Autism cage details emerge as United Nations investigates abuse of children
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Autism cage details emerge as United Nations investigates abuse of children

Disturbing new details of a Canberra school placing a 10-year-old boy with autism in a cage have come to light, as the case spearheads an investigation by the United Nations into potential human rights violations of 55 students with disabilities across Australian schools.

While the boy's parents do not wish to make a public statement and do not want their son's identity or school revealed, Fairfax Media can confirm that the boy was forcibly placed in the cage on a handful of occasions early last year.

The metal pool fence structure at the centre of the ACT's withdrawal space crisis.

The metal pool fence structure at the centre of the ACT's withdrawal space crisis.

On one occasion he struggled so violently to get out of the cage – which was 2 metres x 2 metres in size and constructed out of metal pool fencing – that he broke the lock.

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Fairfax can also confirm that permission was sought by the school to restrain the boy, but it was not given by his family.

Parental permission was not granted to restrain this Canberra schoolboy in the 2m x 2m cage.

Parental permission was not granted to restrain this Canberra schoolboy in the 2m x 2m cage.

The ACT Education Directorate has never apologised for the child's treatment, and the family is seeking mediation through the ACT Human Rights Commission over the Education Directorate's isolation of the boy from his peers and his forced transfer out of primary school and into high school this term because of increases in his extreme behaviour.

The case has helped trigger an Australian submission to the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities alleging abuses in a number of schools. Other cases include children being locked in cupboards, tied to chairs with belts, deprived of water for long periods, sat on until they vomited and degraded in front of classmates.

Costa Rican human rights lawyer Catalina Devandas Aguilar, who was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2014, invited Australian families to make a formal submission to the UN in April after meeting Brisbane-based co-convener of the Autistic Family Collective, Briannon Lee, in Geneva. The submission was delivered in June with input from a range of disability advocates, who believe the human rights violations taking place in classrooms are so serious that international action is warranted.

Ms Lee said Canberra's now-infamous autism cage, which hit national headlines in April last year, had "opened the floodgates in terms of families reporting examples of abuse" and the Canberra family at the heart of the cage incident have contributed to the report.

Recent revelations by a former ACT support worker that she was regularly asked to tie the hands of a grown woman with a disability has also prompted disability groups to call for a royal commission into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability.

The UN would not comment on the Australian cases while it considered the evidence. But a formal report from the global human rights watchdog has the potential to shine an international spotlight on the practices of the ACT Education Directorate and education departments across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, where allegations of child harm have surfaced.

Of the 55 Australian children alleging abuse, 93 per cent had been diagnosed with autism and 78 per cent were boys.

The range of human rights violations identified include 19 children being neglected through a lack of any educational plan, being left for long periods unattended, or being placed on reduced attendance.

Twenty students alleged physical assault, including being punched, pulled and kicked.

The use of physical restraints among children was widespread, with 32 reporting being held down with belts or chairs, or being sat on or held down by a member of school staff.

A further 28 students report being detained in unsuitable structures which were referred to as "time out" or "calm rooms". These included spaces such as cupboards, storerooms and disused buildings with windows blacked out and lights turned off.

Families reported an extensive range of injuries resulting from this practice, including bruising, cuts and abrasions and vomiting. Longer-term injuries included severe anxiety, sleep issues, refusal to go to school and in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts.

Ms Lee said the most alarming findings of the report were categorised as torture, where nine students reported abuses including being locked up for long periods in extreme temperatures without access to water.

There were also 34 reports of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in which students were made to stand in front of the class while being verbally abused; being physically removed from educational settings in front of classmates; or did not have personal-care needs attended to.

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While 98 per cent of parents had taken their complaints directly to the school and 58 per cent had escalated that to education departments, parents were overwhelmingly dissatisfied that their concerns had been addressed.

And despite two Senate inquiries last year condemning restrictive practices and educational neglect of students with disabilities, the group has warned that a lack of nationally consistent reporting and data collation on abuse has hampered attempts to guarantee standards of education and care.

Emma Macdonald is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times.

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