, we also understand that we can still help these children. And we will.

It is vitally important that young people in detention are offered guidance, rehabilitation and a genuine opportunity to develop healthy behaviours for life. I am proud to be a paediatrician, and so proud of my exceptional paediatric colleagues who have dedicated their professional lives to standing up for children like those in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.

As I shake my head in the shame of what has happened, I also shake it in amazement and gratitude for all the people who have come forward to offer support for the young people, their families and their communities. They go well beyond the terms of their employment. For them it is taxing, personal and emotional. For the young people it is a long and difficult rehabilitation journey.

Collectively, I know somewhere in this adversity is a chance to make things right.

It is good news that the Australian government has announced a Royal Commission to tackle this issue. And it is appropriate that well-respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figure, Mr Mick Gooda, will co-chair it. Indigenous input, engagement and leadership on this issue is essential for the Royal Commission's success.

But there is certainly more to be done to ensure we get the right outcomes for our children and young people. Firstly, we know that the issue is not isolated to the Northern Territory -- we need to broaden the Royal Commission's terms of reference to include all states and territories and shine a light into how well we are supporting young people in detention across Australia.

I believe that the terms of reference must be expanded to include health and wellness. At its most basic level, health is a fundamental right for Australian children and young people and the promotion of wellbeing is central to this. Paediatricians and other health professionals are well placed to advise on the health needs of children and young people in juvenile detention. With the right people, and a shared focus, we can ensure that child abuse of this nature does not happen in Australia again.

We, as people and as professionals, need to stand up for what is right. We need to give all children a 'fair go' in life, and build a system that better serves future generations. There are many aspects of our history and our country that do not make me proud, but at the same time seeing the compassion and commitment from so many gives me hope. We can all play a part in changing things. Thank you to all those Australians who do.


Sarah is the Royal Australasian College of Physicians Paediatrics and Child Health Division President.