Canberra’s chief magistrate expressed frustration over a lack of options on Monday after an 11-year-old girl was arrested three times in less than three weeks for alleged violence against her carers.
The girl, who cannot be named because of her age, was last arrested on Friday and spent the weekend in detention before appearing in the ACT Children’s Court.
Chief Magistrate Lorraine Walker acknowledged the choice was between releasing the girl, who had demonstrated mental health problems, into the community where there was the risk of further violence, or sending her to Bimberi.
She said while Canberra’s children and young people laws referred to a “therapeutic place”, no such place existed.
The magistrate said if the “promise” of the law was fulfilled, there would be a place to send the girl that was both safe for her and those who cared for her.
The girl, who is under care and protection, has also expressed an intention to self-harm, the court heard.
The girl’s arrest on Friday over an alleged assault on a carer marked the third in less than three weeks.
She was first arrested on November 15, but the charge was dismissed.
She was arrested again on November 28.
Ms Walker sent the girl to hospital for a mental health assessment. But she returned to court the next day and the magistrate said it was prudent to again dismiss the charge.
On Friday, the girl was arrested again for an alleged assault against her carers and spent the weekend in custody.
She appeared in court on Monday, where the magistrate once again considered the utility of the charge proceeding.
She said even if the case went to hearing or the girl pleaded guilty, it was likely no conviction would be recorded because of her youth and personal circumstances.
Her Legal Aid solicitor said if the assault charge did go ahead there were questions around not only the girl’s capacity to plead to the offence, but also her fitness to plead under mental health laws.
The process of seeking the necessary medical reports would take weeks, the court heard, and the solicitor said the girl would seek bail in the meantime.
If bail was refused on Monday, the girl would spent months in detention only to end up in the same place and released back to her carers, Ms Walker said.
And the magistrate said despite the real risk of further violence, the law also says keeping children in custody is a last resort.
The girl would likely end up with her carers.
Ms Walker said the choice was stark but there was no utility in the current charge going ahead.
She dismissed the assault charge and told the girl she was free to go.
The girl’s case has exposed the lack of a “therapeutic place” for children that is already included in ACT law.
It was only November last year that the ACT government opened Dhulwa, a secure mental health facility for adults, after years of lobbying from magistrates, lawyers and mental health advocates.
Before the facility was built, mentally ill adults who became involved in the criminal justice system were housed in the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
The much-needed facility closed a gap between the criminal justice system and Canberra’s mental health system.