Commissioner warns of dire consequences for children without radical service improvements in the Kimberley

Cain AndrewsBroome Advertiser
Children’s Commissioner Jacqueline McGowan-Jones.
Camera IconChildren’s Commissioner Jacqueline McGowan-Jones. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

The WA Commissioner for Children and Young People has highlighted the urgent need for drastic improvements to services in the Kimberley to prevent a generation of children from falling victim to drugs and alcohol and being ensnared by the criminal justice system.

On January 9, The West Australian revealed that at least eight children had taken their lives while under the influence in the Kimberley between 2016 and 2020.

Speaking to the Broome Advertiser, the Commissioner for Children and Young People WA Jacqueline McGowan-Jones described the youth suicides as an “absolute tragedy”.

“If we don’t intervene early, we’re losing this generation,” she said.

“The time for action is now — our children and young people can’t wait.”

Highlighting the link between poverty, trauma, addiction and crime, Ms McGowan-Jones said without the radical expansion of services for children in the Kimberley, they will be doomed to a life of crime and addiction.

“We have kids who are born into poverty and trauma and to be blunt it ruins their lives. What we forget is (addiction) is a symptom of other problems,” she said.

Despite a budget allocation of $9.2m in 2019-2020 for a dedicated Alcohol and Other Drugs Youth Service in the Kimberley, Mental Health Commissioner Maureen Lewis failed to answer when the service might open its doors on February 1, raising concerns about the delay in addressing the urgent needs of the region’s youth.

McGowan-Jones underscored the importance of tailored addiction services for children, noting that young people’s developing brains are particularly vulnerable to substance abuse.

“Children need specific (addiction) services designed for their circumstances,” she said.

“If we don’t start investing in our future generations, this is just going to get worse. We will need to build more mental health facilities, more prisons, more hospitals.”

The Commissioner also highlighted the economic implications of inaction, noting that early intervention and support services are more cost-effective in the long run than incarceration.

“It costs $500,000 per year roughly to incarcerate a teenager in detention. If we spent $200,000 a year on a child when they first needed it, with holistic wraparound support, we would see a change,” she said.

“It’s no good saying that justice isn’t doing their job when 10-year-olds are involved in crime. If we want a child to have a good life outcome, we must intervene early. We must be able to give families the support they need.”

It comes after the Commissioner’s office put a series of discussion papers on Mental Health, Child Protection, Criminal Justice and Education out for public feedback on January 22.

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