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Myths peddling the cycles of cruelty to children


When we commit to change the world at some point we shall discover that reform and reaction are cyclical. We cannot bank progress in order to finance the next step. The process often seems more like the rock of Sisyphus, where the rock pushed towards the top of the hill inevitably falls back over the body of Sisyphus and he has to begin again. That is the point at which we decide whether to hang in or slip away.

This has been true of the treatment of refugees in Australia where small gains won were overwhelmed by the aftermath of Tampa and then the dispatch of asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island. People with mental illness and intellectual impairment have also seen cycles of attention, reform and neglect. Indigenous Australians, too, have witnessed fine words and symbolic change followed by interventions without consultation. In prison policy, and particularly the treatment of youths who have broken the law, periods of person-based reform have been followed by harsh and inflexible laws.

The discovery that reform is precarious and that the labour invested in it has apparently borne no lasting fruit tests our commitment. We then must choose between nostalgia or withdrawal and continuing investment in reform. Whatever our response, however, it remains important to understand why reform is cyclical and does not follow a straightforward line of progress.

A significant part of the explanation is that reform presupposes a convergence of favourable conditions. It relies on popular support, propitious cultural attitudes, and investment both rhetorical and material from government. This is evident in the treatment of children who are mentally ill, refugees, Indigenous, or who are caught in the justice system. In each case their treatment has sometimes invoked popular sympathy, appealed to the cultural instinct to protect children, and won concessions from government. That convergence, however, often lasts only until the next alarm at children behaving badly or until the next pressure on the budget. Lasting reform demands deep community support and sustained investment. 

The way in which our culture imagines children makes support for disadvantaged children fickle. It draws a sharp line between good children and bad children. Good children are sweet, loving, attractive, amusing and vulnerable. Bad children are tough, twisted, unsociable, untrustworthy and unlikeable. The former, with fair hair and blue eyes, abound in advertisements for any breakfast serial. The latter, also with deceptive fair hair and blue eyes, feature as aliens in horror movies or, with dark hair and skin, in Nordic noir. Good children are naturally virtuous and always forgiveable. Bad children are bad seed, fixed in evil and beyond forgiveness. They must be controlled and shunned.

This polarised myth of children makes support for them precarious. The sympathy that they win for their vulnerability can easily give way to distaste and suspicion as they are defined by the unpopular and different group to which they are assigned. They are seen, not primarily as children, but as asylum seekers, insane, or criminal. They are classified as bad children. Politicians who have an interest in cutting public expenditure often emphasise the social and ethnic groups to which the children belong. Even the natural sympathy they evoke can be turned against them. Refugee children can be portrayed as planted by their parents as a way to secure visas, evoking the images of alien children wreaking havoc in an idyllic village.


'The treatment of children as fully human beings will then continue to depend on a strongly held unfashionable ethic that is built on respect for them for their shared humanity and not for their virtue, their level of education or their charm.' 


The bifurcated view of children as good or bad is unrealistic and so has harmful effects. It prompts us to deny the faults and capacity for evil in our own children, and discourages us from understanding and feeling compassion for children who have suffered multiple disadvantage. It divides children into those who have no need for redemption and those who are beyond it. It leads us to see as acceptable the placement in adult prisons of irredeemably bad children with irredeemably bad adults, the rounding up and jailing of bad children by criminalising their bail breaches, and the holding of them in solitary confinement. It leads public servants and politicians to accept the detention and separation from their families of refugee and of mentally ill children.

In this view the proper response to crime is to punish perpetrators and not to encourage reform of life. In theological terms it does not believe in original sin and so leaves no space for subsequent redemption.

 It is tempting to believe that these attitudes to disadvantaged children will change as the progressive strands of culture dominate. That, however, is doubtful. Progressive attitudes in a culture with high respect for scientific development have been appealed to justify both cruelty and respect for children. They justified the exploitation of child labour in the new economy of the industrial revolution and Charles Dickens’ protest against it. In Australia eugenic theories and their claimed basis in modern science were part of the world view that saw as inevitable the dying of the lesser Indigenous race and the need to take children away from their families. It also lay behind the confinement of mentally ill children as a way of avoiding contamination of the white Australian race and the  failure of successive governments to provide for their care.

The Nazis gave the radical Eugenic programs advocated for in Australia a bad name. In the face of the developments of information, genetical and microengineering  technologies and the effect they will have on human life, there is no reason why such programs will not return brightly polished in other forms. People will continue to look to technology to remedy the evils among the possibilities it brings. The treatment of children as fully human beings will then continue to depend on a strongly held unfashionable ethic that is built on respect for them for their shared humanity and not for their virtue, their level of education or their charm.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Teenager in hoodie. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Children, Justice, Reform



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Existing comments

Fr Andrew, a friend of mine recently had his garage broken into in the middle of the night and his Mercedes stolen by teenagers here on the Gold Coast. Not only did they write off a $40k car, he also incurred $1400 of speeding fines.
It's all very well gilding the lily but if teens are going to act like this they deserve some harsh goal time.

From my experience (inter alia), routine cruelty to children was par for the course from the Marists and the Christian Brothers and there is little lost for them from their ex students.

Francis Armstrong | 28 July 2023  

Original sin, redemption, shared humanity (or image and likeness of God) and virtue are all concepts shared by Christians. Atheists don't believe in original sin, and police in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes don't believe in shared humanity, but both cohorts probably believe (along with Christians) that only humans, not animals, possess "virtue" (summarised as behaviour which complies with codes similar to the Decalogue), that virtue, as a code-complying behaviour, can't be lost, only dropped (or dragged on the ground), and, theoretically, can be picked up again, and that redemption is this reclamation of virtue. The job of counselling (even in authoritarian/totalitarian regimes) is to move the malefactor towards picking up the dropped/dragging virtue, if not for the sake of God or love of Man, then for the benefit to the State in having a disciplined citizenry.

Even if you didn't believe in sentiments such as "shared humanity" or "image and likeness of God", something like restorative justice would still be supportable on the quite reasonable psychological proposition that virtue, being a behaviour, can be abandoned but not forgotten, and that dead-end prisoners or a grumpy underclass prowling the streets annoying their upright siblings are a waste of social capital.

s martin | 02 August 2023  

There are many factors causing young people to offend, sometimes very seriously, even fatally. Serious psychiatric problems, including brain damage due to foetal alcohol syndrome, play a part. Some ethnic communities seem to have many young people who feel dissociated from society and form gangs. Poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and other factors seem to disproportionally affect indigenous youth. I think there is need for less talk and more simple grass roots action aimed at these problems. People like S Martin need to beware of spouting simplistic theological solutions. Jesus was never simplistic but always succinct and to the point.

Edward Fido | 02 August 2023  

Following Edward's reply, here's more to muse upon:

If the theology is correct that there is no faith without its establishing works, wouldn't it also be true that there is no virtue without its establishing behaviours?

Is a brain-damaged person who goes on a rampage virtuous? Can s/he be led to being virtuous? If the injury is deep, perhaps not. But that goes to whether that person has an excuse for not being virtuous. Otherwise, you would have the conundrum of a virtuous person who causes harm to innocent people.

Edward's reply raises the question of whether there is such a thing as a theological solution to a practical problem. Are there only practical solutions to practical problems, with the added consideration of whether a practical solution - of which there are thousands - can be supported upon theological principle?

Take a needle exchange as a practical solution to a problem of dirty needles. It's describable as a place where you can "exchange" a dirty needle for a clean one. It's also describable as a place where you can habitually break the law with impunity. Is the issue needles, or habit, character and deformation of the divine image and likeness?

s martin | 04 August 2023  

The Orthodox believe we all have an icon of Christ within ourselves, which is very similar to the authentic Western Christian mystical belief that God dwells within us and our consciences. One of the functions of true religion is to help bring order into a morally ambiguous world. S Martin is right on the money there. The decline in formal religious observance and its teaching have indeed left a moral vacuum in our society. Young people are often searching for something in life. There are many false gods out there. Alcohol and drugs are two of them. Often poverty and family breakdown are the causes of emptiness and addiction. Older societies, such as Western Europe in the Middle Ages, had their faults, but people had a core of ethical beliefs which we as a society seem to have lost. There was also a social relief system administered largely by the Church, which was destroyed at the Reformation. We badly need to rebuild a cohesive and coherent society. Fortunately, we are a long way from the social chaos which obtains in the USA.

Edward Fido | 04 August 2023  

Failed social policy impacts on families and children.
A lack of safe and affordable housing and a lack of a living wage causes stress.
The trauma is worn by children as well as their parents.
Children act up.
Instead of supporting families, Australian Politicians decide to place children who act up in jail at $660,000 per year.
A 20 year project in regional Australia supported disadvantaged children from grade 4 for 20 years.
The project cost $14,000 dollars per school plus a community organiser's salary.
The community organiser engage children in sport, community services and the arts after school.
Communities need to care and engage in sensible solutions.
Care for families and families will care for their children.
Australia must support young families to thrive. Families require a proper living wage and affordable housing. Instead of providing tax deductions to the wealthy, lets care for children.
It our communities best insurrance!

PBoylan | 10 August 2023  

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