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HREOC National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

Tuesday 16 July 2002, 2.30pm
Avillion Hotel
Cnr Liverpool and Pitt Streets

I simply want to present a Case Study in:

  • the Assault of a Seven year Old Child at Woomera with baton and tear gas
  • the Failure of All Authorities to investigate adequately
  • the zealotry and dilatory behaviour of DIMIA concerned more with media management and spin doctoring rather than care of children in detention
  • the institutional incapacity of the system to honour the dignity of a mother and child in detention

This incident amounts to institutionalised child abuse.


1. What I saw and heard on Good Friday night, 29 March 2002

Inside the Woomera IRPC, during the riot and breakout, I spent two hours with men, women and children who had come from church and who were unable to return to their accommodation and unable to find sanctuary in an alternative compound because they were threatened by another detainee disturbed by their religious practices. That detainee was finally apprehended by half a dozen ACM officers in full riot gear backed by a water cannon truck which had been moved into position. Meanwhile two other detainees were on the roof threatening self-harm exacerbating a situation of mass hysteria. Children in my midst were highly traumatised. One child remonstrated with his mother saying he should attack an ACM officer because that is the only way that you get a visa!

2. My Meetings with Woomera Detainees, 2 April 2002

I was allowed access to the Woomera IRPC again on the morning of 2 April and I learnt that the church goers had suffered the same fate as other detainees having their clothing and property strewn about by ACM officers presumably searching for contraband. They were then held in the compound mess overnight with no possibility of sleep. I was told that one five-year-old child was abandoned in one compound that night as the mother and other siblings had escaped. I met a mother with her seven-year-old son. She was adamant that she would not attempt escape on the Friday evening but she wanted to exercise her rights and show the protesters and the media that there were women and young children being held behind razor wire. The young boy carried bruises on his left knee and right ankle from a baton blow. His mother said he and she had also been hit by tear gas. Children whose parents had no interest in escaping were hit by tear gas and witnessed scenes of extraordinary violence.

3. My Letter to Minister Ruddock, 3 April 2002

I reported all the above matters to the Minister.

4. Medical Report by ACM Medical Centre, 3 April 2002, notes "bruise of few days duration on medial aspect of left knee" and "abrasion & small bruise on R shin".

5. DIMIA's response posted on the government website, 18 April 2002:

Contrary to Father Frank Brennan's claims in the media (PM just like Sir Joh, says advocate, 18 April, p2) this Department has no record of injuries to a 7-year-old sustained during the disturbance at the Woomera detention facility on Good Friday.

In fact, the only reported injuries to detainees were to adults - all with minor injuries. The most serious injuries were to 17 ACM officers who sustained injuries ranging from bruising from thrown missiles to lacerations inflicted from a detainee armed with a razor blade.

If Father Brennan has information or evidence of mistreatment of detainees he should report it to the appropriate authorities for investigation.

Detention is not punitive. It is administrative in nature and is a result of arriving in Australia without authorisation, that is, illegally. It has nothing to do with subsequent claims for asylum.

6. I sought correction of the government website, 22 April 2002

7. DIMIA withdraws letter from website, 24 April 2002

8. DIMIA letter published in Canberra Times, 25 April 2002

9. I published my correction in Canberra Times, 29 April 2002

10. Minister's Chief of Staff writes, 29 April 2002, and for the first time someone from either the Minister's office or the department seeks further details about the matters raised on 3 April 2002:

Mr Foster is correct in asserting that there were no reported injuries of detainee children at Woomera - you assert differently. This does not necessarily mean that there weren't any, just that they weren't reported. Nor were any detected during the usual post-incident medical checks.

However without details of the names of the people involved it is impossible for us to check with them about the nature of their injuries. You may wish to continue to assert that people have been injured, however unless you are prepared to give names and dates and any other relevant details, we are unable to verify your assertions, and will continue to assert that none were reported

11. Minister's Chief of Staff issues correction at 9pm, 29 April 2002:

ACM have just concluded a wider search of the medical files of all children detained at Woomera and present in the week preceding, during and in the week following, the riot on Good Friday. Whilst there were no incidents reported that night, or indeed over the whole Easter weekend, there was an incident reported five days later where an 11 year old child presented with bruising. We have referred the matter to Family and Youth Services in South Australia and the investigation is continuing.

If you could provide us with the name of the child you referred to in your comments, it would assist us in identifying whether or not the case is one and the same.

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.

12. Minister's Chief of Staff speaks with me, 30 April 2002, and confirms that there are medical records which in fact relate to a seven-year-old child. I provide her with the names of the child and mother and some further details about the incident.

13. I lodge letter of complaint with Mr Bill Farmer, Secretary DIMIA, 6 May 2002.

14. Minister apologises to me for the publication of the letter by the departmental Director of Public Affairs, 3 June 2002.

15. The mother addresses letter to HREOC in the following terms, 10 July 2002:

My son & was with me in Oscar compound during the disturbance in the early hours of Saturday 30 March 2002. He and I were both hit by tear gas even though we were not trying to escape. I was blinded for about a minute and I took & to my chest and embraced him to protect him. I started to move away from the scene with &.. Then an ACM guard came and bowed over me and struck & with a baton.

On Tuesday 2 April 2002, I told my story to Fr Frank Brennan and the lawyers at Woomera. I then went to the doctor on Wednesday 3 April 2002. The doctor made a report which I attach to this letter. I asked the lawyers to make a complaint.

One and a half months later, two policemen came to see me. I told them what happened to ...... They said they would return with an interpreter from Adelaide and with Federal Police and someone from Childrens Services and with a camera for interview with ...... Then about one week later, and before the United Nations came to visit Woomera, I was interviewed by Geoff Cardwell of the South Australia Police about the incident. He said he was the boss of the other police who had come. He said it was not the responsibility of Federal Police because they would come only for damage to property. He said Child Service would not come because their responsibility is child abuse and relationships between children and parents. He gave me a card with the reference PIR/02/966813. He recorded our conversation. He was interested only in the events which occurred on the evening of Friday 29 March 2002. He told me that the doctor and ACM had not made any report of .....'s injury to Children's Services. I asked him about my rights. He told me, "You can't do anything because you are captive in here and when you get out and get your visa, you can continue your protest and maybe you can get your rights." He asked whether I saw who hit ...... I said I did not see because the guard was wearing a mask. He said, "We can't catch him because you didn't see him." I said, "It is not important who hit ....., just it is important that ACM action that they hit children, because it is their habit in our compound."

When the United Nations came here, I told them what happened to ..... and showed them the medical report. I was a patient in hospital when HREOC came to Woomera. Then I came back to Woomera and I was in the observation room when HREOC was here, so I could not see them.

I trusted the government to protect my son. I hope my complaint can help other mothers and children. I am only a single in mother in detention who wants the government to care for us.


The only written response I have had from the Minister to my letter of 3 April regarding the injury to the seven year old boy and the Department's reportage and failure promptly to have the injury investigated was his letter of 3 June 2002:

I note also your concern for children in detention. I do not accept, however, your statements that Woomera is a form of institutionalised child abuse. The Department is committed to ensuring that children held in migration detention receive appropriate care and protection. The Department requires the detention services provider to provide appropriate facilities and services to meet the special needs of children. State authorities with responsibilities for child welfare and protection also have responsibilities for all children in detention centres in their State/Territory.

The Department is working to conclude appropriate protocols with State child welfare authorities. The aim of these Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) is to provide the framework for collaborative and cooperative relationships between DIMIA and the State authorities and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the agencies to ensure that the best interests of all children in detention are met. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed last year between my Department and the South Australian Department of Human Services (DHS) relating to child protection notifications and child welfare issues pertaining to children in immigration detention in South Australia.

A permanent working party of senior Departmental officers meets regularly at the my (sic) Department in Canberra to undertake an administrative review of all detention cases and, in particular, causes of concern such as long term detainees and children.


Though it took DIMIA less than six hours to publish a false refutation of the claims of assault which had been formally communicated in writing to the Minister two weeks before, after sixty days the department has still not communicated the results of its inquiry into the alleged breach of the APS Code of Conduct by its Director of Public Affairs.

The MOU with the State Government and the permanent working party of senior departmental officers have not effected a satisfactory investigation of this instance of institutionalised child abuse.

Given the change to the caseload at Woomera (with most being "rejectees" with nothing to gain and nothing to lose) and the despair inculcated in this remnant group of detainees (now less than 200), it is even more necessary that the department ensure adequate investigation of complaints (such as the administration of baton and tear gas to a seven year old child) and that an apology be offered by the department and ACM for the needless (witting or unwitting) assault, obfuscation and cover up which have ensued.