Dylan Voller was “set up to fail” by a system determined to punish him, his former case worker said.
Antoinette Carroll is the youth justice advocacy project coordinator at the Central Australian Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) and has worked with Voller since he was first sentenced to 18 months in detention for what she described as low-end offending.
On Tuesday morning she testified before the royal commission into youth detention and child protection in the NT, and said there was “an overwhelming lack of therapeutic support in place” for Voller, who had challenging behaviours.
She described an ad-hoc uncoordinated approach to how he should travel through care and the justice system.
Ms Carroll said one of the key recommendations from the NT’s youth justice review was to establish a therapeutic court model that would divert young people away from the justice system.
“Sadly, diversion wasn’t really made available to him, and it should have been given the low level of his offending,” she said.
“It just became very evident from the get-go that there would be a punitive approach taken to Dylan as he travelled through the system.”
On Monday, Voller gave evidence about his time at residential rehabilitation facility Aranda House in Alice Springs, describing gloomy and dirty institutional accommodation.
Ms Carroll became emotional as she described visiting him and another boy who were left there one Christmas when Voller was about 13.
“It was just a very sad situation, there were no Christmas decorations, for example, there was no Christmas tree, it was a very dismal place to be for such a young child,” she said.
Ms Carroll said staff were untrained and ill-equipped for dealing with outbursts from young people, and the aim should have been to keep them out of the Behaviour Management Unit (BMU) in the house by calling a case worker who could help de-escalate the situation.
“If you have a young person, for example from a remote community who’s used to constant contact, perhaps as a result of overcrowding, you want to avoid at all costs putting that person in a BMU for a lengthy period of time, isolated,” she said.
“We should have key people in communities to take similar calls, speak in language to that young person to de-escalate the situation and, more importantly, find out what happened to escalate that young person’s behaviour in the first place.”
Ms Carroll recounted an episode when Voller opted to be sent to the adult prison in Alice Springs while he was still a juvenile, to get away from some officers in the youth detention centre who he did not have a good relationship with.
“It did not work out, no,” she said.
“Because of his age he was kept in isolation… he was in a very small cell which led into a tiny courtyard he could pop in and out of a couple of times a day for very short periods.
“I visited him in the second week and was deeply distressed by what I observed in his appearance, he was shackled, it wasn’t good. We made a request to get him out of there as soon as possible.”
She said his placement in the adult prison had an impact on him.
“Young people’s behaviours can really escalate [in detention] because they’re in a small confined space,” Ms Carroll said.
“There would be times he wasn’t calm because there was certain taunting going on… I observed guards taunting him, and made complaints.”
‘Judgmental’ and ‘adversarial’ social workers
Ms Carroll said Voller never received a targeted therapeutic approach, but was rather subjected to a punitive social work approach, where his relationship with his case workers became adversarial.
“When Dylan first came into the care and protection system his mother was genuinely seeking some supports, respite, and how to manage Dylan and his challenging behaviours,” she said.
“What became very apparent was that his care workers were somewhat helpless in dealing with his complex issues; the department seemed somewhat unwilling to resource the appropriate therapeutic approaches needed to guide him away from [bad behaviours].”
She said he cycled through numerous case workers because of the NT’s high turnover, plus a lack of consistency at the Department of Children and Families.
“The previous case manager would hit walls, wouldn’t make any progress, that would go documented into his file and that would be the continued process,” Ms Carroll said.
“People became somewhat judgmental in their approach to his behaviours and care and protection plan.”
She said it was “very problematic” that Voller and his family were excluded from decisions made on their behalf, and that Voller was mismatched with therapeutic supports.
“If we’re dealing with a child who’s consistently experienced trauma, having a consistent approach is essential,” she said.
The commission previously heard that Voller left his formal education at the age of 10 when he went into care and detention and due to his elevated classification in prison, was not able to access many educational and therapeutic programs.
“No stone should have been left unturned to get him into a classroom environment with the appropriate supports in place, like a one-on-one tutor or a counsellor… there seemed to be countless barriers to getting him into mainstream education, and you’ve seen he’s a highly intelligent young man,” Ms Carroll said.
She said he was “set up to fail” by the system, and that he wasn’t violent before he went through the criminal justice system.
“They’re big men dealing with a very small child, so some of that has been a learned behaviour in that environment,” she said.
“He wasn’t exposed to that in his home life, his sisters and mum were very nurturing, his brothers were positive role models as well.
“My experience with him was very empathic and it’s very sad he’s gone down that road… I’m of the view it’s as a result of the violence he endured in the detention centre.”
A continued lack of understanding
Ms Carroll said she didn’t believe the court experience was very meaningful in making young people reflect on their actions, and said no judges in Alice Springs had appropriate youth justice training.
If the youth justice sector was properly resourced and a greater emphasis was put on diversion and pre-sentence conferencing, Ms Carroll said she would question the need for a new youth detention centre at all.
“A more culturally appropriate way of having a detention centre established could be addressed, it doesn’t need to sit alongside co-located with the adult prison as it currently does, we could look at different spaces, different models, and what key community members could lend to what that would look like,” she said.
“There continues to be a lack of understanding…. yes, they’ve committed crimes, there are victims in the community that have been impacted, but they still have rights in the system.
“That was a very hard message to drive home during his [Voller’s] time in care and protection.”
The commission continues.