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The ebbtide of responsibility



The frustration with recurrent lockdowns in Australia is not unique. It is experienced also by people who advocate for social change. Underlying the frustration occasioned by COVID is the fragility of assumptions previously taken for granted. We had come to see the trajectory of our lives and society as an uninterrupted journey that would lead smoothly to a better future. We were the drivers who could moderate its speed and map its path around obstacles. Our experience of living with coronavirus, however, has not been progressive but tidal. 

Main image: Barbed wire at sunset (Getty Images)

The tide comes in with energy and carries us forward, but then recedes leaving exposed the sand previously watered, only later to return. Like King Canute, we are not masters of the tides but on them are carried in and out.

This experience is painful but familiar to those who come close to people who are seen as different and who seek more humane and rational treatment of them. Those pressing for a more just response to people who seek protection in Australia, for example, have seen small incremental improvements based in compassion followed by a receding tide of absurdity and naked indecency.

This pattern is also found in attitudes to children. Once depicted as small adults from whom was expected responsible adult behaviour and whose failures were punished in the belief that punishment would promote change, children are now seen as persons at various stages of development. Corporal punishment in schools is regarded and sanctioned as barbaric, the stages of brain development and its consequence for children’s responsibility for their actions are recognised, and children’s dependence for their development in a nurturing home is widely accepted. The media images of children are attractive and usually in the company of caring adults. They project innocence. This is the highwater mark.

Some children, however are seen as different, and attitudes to them are regulated by the old proverb: ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. To be spoiled is to be rotten and to be put out with the rubbish. For these different children psychological science and the lessons of experience are forgotten and the logic of punishment rules. This bifurcated attitude to children means that in social policies to deal with children’s antisocial behaviour any tide of reform can quickly and destructively ebb.

The most notable recent example of this turning of the tide can be seen in the Northern Territory. Photographs of large and menacing guards standing over traumatised, hooded children in the Don Dale detention centre cell shocked people by its dissonance with how children ought to be treated. The public reaction led to a Royal Commission that recommended closing the Centre as unfit for children.


The tidal movement from treating children as persons each with their own dignity, and worthy of respect and of encouragement to a good future, to treating them as adult and incorrigible criminals worthy only of punishment is both irrational and injurious of society as well as of the children themselves.


It also sketched a policy that gave priority to prevention and rehabilitation in response to antisocial behaviour by children. More recently, however, after media focus on misbehaviour by young people in the Northern Territory, the Government has introduced electronic monitoring systems and detention for breaches of bail. To cater for the expected increase in the number of incarcerated children it will refurbish Don Dale.

The tidal movement from treating children as persons each with their own dignity, and worthy of respect and of encouragement to a good future, to treating them as adult and incorrigible criminals worthy only of punishment is both irrational and injurious of society as well as of the children themselves. Yet it is deeply rooted in the mindset of all Australian Governments. It enshrines the division between good and bad children.

The litmus test of such an attitude is the age of criminal responsibility that governs the age at which children can be tried and held criminally at-fault for their decisions and actions. Scientific studies judge that the human brain does not grow to full maturity until we are in our twenties. This implies that people under that age are more malleable and so can be more easily encouraged to take responsibility for their actions. It implies also that they are more impulsive, more influenced by peer group pressure and less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions. These factors mean that they are less responsible for their actions. Both concern for their future and respect for the human reality of childhood demand that when they misbehave they should be regarded and treated as children, not as adults.


‘The alternative is an effective, humane youth justice system that addresses the root causes of anti-social behaviour and supports children to take responsibility for their actions, and to connect or reconnect with family, education and culture within the community.’


The costs to society of a punitive approach to the antisocial behaviour of children are heavy. It puts detention at the centre.  Imprisonment has been shown to increase the likelihood that adults will reoffend and again be imprisoned. Children who have been in detention are also much more likely to graduate to adult jails than those on diversionary programs. This is not surprising. If they are taken away from family and friends into an environment in which their daily priority is to survive, in the company of peers who may suffer disproportionately from mental illness, may lack control over their impulses, are without mentors in positive living, and denied freedom, they are unlikely to return to grow in the skills, the self-knowledge and the motivation needed to live constructively in the community.

Despite all this, Australian Governments continue to baulk at a decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility even to fourteen years old. Across all Australian states and territories, it remains at 10. And they continue to build detention centres for children at a heavy financial and personal cost. If children are indeed the future of society, it is a large thing to deprive them of a life connected with society in order to feed and then placate the anxiety of the crowd.

The alternative is an effective, humane youth justice system that addresses the root causes of anti-social behaviour and supports children to take responsibility for their actions, and to connect or reconnect with family, education and culture within the community. It also develops culturally specific approaches to engage effectively with Aboriginal children, who regularly comprise 100 per cent of children in the Northern Territory’s detention system.

In this framework, detention will be used only as a last resort, and children under the age of 14 who engage in anti-social behaviour are supported in the community with a focus on their wellbeing. These are the cornerstones of responsible policy.

As the National Justice Symposium co-presented by Jesuit Social Services and NAAJA to be held in Alice Springs and online this week on youth justice shows, such programs have greatly reduced recidivism in jurisdictions where it has been implemented. It is based on respect for the humanity of the children involved and on the study of their neurological development. If it is to be borne on the incoming tide, the turning point will be raising the age of criminal responsibility.




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

Main image: Barbed wire at sunset (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, juvenile detention, criminal respibsibility, raise the age, lockdown, Northern Territor



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Existing comments

Good old tides, predictable to the minute and millimeters which they'll behave whereas a revolution which recycles similarly but less regularly doesn't have that prophetic poetry. I'm not sure why Andrew uses tidal nuances of exposure at ebb or carrying forward when inevitably whatever the flow might shift or reveal must become swallowed up unless it's flotsam or jetsam in some endless watery pendulum. The metaphor is a bit washed up unless there's some expectations that any revelations will be covered up again. Sure, 10 is too young to lock a child up in detention, even if they've comitted a criminal act. Much like a person who has lost their faculties, overdosed or self-harmed it'd not be unreasonable to consider that the child who clearly has an incapacity to demonstrate that they are no threat to themselves or others be retained under observations by trained medical staff, in a psych ward. I guess it'd be clearer if we knew the reasons for mistreatment in detention were wholly by brutal guards but I respectfully suggest that the child's behaviors and attitudes which have already landed them in confinement might be better handled by those trained in the vulnerable rather than incorrigible.

ray | 28 July 2021  

St Ignatius Loyola is credited with the axiom "Give me the boy to the age of seven and I will give you the man" - or words to that effect. More modern psychologists disagree and suggest that the first three years of growing into independent childhood are the most critical in directing the child's future behaviour. However, problematic behaviour can still be modified by corrective management for some years after the age of three. If these dictums are indeed correct then it must mean that we are not addressing the likely cause of what is perceived as antisocial behaviour in children which is seemingly more common in Aboriginal children. In this society, like it or not, we are all stuck with the system regardless of ethnicity, skin colour or any other characteristic, identifying trait. Clearly, children who are perceived to have misbehaved against the expectations of this society are blameless as individuals and are merely products of their early formation. Incarceration will not change that. Their early formation has to change through education, primarily of those responsible for their child's formation in the legal provisions and restraints that make society a just and better society for all who live in it. Until that happens, unformed (not brain washed) children will be at odds with wider society and suffer as a result. Clearly, for the society in which we live, parents must accept the responsibility of nurturing and teaching their children to live in that society regardless of ethnic or other discriminatory indicators. That does not mean that cultural identifiers or beliefs have to be abandoned. Otherwise, things will never change for the better.

john frawley | 29 July 2021  

Purgatory exists because there is a moral connection between remission and the condition of repentance. Prison exists because there is a bookkeeping connection between remission and the condition of repentance. Whether child or adult, the question is how best to snatch a moral remission out of the jaws of a bookkeeping one.

roy chen yee | 29 July 2021  

To treat a child as a criminal is criminal. Once, we were taught to observe and carefully note children's behaviors as messages. The remarkable thing to me is, though, is that you don't need training to ask a child what is wrong. Often enough, it turns out they are trying to ask for help for the adults in their lives. The problems of our dysfunctional society are way too often carried on the smallest, least able of shoulders. I can certainly see the ebbtide at play. It is a dog of a job these days to find research and programs that are properly evaluated and show results eg Newpin parenting skills for single fathers or effecting longterm positive outcomes with early intervention for children under 3yrs (20yrs ago, a dollar spent on a preschooler in a vulnerable family saved 7 by the time they are 16yrs). But I have come to think children are simply grist for the economic mill. Treated as the fault of their owner, much as a new handbag might be, discarded if the zip breaks. Hoovered up in a refined blame 'n shame game and shunted down the line until they land in a prison then rinse and repeat. To the point Australia might yet achieve US stats where more kids are incarcerated than educated. And it's not just children being routinely incarcerated and brutalised. One of Victoria's biggest spends at present is building prisons for adults. So long as we keep trading away education (such as Shepparton's 'super school') and keep criminalising poverty, enough adults and children can be found to feed the profit mill. It costs us all, but as ever, it's the smallest and the least able who pay the greatest price. A footnote: here is an update on the person who was in charge at the time of the Don Dale exposure https://www.newsroom.co.nz/investigations/whos-running-our-youth-justice-residences

Catarina Neve | 30 July 2021  

Well expressed Andrew, I am one of the generations where the strap and cane were used to excess to 'correct' deviant behavior, whether by omission or intent . It's an unpleasant memory I will carry to my grave. I was in the teaching game during the period it was phrased out of our schools without a well thought out alternative strategy . The inability of Governments to move the age of criminality upwards appears to reflect society's reluctance to accept that anti social behavior by children is often born of disadvantage in their families. It is now well overdue for Governments to address the social issues surrounding child and juvenile crime .placing young people in detention is obviously not the solution, the Neo liberal approach . Addressing social disadvantage is a step forward .The scenes from the ABC' TV s ' 4 Corners' on the Don Dale Detention Centre haunt me today.

Gavin O'Brien | 30 July 2021  

There is one problem with supporting these children to reconnect with family and education. Most are in out-of-home care and cannot reconnect with family in a meaningful way and most suffer from significant learning disorders that prevent them from reconnecting with education. We need to think about disability as well as immaturity with this population.

Margaret Perkins | 30 July 2021  

The prior discussion, largely engaged in by jaundiced old men like me, cannot cheat a second death but hasn't learnt from the first one: the one that the ancients judged the harder of the two. To step into the fountain of youth was the medieval world's popular, pie-in-the-sky short-cut to paradise, involving obeying-the-rules, cultivating a short-back-and-sides persona, and voila! No chickeny bits for growing taut again, except for those well-versed, like us, in playing the game. None of the bureaucracy of divine judgment and soul-weighing for us, because we soon learnt to enforce those rules ourselves. Oh, how I fear this journal becoming a cryonophile's delight, with so many symptoms, well on show, of in-growing, fungus-infected toe-nailism and quite a few other symptoms of decrepitude and 'fings-just-aren't-wot-they-are-like'ism. Would instead that life came with a wind-back button so we could experience it from the other side. How many here wander into the hallways of the schools we teach, the meetings frontline workers attend, into the highways and byways where kids roam. When kids learn to survive in the trenches it shouldn't surprise that they behave like warriors. Its in getting our hands dirty that we make headway in creating a more just world. Their personal landscape has been evolving since they were very young though with some of the best examples of unseen human courage and tenacity in the struggle for survival. Where do we create opportunities for kids to share their personal stories of triumph, tribulations, and courage in their daily struggles? Where do we speak from a point of encounter, a common space where we can share with discarded kids our experience of their conditions to form a better way forward?

Michael Furtado | 31 July 2021  
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Oh Micheal how sad.....

Lynne Newington | 02 August 2021  

One thing for sure Covid has no favorites, there's no church law that can protect clergy.....

Lynne Newington | 02 August 2021