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Australia's drug policy - on the street to nowhere

By Paul Wilson - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

John Howard's plan to educate parents about drugs is undoubtedly well-intentioned but what do parents do when young people ignore them and continue to take drugs?

Recently a close friend and his wife consulted a state government social worker about their 13-year-old daughter. She had run away from home, was living on the streets and was heavily involved in the drug culture.

The couple were amazed to find that social policy in Queensland pretty much excludes the Families, Youth and Community Care Department from taking steps to control their daughter. The authorities did not force the teenager to return home nor did they insist that she go on to a drug treatment program.


Ten years ago, government social workers frequently placed children who were "unruly and uncontrollable" or "exposed to physical or moral danger" under the care and control of the state.

Rightly or wrongly they were placed in foster homes, in family day care or in residential care.

However, since the early 1990s, government policy has undergone a huge philosophical shift. The new philosophy emphasises the rights of children to make their own decisions and to be responsible for their own behaviour. Unless a child commits a crime the authorities are reluctant to intervene.

Under the Child Protection Act, proclaimed last year, "care and protection orders" are largely confined to matters within the family such as suspected physical or sexual abuse.

If – as with my friend – a child leaves home, lives on the street and becomes part of a heavy drug culture, there is little the parents or FYCC can do about it.

If parents attempt to forcibly take their drug-dependent child from the streets and return him or her to the family home, they could well be charged with a criminal offence. And, as current policy also precludes the authorities from taking any action, the child remains at risk.


Ironically, however, even if current policy was reversed and parents and FYCC had the power to take a drug-addicted child to a residential detoxification and rehabilitation centre, they would find that few such centres existed.

At the moment, drug-affected youngsters who voluntarily seek to admit themselves into a residential drug treatment program quickly find that they have about as much hope of winning Lotto as finding a suitable agency willing and able to take them.

Despite the fact that the Federal Government extracts $4 billion in taxes from the tobacco and alcohol industries, there is only one such centre in the entire Brisbane region. This is a five-bed adolescent drug and alcohol detoxification residential program attached to the Mater Hospital.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 3 April, 2001.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Wilson is a writer and criminologist. He is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University. He co-authored Justice in the Deep North: A History of Crime and Punishment in Queensland.

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