Kim Oates.  The Forgotten Children

Feb 17, 2015

I have just read the report of the Australian Human Rights Commission on Children in Detention “The Forgotten Children”.

It is clear, factual and unemotional.  It is supported by evidence and is non-partisan. It is not on the side of any political party. It is on the side of children.

It made me ashamed about what is being done to these children. It made me sad that our nation can be so cruel. It made me angry about the way the two main political parties responded on the release of the report. The Labour Party was largely silent, although much of what is documented in the report occurred on their watch. The Liberal/National party was belligerent, ignoring the seriousness of the message, blaming others while simultaneously congratulating themselves and trying to shoot the highly respected messenger, Professor Gillian Triggs.

I have not visited a detention centre.  But I am a paediatrician and have wide experience in child protection and with disadvantaged children. I know the devastating effects of abuse and deprivation in childhood, effects which often continue throughout life.

I know the paediatricians who gave evidence to the inquiry. They are highly regarded in the medical community. They are not political people, they don’t exaggerate. They care about children.

The inquiry was established to investigate how life in immigration detention may affect the health and development of children. It interviewed 112 children and their families about the health impacts of detention, using a standardised questionnaire. It held five public hearings and received 239 submissions.

One of its aims was to see if Australia met its international human rights obligations, such as:  appropriateness of facilities where children are detained; measures to ensure their safety and provision of education, recreation and health services.

Having pointed out that mandatory immigration detention, especially of children, is contrary to Australia’s international obligations, the report states “It is troubling that members of the Government and Parliament and Departmental officials are either uninformed, or choose to ignore, the human rights treaties to which Australia is a party”.

The report noted that our leaders, while talking about the value of detention as a deterrent, do not believe this themselves: “As the medical evidence has mounted over the last eight months of the Inquiry, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the policy of both Labor and Coalition Governments. Both the Hon Chris Bowen MP, as a former Minister for Immigration, and the Hon Scott Morrison MP, the current Minister for Immigration, agreed on oath before the Inquiry that holding children in detention does not deter either asylum seekers or people smugglers. No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia has been offered”

The Australian Government’s own Early Years Learning Framework describes three foundations as the basis for healthy childhood growth and progress for pre-schoolers: ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming.’

The first foundation, “Belonging” points out that pre-schoolers need to belong to a family and a community if they are to establish secure relationships and a healthy sense of self.

However the report says “All evidence to this Inquiry indicates that the institutionalised structure and routine of detention disrupts family functioning and the relationships between parents and children. Children do not have access to a private family home where it would be expected families would spend time away from other people sharing meals, engaging in shared activities, and having rest-time on their own.”

The second foundation, “Being” emphasises  play-based learning because play provides the most appropriate stimulus for brain development,  that childhood is a special time in life where children need time to play, try new things and have fun.

There was little evidence of this need being met for children in detention. 

“My youngest child has no toys. He only pushes a chair around” said one mother.

The third foundation ‘Becoming’, is about the learning and development that young children experience. But the most common concern of parents was that their children had little opportunity to learn socialisation skills. Many reported that their pre-schooler was unable to get along with other children.

These three foundations, established by our government for healthy child development are denied children in detention, children who are under the guardianship of the Minister.

The inquiry clearly showed that detention was bad for the mental health and wellbeing of children. Almost all children and their parents spoke about their worry, restlessness, anxiety and difficulties eating and sleeping. Thirty four percent of children had mental health disorders that, if they were not in detention with limited health services, would require referral to a specialist child mental health service for psychiatric treatment.  This compares with less than two percent of children in the Australian population.

Children were reported to experience tearfulness, anxiety, delayed or absent speech, regression in behaviour and nightmares. Observers noted tantrums, sleep disturbance, poor concentration, frustration and agitation. One mother told the enquiry:

My daughter is 2 years old. Five months ago she started behaving abnormally. She wakes up screaming and crying in the middle of the night. She always hits us; she pulls my hair and scratches our faces. She has tantrums every day. She broke my glasses. She gets upset without any reason”. 

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians submitted their concern about ‘the long-term impact of detention on children, noting that the ‘psychological distress resulting from detention can persist for years after release’.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists stated  “… detention of children is detrimental to children’s development and mental health and has the potential to cause long-term damage to social and emotional functioning.”

This report needs to be taken seriously. It should not be used as an opportunity to blame.  It is an opportunity to right a wrong. It is about protecting children.

Kim Oates is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the Sydney University Medical School. He was formerly Chief Executive of the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Westmead.




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