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Kids need care not cruelty to avoid radicalisation


Children's Week, which commences in Australia this Saturday 24 October, is timely. It invites us to reflect on the proposals to impose control orders on children as young as 12, amid the growing tendency to see the response to the radicalisation of children to lie in punishment, not in considering the children's development into responsible adults.

Children's WeekChildren's Week reminds us that children are young human beings, children among other children. It reminds us of the gift that our children are, of the future of the world that they hold in their small hands, and also of the world of violence, flight and hunger that so many of them enter, into which some are seduced, and in which many more unwillingly perish.

Children's Week also invites us to think of what responsibility means. We are responsible for shaping the world in which our children will grow. We are also responsible for caring for them and for protecting them from the things that threaten them. And we take it for granted that governments will assume this responsibility when parents and others cannot.

Children learn from adults how to take responsibility for their own lives and to be responsible to others in the decisions they make. Responsibility comes slowly. It involves brain development, training and teaching from significant adults, and the space to make mistakes and learn from them.

Some of those mistakes can have terrible consequences. But they are the mistakes children make, and should be responded to in a way that wins them to a better way, not confirms them in irresponsibility.

Many vulnerable children have lacked responsible adults to protect and care for them. Their development may have been affected by hunger, violence and lack of education. Radicalised young people may have been seduced by adults who prey on them. Many others have come to the notice of child protection services from an early age, and some who have breached the law have come under the criminal justice system.

The government exercises its responsibility for vulnerable children through these agencies and also through community agencies. The goal of their work is to accompany young people, many of whom have lacked responsible adults to nurture them, to provide a space for them to find themselves, and to encourage them to be responsible adults.

This delicate and precarious work demands that agencies and governments are responsible in ensuring that their care will further young people's development into responsible adults. Responsibility is not simply something individuals carry. It is a network of relationships between people within society.

In particular it is very important that children's contact with the justice system encourages them to take responsibility for their lives, and does not simply punish irresponsible behaviour. It must provide them with the support and mentoring in the community which will show them a better way. Incarceration should be a last resort, because it normally hinders the development of personal responsibility.

A particular issue in Australia is the age of criminal responsibility, which varies in different states between ten and 12. Research into brain development suggests that people cannot fully take responsibility for their actions until they are 15 years old. Responsible policy must respect the human development of the child and ensure that the response to their wrongdoing takes into account their age and does not place them in processes they can neither understand nor properly participate in.

Governments, of course, also have the responsibility to protect society from the consequences of criminal behaviour. When children are involved, as they have been in terrorist schemes, this responsibility is complex and delicate. But the government response must respect the fact that they are children and encourage their growth to responsibility.

From this perspective the proposal to impose control orders is concerning. I suspect its consequence will be to make the children feel untrusted, to encourage others to see them as martyrs or monsters, to marginalise parents in their children's journey to adult responsibility, and to weaken the confidence of the Muslim community both in Australian authorities and in its own capacity to nurture its youth.

Whether or not these considerations are outweighed by the immediate threat to security, the proposal to impose control orders demands careful scrutiny because Australian attitudes to deviant behaviour are often crude. They see it only in terms of crime and punishment.

They do not consider the degree of responsibility of the offender and the obligation of adults in society to help offenders develop their own sense of responsibility. It is an attitude that is itself irresponsible and prompts governments to act irresponsibly. When shaping the treatment of children it is also cruel.

Highly vulnerable children, including those attracted to extremist groups, form a relatively small group of young people in Australia. But their welfare and growth into responsible adults are a test of our responsibility for them and also critical for a healthy Australian community.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Children's Week, protection orders, radicalisation



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Existing comments

A prescient article. I hope the movers and shakers in our society read it, take its advice on board and amend their short-sighted strategy on this matter.

Edward Fido | 22 October 2015  

I fear that party political 'imperatives' will always stand in the way of prophetic action. We can see what is happening to this group of our young people; we have among us the sure knowledge of how human hearts can be terribly damaged by neglect, rejection and unacknowledged anger; yet we will continue to turn away from healing and mercy until the anger bursts out and sets our people aflame. Unless...it's the Year of Mercy...do we have enough trust in God to start practising it?

Joan Seymour | 22 October 2015  

Radicalisation of children takes place in community settings. The first step in reducing it is to ease the tensions within the communities where radicalisation flourishes. Two main causes are 1. the exaggerated esteem for outdated Traditions, and 2. the solipsistic views of all religions that they alone have the Path to God, and that 'others' are either deluded or perverted. Progress is mostly made when seemingly opposing views can be reconciled and amalgamated, learning cooperation and harmony. The vision of Religions is affected, usually defectively, by the culture, degree of development and the circumstances, in which they were founded. If religions can be refined by discarding the material aspects of their spiritual vision and concentrating on Goodness and Truth, the radicalisation that infects all religions will evaporate.

Robert Liddy | 23 October 2015  

When the only sin is getting caught, it is very hard to encourage the young to think responsibly about their actions. At my book group in Brunswick an area where we all have neighbours of all kinds of beliefs there is much discussion about these young people. They have been compared with those Australians who went off to Spain to fight in their revolution. It is the nature of young people to seek adventure. We need to encourage that spirit in less destructive directions.

Margaret McDonald | 23 October 2015  

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