Australia's Guantanamo: how did this cruelty happen?

July 28, 2016
Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre.

The ABC's Four Corners program exposed the abuse and mistreatment of children in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. The abuse revealed was graphic and finally brought to the public's notice after many years of campaigning for attention to be paid to the treatment of children, especially Aboriginal children, in detention.

Australia has a National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (the National Framework) that was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in April 2009 and is implemented across Australia. It said it: “Recognis[ed] that the safety and wellbeing of children is the responsibility of all levels of government ...”

So why did it take a report on television for this government and preceding governments to address the appalling way in which children are treated in the NT?

It further said: “The National Framework will deliver a more integrated response but does not change the responsibilities of governments. States and territories retain responsibility for statutory child protection, as the Australian government retains responsibility for providing income support payments.”

The Australian Institute of Family Studies defines child abuse as: “Child maltreatment refers to any non-accidental behaviour by parents, caregivers, other adults or older adolescents that is outside the norms of conduct and entails a substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm to a child or young person. Such behaviours may be intentional or unintentional and can include acts of omission (that is, neglect) and commission (that is, abuse).

“Child maltreatment is commonly divided into five main subtypes: physical abuse; emotional maltreatment; neglect; sexual abuse; and exposure to family violence.”

According to Act for Kids, a charity that supports abused children: “Child abuse and neglect is one of Australia's biggest and most misunderstood problems. Despite being underreported, Australian authorities confirmed 42,457 children were abused or neglected in one year.” In addition 43,400 children are in out-of-home care.

This is an appalling record for one of the richest countries in the world. Australia has the capacity to care for its children, but child protection services have been under enormous strain across Australia as they are constantly depleted of staff and funding. Funding is shared between the states and commonwealth and the legislation varies between the states.

It is not a question of insufficient legislative means to enable staff and governments to take due care. The question is a political one. Why did it take so many years for the governments to even acknowledge that the children of Australia are under enormous stress?

Punitive measures

Punitive measures have, in many studies, been shown to not work. The Raising Children website, a partnership between Australia's leading early childhood agencies and the federal government, says that punishment does not work, especially by itself.

Punishment does not necessarily mean physical punishment. It can mean withdrawal of privileges, such as playing on the computer. The website suggests accompanying punishment with counselling, openly discussing issues and maintaining good communication between the relevant parties. Why was the NT government unable to follow the suggestions made by the government to parents?

Another aspect discussed by Raising Children is modelling behaviour by adults for children to follow. In Australia and around the world the model behaviour we see to solve problems is violence.

Countries that go to war demonstrate to children that violence can solve problems. One US study has shown that domestic violence among the families of returned soldiers is much higher than the general population. So what children hear is not what they see. In addition, the army trains young people to kill. How is this appropriate behaviour for young adults?

The Royal Commission called by the prime minister is a far cry from what is necessary. Even if we could excuse Malcolm Turnbull for a knee jerk reaction to the issue, it still leaves the question: where were the politicians when the NT approved legislation to approve the mechanical restraint that was used on one of the children. The kit had a spit hood to protect the workers. Was this legislation not known to the Commonwealth?

The human rights commissioner was appalled at the sight of the documentary and had tears in her eyes. Where were the human rights of Aboriginal people when troops were sent in by then PM John Howard in 2007 to address allegations of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect in NT Aboriginal communities.

Operation Outreach, the intervention's main logistical operation conducted by a force of 600 soldiers, concluded on October 21, 2008. In the eight years since there has not been one prosecution for child abuse coming from the exercise.

Why was the implementation of the legislation in the NT not subject to investigation? Why were the facilities named in the program not investigated during these so called “intervention procedures”? These are questions the government has to consider. It is clear that the intervention was an utter failure, which, if anything, reinforced the methods approved by the current NT government.

The question of racism looms large in such harsh, inhumane treatment of children behind bars. Why are they behind bars anyway? Why were these children not given guidance at a younger age and supported through their traumas? Why is a preventative approach using the health system not considered? Why is a social determinant of health not included in the national framework?

Sick system

Is this a symptom of a system that sees it as acceptable to treat children with contempt? The way Australia treats children in refugee detention camps is a prime example of the view taken by this government and previous governments about child abuse.

Why are the employees of the facilities — which are not designed to support children but punish them — where children are placed for care under the state, correctional officers? Why were these employees predominantly men, and very large ones at that, who were recruited from the wrestling/boxing community?

In some facilities around the country ex-soldiers/policeman are also employed to do this job. How are these staff members seen as suitable supervisors and managers of behaviour change? None have qualifications that will enable them to support the children in custody to change their behaviour.

One has to wonder about the emotional state of these children who went into this so called Behaviour Modification Unit. Why were they there? Are they criminals or are they children who have had years of trauma? Were any of these questions explored? No child wants to be abused. No child wants to be disliked or isolated and no child does things on a deliberate basis unless their upbringing had guided them that way. What were the circumstances that led to them becoming “criminals”?

Where are the social workers, psychiatrists, counsellors and support staff who may have carried out a far more effective behavioural modification program?

Who decided that wrestlers and ex-soldiers are capable of implementing programs that will change teenage behaviour? Is this done elsewhere in the world? The attitude of the staff was worse than appalling when they discussed “pulverising” the children.

Why did the NT government approve the purchase of mechanical devices for use on young adults? Is this Guantanamo Bay? All that was lacking in this scenario was the orange suit. How would any parent feel if their child was to undergo such treatment to correct misbehaviour? Should it be made illegal to import or make such implements?

Royal Commission

A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody investigated the treatment of Aboriginal people 25 years ago. Its recommendations were ignored, so why have another one? Is it just so they are seen to be doing the right thing? If the NT government had implemented the recommendations of that royal commission this situation would not have come to pass.

This is blatant abuse of the human rights of all children in the NT and throughout Australia. Given the large numbers of Aboriginal children who live in out of home care this issue has become very urgent across the nation.

The call should be for the suspension of all staff involved and an independent investigation into all perpetrators. The suspension should include all parliamentarians who have supported such methods of torture.

Political accountability is tantamount in this process. All politicians need to come clean about who supported such treatment of children. The current political system, capitalism, is one of the worst examples of democracy one can see. This system alienates and divides society. It sets one group against another to sustain these divisions and maintain its power.

These children's behaviour is just one example of alienation from society and a lack of democracy. This society does little for its young. The price of entertainment or even sport is unaffordable by the poorest families. Bored young children feel left out, especially when they and their families have enormous difficulty getting jobs. In some areas youth unemployment is as high as 25%.

The people of Australia deserve to know the truth of what actually happened and no excuses should be allowed for senior public servants or politicians who have been party to this process.

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