Hazel Buchanan

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Who are we punishing: the children or ourselves?

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 27 July, 2016 at 16:40

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s statement on ABC News radio on Tuesday morning, that children should always be treated humanely, raises two important questions. Firstly, is showing compassion and benevolence to children a realistic ambition while simultaneously consigning them to a facility like Don Dale in the Northern Territory? And, secondly, is ‘humane treatment’ a worthy standard for the custodians of troubled, damaged children to aspire to in Australia in 2016?


Following the exposé by Four Corners on Monday evening, Australians far and wide are vocally expressing their outrage, horror and shock at the documented treatment of children in custody in the Northern Territory. And yet, it seems, the most pertinent question is still not being asked. A child who perpetrates assault, damage to property, or theft, is a child in trouble. If the child is caught, they are in trouble with the ‘Law’; but on a far deeper level, such behaviours indicate conflict with society, family, community and, indeed, with self. A child in trouble is a child who needs our help. As parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, as grown-up children ourselves, we are rightly disgusted and appalled by the violence, abuse and mistreatment we were confronted with in our lounge rooms on Monday night. But surely the question we ought to be asking is, ‘Why are we locking children up at all?’ What endemic failures in our society and our criminal justice system have allowed us to accept the premise that a child of ten should be imprisoned for stealing a car? Who among us could cogently argue that locking up an already troubled child in the harshly intimidating environment of a prison could ever result in their rehabilitation?


Children, as we all know in our hearts, need loving care. Children respond positively to warmth, kindness and love, and thrive when given clear and reasonable boundaries and the appropriate opportunities to succeed. Children who are treated with scorn and contempt learn to disrespect others; children meet anger with anger; children who learn to be frightened of adults look for opportunities to put others in fear. When we choose to lock up our most deeply troubled children in an environment that offers them no prospect of rehabilitation, in the short term we are inflicting a devastating punishment. In the longer term, we are punishing ourselves.


When a child commits an offence for which he or she is caught, society is presented with a golden opportunity - the chance to intervene, to make a difference not just to one life but potentially to many. As a nation, it is entirely up to us whether or not we choose to squander that opportunity.

Categories: Politics

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