Child sexual abuse at Ashley Youth Detention Centre was normalised and enabled, according to allegations raised in the Commission of Inquiry, with concerns the government's three-year closure plans could take too long.
The inquiry looking into the handling of child sexual abuse in Tasmanian public institutions held its first public hearing on Tuesday, having interviewed witnesses over the past few months.
Counsel assisting the commission, Maree Norton, described Ashley as being in a state of "institution inertia", of having a decades-long conscience resistance to change, and that waiting three years to shut it down could place children at risk in the interim.
She said from the commission's work to date, the rates of child sexual abuse may be significantly higher than what has previously been reported.
This included allegations of multiple perpetrators working at the centre, and of staff inaction over reports of older children abusing younger children.
"Why has it been, on the evidence, so hard to make some of the changes that reports over many years have suggested should be made to better protect children from the risk of child sexual abuse?" Ms Norton said.
"The government's plan to [build] new youth detention buildings may not be sufficient to ensure the safety of children in youth detention if a culture which has failed to prevent abuse at Ashley is not identified and prevented from being transferred to a new facility."
Ms Norton said the higher unreported rates of child sexual abuse might have arisen because children were fearful about making a complaint, did not know how to make a complaint, or because the institution discouraged or victimised those making complaints, or actively covered it up.
She said there are also allegations of destroying records, and instances of failing to report abuse.
"It might also be that there has been a deliberate cover up either of abuse, or risk of abuse," Ms Norton said.
Ashley Youth Detention Centre worker, Alysha, who had a sexual harassment complaint, has advocated for the centre to be shut down sooner to protect children and has given evidence to the commission.
In addition to ongoing concerns regarding Ashley, Ms Norton also outlined a culture of ignoring and covering up allegations of child sexual abuse at the Launceston General Hospital.
Premier stands by three-year shutdown plan
Labor has urged the government to fast-track the transition to two new youth justice facilities in light of the revelations from the Commission of Inquiry.
The government plans to close Ashley within three years and to introduce a more "therapeutic" youth justice system with new centres in the North and South.
But one month after the announcement, there were six jobs at Ashley listed on the Communities Tasmania website including for a youth worker, program support officer and practice manager.
Labor leader Rebecca White questioned whether the government could be assured of the safety of children at Ashley given an apparent shortage of staff, and imminent concerns raised in the Commission of Inquiry.
"Those children remaining at Ashley Youth Detention Centre for another three years may not be in their best interests," she said.
"We urge the government to seriously look at how it can be fast-trackedthat we establish the two new youth detention facilities that have been promised - one in the North, one in the South - to ensure that the welfare of children who do need to be detained in Tasmania can be done so upholding their safety."
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The Department of Communities is working on a transition plan, which Premier Peter Gutwein said was likely to be released "within coming weeks".
The Commissioner for Children and Young People will visit the centre "regularly" and establish an independent advocacy model which could be used by children at Ashley.
Mr Gutwein accused Labor of taking "a cheap political shot" by asking him about child safety at Ashley.
Children and Youth Minister Sarah Courtney said she understood the urgency of the matter.
"With regards to timeframes, I will do everything humanly possible to progress this work as quickly as possible," she said.
"This is not just about building two buildings. This is about our entire youth justice system.
"We need to do this right, and if it's simply just building two buildings and decanting, we're not going to achieve the outcomes that we need for young people both now and into the future."
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