Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital say they cannot effectively treat severe disturbances among children in detention while they are being detained and have refused to discharge an asylum seeker and her child because the immigration department would have sent them back to detention at the expense of their health.
The woman, aged in her 30s, was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression, which also affected her infant child’s development. Both were flown from detention in Nauru to Australia in late 2014 for hospital treatment.
Louise Newman, director of mental health at the Royal Women’s Hospital, first treated the woman in December and has followed her condition since.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital refused to discharge a mother and child into detention.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital refused to discharge a mother and child into detention. Photo: John Gollings
She said the pair was discharged to an immigration transit centre in Broadmeadows, where their condition immediately deteriorated.
They were readmitted to a mother and baby unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Professor Newman said even though the pair’s health had improved by mid-2015, their doctors refused to discharge them unless the Department of Immigration agreed to not return them to detention.
“It was a situation of having to negotiate her and her family’s treatment needs, and it was very much agreed that it was against their interests to be returned to detention,” said Professor Newman, who is also vice president of the group Doctors for Refugees.
“How can we recommend that people go back into detention when we know they’re not going to get proper health care?”
Professor Newman said the woman and her baby were eventually released into the community and were living in Melbourne with “considerably improved’ health. Details of the extraordinary stand-off comes after nearly 1000 doctors, nurses and staff at the Royal Children’s took an unprecedented stand against children being held in detention.
In a letter published on Sunday, the hospital’s doctors said detention took an enormous toll on children’s health, and called on the federal government to abandon its policy of locking up minors.
Victoria’s Health Minister Jill Hennessy threw her support behind the doctors who kept asylum seekers out of detention.
“I’m extremely proud to be the health minister in a state where its doctors and nurses are putting the interest of children first,” Ms Hennessy said on Sunday.
“If the staff of the Royal Children’s Hospital come to the clinical view that it is not in the interests of those children to go back into detention, then we will support them.”
The doctors’ actions also earned them the praise of thousands of people at a rally in support of refugees at Melbourne’s State Library on Sunday, who erupted into cheers when the hospital was mentioned.
The Australian Medical Association said it had a “fundamental problem” that children were in detention and had been asking governments to look for “any alternative” to it for years.
“We acknowledge the evidence that children in detention face circumstances which are very harmful to their health, their growth and their development,” vice president Stephen Parnis said.
He said that if children did need to be detained, then they should be released “in weeks” at the absolute most.
Dr Parnis said the AMA was aware that a “number” of doctors who had provided care to children in detention had been quite distressed.
Children were presenting having self-harmed, with anxiety, severe depression and not growing in a healthy or normal way, he said.
Dr Parnis said doctors were constrained in the care that could be offered to these children. “It flies in the face of our ethical obligation to provide good care.”
Sydney paediatrician David Isaacs, who runs the children’s refugee clinic at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, also backed the Royal Children’s Hospital staff.
Dr Isaacs visited Nauru in December 2014 and saw a six-year-old girl try to hang herself. He said his visit to the island left him deeply troubled, and he experienced nightmares on his return.
“These are very traumatic cases where children are severely suicidal and in a lot of trouble,” Dr Isaacs said.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he understood the doctors’ concerns, but did not support a change in government policy.
“The Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to restart,” he said.
Royal Children’s Hospital chairman Rob Knowles said he supported the doctors’ stand to protect the health and safety of children.
Fairfax Media understands there are not currently any asylum seekers who are inpatients at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
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