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Volatile Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre failing to stop assaults, documents and staff reveal

Shelley developed PTSD after years working at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. (ABC News: Matthew Holmes)

For years, Shelley found her job as a Victorian youth justice worker rewarding.

She thought it was the job she would retire in.

"I just enjoyed working with the young people. A lot called me Mum," she said.

But she witnessed multiple assaults between young people and on her colleagues at the volatile Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre.

She was caught up in the notorious 2017 riot, during which young people escaped from the centre.

After six years on the job, her mental health was unravelling.

After three months off with WorkCover support payments, she returned to work at a unit with two young men who had assaulted more than 10 staff between them.

The Malmsbury facility in central Victoria is home to males aged 15 to 21. (ABC News: Shannon Schubert)

Shelley said it was a unit most people refused to work in, and the final straw came when a manager called her on a day off and told her a young person at the centre had threatened to assault her when she came back to work.

"I would have panic attacks daily," Shelley, who asked for her full name to be withheld, told the ABC.

"I used to be quite a happy person and I got to the stage where I just basically locked myself in the bedroom."

She said she was forced to walk away from the job for her own health.

Last year she received a six-figure payout from the Department of Justice and Community Safety after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While Shelley has tried to move on, the violence she experienced as a youth justice worker still affects her to this day.

In an unfamiliar bathroom while away from home recently, she found herself having a panic attack.

"All of a sudden, I just felt like something was behind me," she said.

Shelley is one of a growing number of current and former staff members rendered unable to work due to trauma experienced at the centre.

And despite repeated calls for change, the ABC has learnt violence against staff by young people and understaffing continue to plague Malmsbury.

Four staff members assaulted in two weeks

The centre houses some of the most complex cases in the state justice system, with boys and young men ranging between 15 and 21 years of age.

Some staff have previously told the ABC they go to work fearing they will leave there in an ambulance, or worse.

The ABC understands four young people attacked two staff on Thursday afternoon.

Both were taken to hospital, one with serious injuries.

It came just two days after another worker was assaulted by a young person and taken to hospital with serious facial injuries on Tuesday night.

The Community and Public Safety Union said the worker had a broken nose and missing teeth after a young person, who was being moved out of isolation, punched the staff member.

A member of the Safety and Emergency Response Team was assaulted last Thursday, but was not taken to hospital.

Staff told the ABC morale was low and many workers feared for their safety.

It comes after staff warned management last month that chronic understaffing was putting their safety at risk, but were told no help was available. Similar concerns about inadequate staff levels were also reported on February 14.

The ABC can also reveal a youth justice worker broke his arm last month while trying to stop two groups of young people fighting. On the same day, a targeted search resulted in several pieces of steel up to 30 centimetres long being found concealed in cells and in common areas.

On March 1, a young person was found drinking hand sanitiser mixed with cordial in a water bottle. Another young person attacked the youth worker who tried to take the bottle away.

Injury claims on the rise for 'damaged' staff

The ABC understands at least four youth justice workers have received six-figure payouts from the department over the past five years after suffering serious mental health injuries and being deemed unfit to work.

Shelley said she could not begin to count the number of colleagues who had been on WorkCover support after having traumatic experiences in the system.

Violent assaults against staff and other inmates are common. (ABC News)

Victoria Police data obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws shows 1,088 assaults were recorded by police at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct between January 2016 and December 2021.

That includes young people assaulting staff, and assaults by young people on peers.

"A lot of the staff are damaged," Shelley said.

Personal injury lawyer Caroline Grainger started taking on the cases of Malmsbury Youth Justice workers five years ago.

In that time, she said, she had seen workers with concussions, broken limbs and psychiatric injuries including PTSD, major depressive disorder, insomnia, stress and anxiety.

Ms Grainger said the majority of her clients who had worked at the centre had PTSD or a mental injury as a result of work.

"I have only ever seen those sorts of levels from work injuries sustained in first-responder occupations such as emergency service workers, ambulance officers and police officers," she said.

Ms Grainger has heard stories of brutal attacks and staffing shortfalls inside the centre. (Supplied: Grainger Legal)

She has also heard a range of complaints from youth justice staff about the workplace, with them most commonly relating to insufficient staff, and casual or agency workers being brought in to make up numbers.

A department spokesperson declined to say how many workers had received compensation for workplace injuries and declined to say how much compensation the department had paid to youth justice staff, citing privacy reasons.

The department referred the ABC to its annual report, which does not say how much compensation has been paid to workers, but gives an average figure of $87,519 per standard claim for the entire Department of Justice and Community Safety in the last financial year.

Youth Justice Minister Natalie Hutchins said "significant reforms" in the system were "making a difference, improving safety for staff and helping young people turn their lives around".

Natalie Hutchins says serious incidents inside the centre are declining.  (Facebook: Natalie Hutchins MP)

Ms Hutchins said there had been a 75 per cent reduction in young people in sentenced detention in the past five years and a range of measures had been introduced to strengthen staff safety.

"We've boosted the custodial workforce, established a team to support the wellbeing of staff, increased training and established specialised units for high-risk young people and we've seen serious incidents, offences and WorkCover claims decline," she said.

"Including a 42 per cent reduction of the number of serious incidents and 59 per cent reduction in serious assaults in the past three years."

Documents expose repeated failings

Victoria's workplace watchdog, WorkSafe, is a regular visitor to the state's two youth justice facilities.

In more than 700 pages of documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws, WorkSafe recorded 28 inspection reports, 60 entry reports, issued 24 improvement notices and three internal review unit reports, for both Parkville and Malmsbury Youth Justice Centres between January 2020 and June last year.

One WorkSafe report from June last year said a young person who assaulted a Malmsbury worker in an unprovoked attack had a "considerable history of poor, violent and threatening behaviour towards staff and other young people".

A staff member reported in February 2020 an inmate told them he was "feeling homicidal" and "would like to experience a feeling of killing someone".

The report said the young person then "threatened to kill a staff member", but no controls were implemented, allowing the inmate to stay in the unit without being locked down.

A WorkSafe inspector documented staff concerns about high-security units operating with four or five staff to at least 16 violent offenders, when there should have been at least eight workers.

"As a result of the low staffing numbers within the Latrobe Unit an incident occurred when staff members were attempting to lock down young offenders so staff members could commence their lunch break," the report said.

Shelley said this was an issue when she worked at Malmsbury, but staff were told they needed to open units even when staff numbers were low. 

While Shelley is gone from the centre and trying to move on, she says more needs to be done to protect staff. (ABC News: Matthew Holmes)

Shelley is one of dozens of youth justice workers who have told the ABC Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre often faces staff shortages and has new staff working with young people with complex needs.

"It's like a revolving door," she said.

"They need more staff in units."

The justice department said it had significantly increased the number of custodial staff since July 2019 and the attrition rate for frontline youth justice workers had nearly halved in the past two years.

Ms Hutchins said there had been a 79.6 per cent decrease in incidents at Malmsbury over five years.

She also said there was a 66 per cent decrease in offences at Malmsbury over that time and a range of measures had been introduced to significantly strengthen safety.

The ABC can reveal Malmsbury management told staff last month new mandatory ratios had been introduced for secure units, requiring one worker for every three clients.


Minimum ratio of staff to young people

Secure unit environment – Shared spaces


Secure unit environment – Bedroom entries

2:1 (during unlock hours)

3:1 (overnight)

Secure unit environment – Kitchen


Source: Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety 

Staff told the ABC it would be impossible to meet these ratios, given current staff shortages.

They said to meet this requirement, the current workforce would have to be doubled.

'Inadequate review' of assault on young person

The WorkSafe documents and Victoria Police data show most of the assaults at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre are occurring between young people.

On February 26 last year, a young person was taken to hospital after getting attacked by three inmates.

"IP (injured person) was grabbed around the neck and punched multiple times by another YP (young person)," the WorkSafe report says.

"IP became caught up against the security fence and appeared to become unconscious."

The WorkSafe inspector says the "IP was then further punched and kicked to the head multiple times".

The report notes when the assault started, there were five young people in the courtyard and no youth justice workers present.

The inspector described the subsequent review of the incident as "inadequate" and highlighted the risk of it happening again.

Shelley said WorkSafe had been ineffective in holding the justice department to account.

"They'd issue improvement notices … then work [management] would tick all the boxes," she said.

"After a couple of months, it'd go back to the same thing."

WorkSafe said it was committed to ensuring workplaces addressed the complex physical and mental welfare challenges faced by the youth justice sector.

"Victorian employers, including those in the youth justice sector, must take every reasonable step to protect workers and others in the workplace from risks to their health and safety," a spokesperson said.

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