More than 600 assaults at Victoria's Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre as judge calls for urgent reform – ABC News

More than 600 assaults at Victoria's Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre as judge calls for urgent reform
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After 20 years of service, Michele Berry has been declared unfit to ever work again at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre.
She witnessed riots and a mass escape before being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.
"I didn't leave my house, I didn't leave my bed," she said.
"I just wanted to sleep — but the dreams …"
Ms Berry said she was assaulted three times while on the job as a youth justice worker at the centre in central Victoria.
"There was always blood," she said.
"There [were] always young men pounding into each other, where one would have to be hospitalised."
She said she witnessed the violence increase as Malmsbury moved to a high-security environment, and feared there was worse to come.
"A death. One hundred per cent. It will be a client or a staff member."
Crime Statistics Agency data reveals police have been called in relation to 628 assaults at the facility since 2016.
WorkSafe investigated 91 assaults on staff at the centre over the same period. 
Justice department records, released to the ABC under Freedom of Information, reveal there were 97 staff injuries reported to police in this time; 22 involving concussions or fractures.
Last month, the Department of Justice was convicted and fined $100,000 for failing to provide a safe workplace, in relation to two assaults at Malmsbury and Parkville Youth Justice Centres in 2018.
The ABC understands there have been assaults on two staff in the last week – a month after another worker was taken to hospital.
The ABC has spoken to dozens of former Malmsbury youth justice workers, several of whom have been assaulted.
They said high staff turnover and poor management was contributing to a dangerously unsafe workplace, that failed not only the staff but the young people it was supposed to rehabilitate.
Forty-five-year-old Jan Van Der Zon went into his job at Malmsbury with a great deal of life experience, including periods of homelessness and substance abuse.
"A lot of the boys would love to just sit and chat with me," he said.
But the former youth justice worker said rehabilitating young people was impossible in an environment where assaults were routine.
"It's every second or third day there's either a client being assaulted or a staff member being assaulted," he said.
Jan Van Der Zon has not returned to work at Malmsbury after he was assaulted six months ago — the second assault in two years.
The first time he was assaulted was in 2019, when he took multiple punches to the head.
"Some boys charged out to assault another client and I put myself in the way," he said.
"I'd rather take a punch than watch a kid take a punch."
He said the second assault was a blur.
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Former youth justice worker Laura, who does not want her surname used, was just 21 years old when she began work at Malmsbury.
She said the most shocking thing for her was the way management handled violence at the site.
She witnessed two of her colleagues go "home in an ambulance" after incidents involving a cricket bat and said management failed to act on repeated warnings that a boy would be assaulted by other inmates if he was placed in a particular unit in 2019.
"We had written intel reports, we'd warned our manager, we'd warned ops managers as soon as they came in with this boy, CPSU, any person that we could, we warned," she said.
"And it wasn't only the staff members that were warning management that this was going to happen. It was the young boy himself; saying to them, 'if you put me in there, I'm going to get assaulted'."
The boy was placed in the unit, known as the Coliban unit, and seriously injured in what Laura described as an "animalistic" brawl; he had a seizure and was taken to hospital.
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The Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct houses some of the most complex and traumatised young men in the state, aged between 15 and 21.
But the former head of the youth parole board said the evidence was clear: a high-security approach had failed, and a rehabilitative, less restrictive approach was needed.
Judge Michael Bourke was the head of Victoria's youth parole board between 2007 and 2019.
He said as remand numbers had increased over the past decade, with more serious and repeat offenders, the facility had become more like a prison.
"The response was more security, more control," Judge Bourke said.
"I'm not blaming people for that response, they were difficult times.
"But it didn't work. It got worse," he said.
Former staff told the ABC recruiting and retaining workers had also become increasingly problematic.
A 2019 Victorian Ombudsman report found that 40 per cent of lockdowns during a 12-month period at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre were due to staff shortages.
Detainees were routinely locked down just to allow for staff breaks.
A central aim of youth detention is to reduce the risk of reoffending.
But a report from the Victorian Auditor General's office in 2018 found detention was not having an impact on reoffending rates.
It found young people in juvenile justice centres had not been receiving the rehabilitation services they were entitled to and needed, and that "a focus on security" had "impaired access to education and health services".
Judge Bourke recommended the Victorian government look at more rehabilitative measures, even for violent offenders.
"There should be movement to a much less restricted, security-focused, controlling atmosphere in these detention centres," Judge Bourke said.
"There needs to be an understanding that, although they appear like adults, they have the mind of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds.
"And detention for them has to be adjusted to that."
Jurisdictions around the world are adopting more rehabilitative models of youth justice, featuring open-plan youth engagement.
The Tasmanian government is set to close its Ashley Youth Detention Centre within three years and replace it with a therapeutic model of care.
But the Victorian government appears to be doubling down on its hard-line approach.
It is spending $419 million dollars on building the new high-security Cherry Creek youth prison in the western suburbs of Melbourne — a cost which has increased by around $200 million since the centre was first announced.
The ABC understands the cost blowout is a result of revised site designs and scope for the project, which will include an intensive intervention unit and health and mental health care facilities, along with vocational, educational and drug and alcohol treatment supports.
In a statement, Victorian Minister for Youth Justice Natalie Hutchins said the facility was in line with "international best practice", would deliver "smaller facilities that focus on rehabilitation" and "focus on staff safety and reducing offending".
The Department of Justice did not answer numerous questions about the cost of recruiting staff, compensation to injured staff, or the number of assaults on young people at Malmsbury.
Instead, in a statement, a spokesman said violence toward staff was "totally unacceptable" and all incidents of violence towards staff and young people were referred to Victoria Police.
They stated that WorkCover claims at Malmsbury had reduced by nearly a quarter in the last year.
"We have significantly increased the number of custodial staff since July 2019 and the attrition rate for frontline youth justice workers has nearly halved in the last two years," the spokesman said.
There are currently fewer than 60 young people detained at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct, a significant drop in the number since 2019 when there were around 200 young men at the facility.
The department statement said there had been a 21 per cent decline in the daily average number of children in custody between 2017-18 and 2020-21.
"We have driven down the number of serious incidents in custodial facilities by 42 per cent and reduced serious assaults by 59 per cent over the past three years," the statement said.
The figure on serious incidents refers to both of Victoria's youth justice facilities; the department did not provide specific data on Malmsbury, as requested by the ABC.
Former staff have told the ABC the drop in serious assaults is due to a reduction in inmate numbers and a definition change three years ago that means fewer incidents are described as "category 1", or serious.
Judge Michael Bourke said the cohort of young people in custody was becoming more difficult to manage, with a high percentage of detainees with cognitive disorders.
"Forty per cent are ex-child protection, but there is another telling figure, and that's I think 65 per cent or more, have a background of trauma, neglect and abuse," he said.
"And I don't say these things to make excuses for them; they do bad things, and they've got to accept the consequence of that.
"What I'm on about is the need to adjust your processes and your attempts to rehabilitate to the demographic you've got — and it requires skilled and sophisticated management."
He has an ally, in Quest Haerewa.
The Auckland personal trainer was at Malmsbury in 2016 and 2018 and said in his experience, there was little rehabilitation occurring.
Mr Haerewa, who now lives in New Zealand, said some of the youth justice workers were good, but many lacked experience.
"They're putting people who have just been to university in an environment where these kids have literally come from the street," he said.
Mr Haerewa said the young men were often bored and there was a lack of support for their complicated needs.
"They're really hard-headed because of the upbringing they've come from," he said.
"A lot of them have had a dark past."
He said the young people's complex needs weren't being met and many felt misunderstood while holding onto a lot of anger or trauma.
Mr Haerewa called for more physical activities and education for young offenders.
"Self-defence, like personal trainers and things like that will help," he said.
"Because a lot of the teachers and staff that have taught me all my personal training stuff, I still remember every single thing that they told me.
"They've got everything there they need, to make it a better place and actually help people.
"But what they're doing is, they're treating you like it's a jail."
Read the full response from the Department of Justice here.
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