Young people in detention facing significant communication barriers

Lead researcher Natalie Kippin

A study revealing significant levels of language difficulty among detainees at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre underscores the need for more support for young people trying to navigate the justice system, Telethon Kids Institute researchers say.

The research, published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, found many of the teenagers assessed as part of the study had language skills well below that expected for their age, with almost half meeting the criteria for language disorder. Much of the language disorder was associated with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

The research also revealed that language diversity was common, with Standard Australian English not the first or even second language for many of the young people.

Lead researcher Natalie Kippin, a speech pathologist with the Alcohol and Pregnancy & FASD research team at Telethon Kids, said these communication barriers meant many young people were going through highly verbal legal and rehabilitation processes at a significant disadvantage.

“Effective two-way communication skills are needed at all points of the justice system – from contact with police through to court appearances and programs in detention,” Ms Kippin said.

“A young person with language disorder and/or FASD can find it hard to comprehend and communicate effectively. Similarly, language diversity – not a disorder, but simply a difference in language – can pose significant barriers to understanding youth justice processes.

“If you’ve got kids who don’t understand what’s being said – particularly the complex vocabulary and grammar used in legal interviews and meetings – it’s difficult for them to understand expectations and comply with instructions.”

Young people with language disorder could also be less able to provide accurate and coherent explanations about alleged events or criminal behaviour.

“Legal interviews require story re-telling, and recalling and sequencing detailed events can be tricky for those with language disorder,” Ms Kippin said. “These young people may also have trouble participating in and benefiting from youth justice education and behaviour change programs.”

The study is a follow-on from the broader Banksia Hill project, which earlier this year revealed that almost 90 per cent of the young people assessed for the project had at least one form of severe neurodevelopmental impairment.

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