Immigration detention inquiry: Government tried to cover up asylum seekers' mental health problems, inquiry told
By Rebecca Barrett and Karen Barlow
The national inquiry into children in immigration detention has heard evidence alleging a Government cover-up about the scale of mental health issues among child asylum seekers.
Psychiatrist Dr Peter Young was the director of mental health services at detention centre service provider, International Health and Mental Services (IHMS), for three years until earlier this month.
In evidence to the inquiry today, Dr Young alleged figures showing the extent of mental health issues among child asylum seekers had been covered up by the Immigration Department.
He said IHMS had collected figures showing "significant" mental health problems among a significant number of child detainees.
He said the "early data" was "broadly in line with what we are seeing with adults and perhaps a little higher".
He said IHMS provided a report to the Immigration Department "in the couple of weeks as [the data had] come in" and that the reaction was "negative".
"[The Immigration Department] reacted with alarm and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting," Dr Young said.
Gasps were heard in the gallery and the inquiry's barrister Naomi Sharp asked who had sought the data's removal.
"I am not sure exactly. It comes from the department," Dr Young said.
Immigration Department boss responds to allegations
Immigration Department Secretary Martin Bowles said he was not present when IHMS was allegedly asked to withdraw the figures.
"I was not there, so I am not sure of the reaction," he said.
Asked if he was concerned about allegations of a cover-up, Mr Bowles told the inquiry: "There has been a statement today. You have heard one side of the statement".
"If our staff did an inappropriate thing, then I will deal with that," he promised. "Our normal practice is to assess these things."
Mr Bowles said the chief medical officer and the independent health advisor were assessing the accuracy of the latest figures supplied by IHMS.
"We are assessing the data," he said. "I am not doubting Dr Young. I'm not doubting the reporting. We will look at this."
Responding to claims that IMHS was regularly overridden by departmental staff, Mr Bowles said: "not to my knowledge. I would be very upset if that was the case".
The Department Secretary bristled as he was asked whether conditions on Christmas Island were designed to break the will of asylum seekers.
"I am actually offended by these statements. It attacks the professionalism of our staff," he said.
And he reacted angrily to suggestions that the department was lying or misleading the inquiry about the numbers of children in detention.
He said there are 1,330 fewer children in detention than a year ago, but admitted 17 children were transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru in the last two months.
Mr Bowles also told the inquiry of the "significant improvements" that the department had made on Christmas Island, including a learning centre which opened for classes this week.
He acknowledged there had been a "short period" where children did not have access to school facilities.
"We recognised we didn't have appropriate education in place. That's why we've done something about it," he said.
The department's Deputy Secretary Mark Cormack told the inquiry people were now spending longer in detention, with the average stay now 350 days.
Abbott stands by hardline asylum seeker policy
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his hardline immigration and border protection policy would not change.
"No-one wants to see children in detention," he told reporters in Hobart.
"No-one wants to see anyone in detention, but the only way to avoid this is to stop the boats."
Mr Abbott said he was very aware of the plight of children in detention.
"What is more horrific I ask you? What could be more horrific than the idea of children perishing at sea because their parents have fallen for the false promises of the people smugglers?" he said.
Asked about the almost 1,000 children being held in immigration detention, Mr Abbott said they would be "dealt with in the ordinary way".
Opposition hits out at 'culture of secrecy'
Dr Young still works at IHMS as a consultant and has been compelled to give evidence at the inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The inquiry is examining the conditions of detention - especially on Christmas Island - the safety of children on Nauru, along with mental health assessments and the impact of long-term detention on children.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says allegations of a cover up by the Immigration Department are disturbing, if true.
"It is important that we don't have a culture of secrecy around immigration policies," he told reporters in Sydney.
"We all know when it is blue sky and good news for the Abbott Government, Scott Morrison is rent-a-quote, but he goes missing action too when the going gets tough."
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young described Dr Young's evidence as shocking.
"I call on the minister today to release all incident reports in real time inside immigration detention centres," she told reporters in Adelaide.
"Let's do away with the secrecy, the lack of transparency and the cover-ups on what really goes on inside."
Senator Hanson-Young, who was denied entry yesterday to the Curtin Detention Centre to visit the 157 Tamil asylum seekers who have been the subject of a High Court challenge, says the minister must explain himself.
"I am extremely concerned at the minister's attitude to the welfare of these children, whether they are children detained on Christmas Island, Nauru, or indeed the new children who have recently arrived after being imprisoned on the Customs ship and are now locked up in the Curtin Detention Centre."
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, said it would be extremely concerning if information was being reduced, redacted or altered before it got to the minister.
128 cases of child self-harm in past 15 months
Dr Young told the inquiry there had been 128 cases of child detainees committing acts of self-harm in the past 15 reporting months, but that figure does not include Nauru.
He said he was aware children had tried to poison themselves or ingest harmful substances, and said banging heads against walls is common.
There are a further 171 cases of child detainees threatening self-harm and the Human Rights Commission says it has been told 23 children have tried to self-harm on more than two occasions.
Ms Sharp said the commission had been told one child had attempted to self-harm on 16 occasions.
Dr Young said he was not aware of the case.
"If there was a case like that that was going on for a period of time, that would result in a recommendation for the child to be managed out of detention. Managed in hospital if that is required," he said.
The ABC has sought an update on the child from the Immigration Minister's office. The Human Rights Commission says it has been told the child was still in detention as of March 31.
Dr Young says the case did not surprise him "because the policy is that children are held in detention".
Clinical decisions 'routinely downgraded'
Meanwhile two doctors have told the inquiry their recommendations for the clinical treatment of detainees were often altered and downgraded by authorities.
Dr Grant Ferguson and Dr John Paul Sanggaran both spent time working on Christmas Island in 2013.
Dr Ferguson told the inquiry "there was direct interference with our autonomy" by IHMS.
He said IHMS medical director Lachlan Fieldhouse would change his written recommendations for treatment of detainees without consultation.
Dr Sanggaran said written clinical decisions by doctors were "altered and routinely being downgraded".
Dr Ferguson told the inquiry he was also asked by the medical director to prescribe medication for detainees he had never seen.
He also said there were "multiple occasions" when he were was asked to refer adolescents to the Immigration Department which was "not appropriate for doctors".
Medication 'taken from 3yo epileptic girl'
Both doctors told the inquiry that children with complex medical problems just cannot be treated on Christmas Island as there are no child psychologists, paediatricians or specialised children's mental health services.
Dr Sanggaran said detainees' glasses, hearing aids and medication were taken when they arrived on the island.
"One of the most concerning things I saw was nurses popping pills into a bin," he said.
He told the inquiry doctors often did not know what medication children were taking, or what it was for.
He gave an example of a three-year-old girl suffering epilepsy whose medication was taken from her when she arrived at Christmas Island.
Dr Sanggaran said the child started having seizures and medication was ordered from the mainland but that ran out and the seizures returned.
He said she was eventually transferred off the island.
Today's inquiry hearing came the day after Australian church leaders accused the Federal Government of "state-sanctioned child abuse" over its treatment of unaccompanied asylum seeker children.