On Wednesday 23 August 2023, I had prepared my speech on the Child Protection (Offender Reporting and Offender Prohibition Order) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 before the government introduced a slew of amendments, including one that would suspend the Human Rights Act 2019 a second time to lock up kids in watch-houses and adult prisons. In light of the situation, I tabled my prepared speech and spoke on the amendments instead.
Child Protection (Offender Reporting and Offender Prohibition Order) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2022
The Greens will be supporting this bill and its stated aims, to protect children from sexual assault and abuse. I think we can all agree that is a priority, and expanding the scope of the reportable offender scheme to include more offences and account for anonymising software and apps that hide information on a device may help us achieve that aim.
But as always when we’re increasing police powers, I want to reflect on how those expanded powers will impact the most vulnerable people in our community - including children - and on whether the police are best placed to address these issues.
Enforcement vs prevention and support
There is a clear imbalance between the way this government resources policing and enforcement, compared with preventive measures and support for victim-survivors, many of whom will go on to be prosecuted for similar offences later in life if they lack the support to heal from traumatic abuse.
Many people understandably feel that there should be no limit to the resources put towards protecting children from the serious harms of sexual abuse and exploitation. But right now our resources are not infinite.
The government and opposition have gone to great lengths to make the case that our limited resources are best spent keeping past perpetrators of these crimes under constant surveillance and in constant contact with police officers, but as experts like Australian Institute of Criminology tell us, the majority of abusers will never be known to police.
Efforts focussed on known perpetrators are part of the answer, and surveillance and reporting regimes that come after the fact may reduce recidivism. But they don’t prevent the crimes and harm to victims that have already occurred. There needs to be commensurate spending on supporting the victims of these crimes, rehabilitation of the offenders, and addressing the conditions that lead to such harmful offending.
Prevention - social & economic issue
We need to ask: what makes children vulnerable? What are the circumstances that allow these crimes to be committed in the first place?
Children’s safety is not just a policing issue: it is a social issue and an economic issue.
Consider the housing crisis that this government has created, the dire lack of social housing, skyrocketing rents, and the overloaded homeless and emergency housing services which receive just a pittance compared to law enforcement.
Where is a parent, whose children are being exploited by a spouse, meant to take their children when there is no emergency accommodation available? Where is the homeless teen, with no income and no access to support services, meant to go except back to an abusive household?
Or what about education - for many children, their teachers will be some of the only adults, other than their guardians, with a continuous and constant presence in their life. If there is abuse at home, teachers are often the first and only means of children seeking help and safety. Schools provide a focal point for social connection between families which guards against harm in the community.
But the ability for schools to provide a secure, safe environment for not only learning but community building is diminished under the strain of chronic under-resourcing. Our public schools receive less funding as a proportion of the Schooling Resource Standard than any other state’s public schools. And yet we demand that our overworked and underpaid teachers will be on the lookout for and provide frontline support services to children who might be experiencing abuse at home.
Support for victims
With this bill, the government intends to dedicate significant resources to administer reporting obligations, an approach with increasingly diminishing returns. But I’m concerned we do not see comparable investment in making sure victims have access to support.
There is a critical lack of support services for victims of crimes, particularly child exploitation crimes. In its submission on this bill, the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service pointed out that the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce’s second report highlighted 12 month wait times for victim-survivors of sexual violence to obtain counselling, with big funding gaps in many rural, regional and remote areas.
Not only do victims require specialised care to treat trauma arising from their abuse, but they are also at increased likelihood of falling into chronic poverty as a result of the ongoing effects of their abuse. They are more likely to require assistance with housing, health, and employment - all of which are critically under-resourced in this state.
They are also, tragically, more likely to perpetrate the same harms upon others. But there is little support available to treat complex trauma which is needed to break the cycle of harm. The Griffith Youth Forensic Service, the only dedicated treatment clinic to rehabilitate young people charged with sex offences, was only funded for two years and lost funding in 2019.
A lack of specialised care for victims, as well as other services aimed at addressing economic and social inequality generally, is criminogenic. Dollar for dollar, money spent on mental health, housing, and other services would see a much greater reduction in harm than overspending on reactive policing.
Impacts on young people
This bill is likely to have significant, likely unintended, impacts on the rights of children and young people to receive age-appropriate treatment under our criminal laws. It would allow for a child to be made a reportable offender. This is by no means a straightforward issue, but it is clear on existing evidence that the small number of children most likely to be affected by these amendments are those who are already the most vulnerable.
For example, the Youth Advocacy Centre has previously commented on the way children in out-of-home care may be criminalised for behaviour that would ordinarily be dealt with informally and in an educational, rather than punitive, manner by parents.
In their submission on the Raising the age of criminal responsibility Bill, they wrote about a 13-year-old child in the care of Child Safety who was charged with ‘creating and distributing child exploitation material and indecent treatment of a minor’. Her phone was handed in to police and she was sent to court, all for photos she took of herself on her phone and sent to her boyfriend who was of a similar age.
The Queensland Family and Child Commission pointed out in their submission that around one in three 14-17 year olds will have experienced sexting in the previous 12 months, yet this bill could place a child on a reportable offender list and subject them to complex and restrictive reporting requirements, like asking them to report to police anywhere they stay for three or more consecutive days - this might be impossible for children in unstable living arrangements.
As the Qld Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service pointed out in its submission, many of these children are likely to have suffered trauma or abuse themselves. They would almost certainly see better outcomes from a therapeutic response rather than being trapped in a cycle of constant police contact from such a young age.
I support the QIFVLS’s call for the government to specifically monitor and report back on the impacts of this bill on vulnerable young people.
I also share the concerns raised by the Queensland Law Society and the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties about the proposed expansion of police powers allowing police to enter a reportable offender’s home without a warrant to inspect digital devices.
The impacts of these police powers extend beyond the offender themselves. As a number of submitters pointed out, third parties sharing accommodation with a former offender - for example, a mother, a brother, or friend with an interest in the rehabilitation of that former offender - could be subjected to searches of their home at any time and without a warrant, up to four times a year.
This is a significant intrusion on the privacy of people who needn’t have committed any offence, and it arguably threatens the important principle that all Queenslanders have a right to the assumption of innocence until proven guilty.
The significant privacy implications of these expanded powers could still be better balanced with the need to protect children from recidivist sex offenders - for example, by restricting the use of evidence collected in such device inspections to prosecution for prescribed internet offences, so we’re still targeting our efforts at those offenders rather than allowing this kind of enforcement creep for potentially unrelated, non-violent offences by others.
As was recently affirmed in the Independent Inquiry into the Queensland Police Service Responses to Domestic and Family Violence, the application of policing in this state is subject to racist bias. Not only could the expanded powers contained in these bills allow police to infringe upon the privacy and rights of innocent Queenslanders, we know those most likely to have the laws misused against them would be First Nations people and other marginalised groups.
Although there are enough reasonable amendments in this bill that the Greens will support it, with the goal of better accounting for new technologies and methods used by sex offenders, I hope we can also take this opportunity to consider allocating equivalent resources towards support services that will genuinely help victim-survivors and prevent future offending.
This bill allows police, without a warrant, to enter and search the home of family members of a sex offender. It allows for children as young as 10 years old to be classified as reportable offenders, limiting their ability to avoid entrenchment in the criminal legal system and rehabilitate.
We can’t prevent child abuse just with more laws and police powers. We need to create well supported communities, with properly funded schools, housing and rehabilitative services, where adults are resourced to care for the safety and wellbeing of all children in their community.