The Guardian • Issue #2078


How we treat our children, what it says about us

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2078

The treatment of children has a huge emotional pull, with good reason. Children depend on adults for the basics of life. They are more fragile than adults in many ways, and harm done to them is lifelong. How a society treats its children says a lot about that society. Because of this, children are often used as a weapon in arguments; the famous ‘won’t somebody think about the children!’ line from The Simpsons parodies adults who use children as some kind of trump card in arguments.

Capitalist societies claim to care for children, but put them behind ‘tax payer’s money’ and ‘law and order’ when it comes to the crunch.

In Australia, we have recently had adult treatment of children that does not reflect well on the adult society they live in. An example from New South Wales is the recent news of the STMP.

STMP stands for Suspect Targeted Management Plan. An attempt at systematic ‘pre-emptive’ policing. The idea is simple; police find people who are ‘likely’ to commit crimes in future, and target those people with interventions and heavy-handed policing to try to prevent those crimes. What’s wrong with the program is also simple – letting police harass people just because police think they might commit crimes at some stage invites all sorts of injustice.

The people singled out by STMP included children.  It has been shown by Dr Vicki Sentas, lecturer in law at University of New South Wales that the STMP was “heavy-handed, excessive, and oppressive,” and that it was especially damaging for Indigenous people and young people. Dr Sentas found that the police targeted children as young as 10. One family was about to move home after their son was stopped and searched hundreds of times.

It’s notable that STMP was only stopped after Dr Sentas and lawyers in community legal centres did the hard yards of building and reporting solid evidence of the harm it was doing.

Another case in point, in the Northern Territory, where spit hoods are still being used on children as young as 12 years old, years after the 2016 Four Corners report that led to a Royal Commission and a supposed overhaul of the NT justice system.

A more general example is the recent nationwide hysteria over raising the age of criminal responsibility. The ACT has raised it to 14, the NT has it at 12, other states are still at 10, or like Tasmania, have a bet both ways with a category of ‘youth’ offences from 10-18. Children who are still developing, who we don’t allow to drive or vote, are being treated as adults by the justice system.

It’s very telling that an argument state governments gave against raising the age of criminal responsibility was a  “lack of alternatives” to imprisonment. There are alternatives, but these cost money, and require governments with courage to ignore pressure from corporate tabloid media which switches from ‘think of the children’ to ‘be tough on crime’ in an instant.

In socialist Cuba, by way of contrast, the age of criminal responsibility is the same as the voting age – 16. Cuba does not have jails full of young people because children are respected as people rather than as a means to an end, and due to a variety of rehabilitative programs there are very few people under 35 in the country’s prison system.

How we treat our children says a lot about our society. We could do a lot better by having a society that values children, and adults as people in their own right, not as moving parts in a capitalist system.

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