Australia’s largest specialist medical college is calling for a significant shift in the engagement with adolescents in the juvenile setting, a marginalised group often beyond the reach of traditional health services, ahead of the allocation of Federal Budget funding later this year.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) Paediatrics & Child Health Division, through its 2013 – 2014 Federal Budget submission, is seeking to directly address the challenges facing adolescents within the justice system who experience poorer health outcomes and disproportionately high levels of disadvantage over that of the general population.
Specifically, the RACP is calling on the Government to develop national standards for the provision of healthcare to adolescents and young adults in incarcerated settings in Australia.
Adolescents within the justice system suffer a broad range of psychosocial problems and decreased opportunities, and as a result, rank amongst the most disadvantaged group within the community, according to Perth-based paediatrician Dr Andrew Kennedy.
Dr Kennedy chaired the Working Group responsible for developing the Health and Well-being of Incarcerated Adolescents Policy Statement, launched at the 2011 RACP Congress in Darwin.
“The challenge is to provide accessible, innovative and effective treatment to adolescents in the custodial setting,” Dr Kennedy said.
“There are a disproportionately high number of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in custody setting compared to the non-Indigenous population. The time in custody provides an opportunity which must be taken to provide comprehensive healthcare provision to a population that has high levels of healthcare needs and who frequently receive minimal health care when in the community.
“It is important to promote a tailored approach to the provision of healthcare for incarcerated adolescents and align standards of care provision. At present, there are no national standards or policies reflecting best practice for these groups in either Australia or New Zealand, rather each state, territory or district provides health care in their own way.”
Despite the reasons for incarceration, the social background and the potential ill effects of prison, it may also be an opportunity to start to correct social and health disadvantages, according to Dr Kennedy.
“It is critical that we offer incarcerated adolescents care that is developmentally appropriate, culturally safe, community based and sensitive regardless of the custodial setting,” Dr Kennedy said.
“Clinicians need to play a key role and collaborate with staff to educate, promote and develop effective mental health programs in youth detention and work to reduce the stigma toward mental health evaluation and treatment.”
The RACP is calling for a service for adolescents in custody that provides health screening within 24 hours of entry into detention, to establish current health status and identify and intervene where appropriate for health risk behaviours. It is also recommended that the services offered in the juvenile system to be continued once the adolescent returns to the community and they ideally should include parents and carers with a whole of government approach.