Press Release: Research report analyzes healthcare standards for children deprived of their liberty in effort to support the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Image of black figure of woman bending over and holding hand of small child against barbed wire fence and sunset.

BOSTON, MA – A team of researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, Australia, the Justice Health Group at Curtin University, and the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University collaborated on identifying, critiquing, and synthesizing current standards for healthcare for children deprived of their liberty in order to shine a light on one of the most neglected areas in the protection of children. The report was made possible with seed funding from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. 

MCRI and Curtin University Professor Stuart Kinner said children who experience deprivation of liberty typically have health problems that precede and are further compounded by their experiences in detention.

“With more than seven million children experiencing deprivation of liberty globally each year, the health of these children is important in reducing health inequalities. Despite this, remarkably little is known about either the health status of children deprived of liberty or the health services available to them in detention and once they are back in the community. The available evidence suggests that health services in places of detention are often inadequate.”

Professor Kinner said children in detention have a high prevalence of complex, co-occurring health needs, including high rates of mental illness, trauma, high risk substance use, chronic disease and neurodevelopmental disability that required coordinated, high-quality healthcare. Research from Australia has also reported that children released from criminal justice detention were at increased risk of preventable death.

“Emerging evidence of very poor health outcomes after deprivation of liberty suggests that in addition to ongoing efforts to prevent detention, more should be done to improve the health of these children while detained and after they return to the community,” Professor Kinner said. “Setting minimum standards for healthcare in detention will help drive improvements in the quality of care and health outcomes. Developing mechanisms to routinely monitor and report on the health status and health services in places where children are deprived of liberty would also drive reform.”

This report considers healthcare standards in relation to the six settings considered by the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty (Global Study) including (a) detention of children in the administration of justice; (b) children living in prisons with their primary caregiver; (c) migration-related detention; (d) deprivation of liberty in institutions; (e) detention in the context of armed conflict; and (f) detention on national security grounds. Informed by the UN System Common Position on Incarceration, the team concludes that there are important gaps and ambiguities in relation to the current international standards for healthcare for children across these settings.

“Over seven million children across the world are in prison or other institutions where they are denied their liberty every year. Available evidence suggests that many of these children are denied access to the healthcare to which they are legally entitled, often with serious and long- lasting consequences, This compelling report draws attention to the failure of states to implement their obligations towards a particularly disadvantaged population – children deprived of their liberty – and highlights a set of grave rights violations which call for urgent rectification,” said Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Center Director of Research.

The aim of this report is to identify gaps in the system and assist the United Nations Task Force (UNTF) in its efforts to support the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and ensure that all children, including those deprived of their liberty in all settings, achieve the highest attainable standard of health. This report has drawn on the expertise and insights of a broad group of collaborators including members of the UN Task Force on the Implementation of the Global Study on Children Deprived of their Liberty. 

The full list of author recommendations can be found in the report: 

Ensuring The Highest Attainable Standard of Health for Children Deprived of Their Liberty 

Report authors: 

Tess Kelly, MPA, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Boston, MA, USA; Justice Health Group, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia 

Alex Campbell, MPH, Justice Health Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia 

Jesse Young, PhD, Justice Health Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia; National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia 

Kate McLeod, PhD, Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada 

Jacqueline Bhabha, JD, MSc, François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University, Boston, MA, USA 

Lindsay Pearce, MPH, Justice Health Group, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia; Justice Health Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia 

Louise Southalan, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia 

Rohan Borschmann, PhD, DPsych, BBSc, PG-Dip, Justice Health Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford; Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Oxford, UK; Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia 

Vijaya Ratnam-Raman, LLM, Independent expert 

Stuart Kinner, Justice Health Group, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia; Justice Health Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia; Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, QLD, Australia 

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The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialing better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions. 

The Justice Health Group is a multidisciplinary research group dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children, adolescents, and adults in contact with the criminal justice system. The work of the Group is distinguished by methodological rigor, ethical research practice, a global equity perspective, and a commitment to real-world impact. 

The François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights (FXB Center) was founded and endowed by Albina du Boisrouvray in 1993. Her goal was to provide protection to children by furthering the vision for health and human rights of first director Jonathan Mann, and it received the enthusiastic collaboration of then-Dean Harvey Fineberg. We use interdisciplinary approaches to promote equity and dignity for those oppressed by racism, poverty, and stigma, nationally and around the world. We are proud to partner with a diverse group of scholars, educators, elected officials, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and members of the international policy community to advance health and human rights, and to show the harmful effects of violations on children. To learn more, please visit fxb.harvard.edu. 

Press Contacts:  

Bridie Byrne, bridie.byrne@mcri.edu.au 

Sam Jeremic, s.jeremic@curtin.edu.au 

Danai Macridi, danaiprado@hsph.harvard.edu