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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
the Australian Association
for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH)
Prepared by Dr
Rosalind Powrie, BMBS, FRANZCP.
The Australian Association
for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) is the Australian Affiliate of the World
Association for Infant Mental Health. It aims to improve professional
and public recognition that infancy is a critical period in psychosocial
development for infants and the family and to provide a focus for multidisciplinary
interaction and co-operation for those who are involved and interested
in working with infants and caregivers.
In carrying out its
aims the Association prepares reports and submissions to governments,
other authorities, organizations and individuals on matters relating to
infant and family health and welfare. The Association is pleased to take
the opportunity to present such a report to the Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
particularly in relation to infants and very young children.
of this Submission
In keeping with the
submission guidelines and the specific experience and expertise of AAIMH
the following areas relating to immigration detention and children will
The psychological and social well being and development of infants and
young children and their families in immigration detention.
health of refugee parents-impacts on young children
effect of detention on parenting
of infants and young children in detention
Specific services required for young children and pregnant women in
detention and on their release into the community.
Culture and its influence on the psychosocial well being of infants
and their parents.
The impact of detention on the well being of young children.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to child asylum
The psychological and social well being and development of infants and
young children in immigration detention.
The following factors
provide a context for understanding the impact of detention on young refugee
children and their families as they are well recognized as critical for
the healthy emotional and social development of young children.
- During the first
three years of life the brain develops to 90% of adult size and is extremely
sensitive to environmental influences. The human brain is therefore
most vulnerable to disruptive and traumatising experiences during this
time (Perry 1996).
- Fundamental to
the child's earliest experiences is the attachment relationship with
his or her primary caregiver(s). In most cases this will be the mother
initially but may equally involve the father and other close family
- A healthy and
secure attachment during infancy is built by repetitive and finely tuned
interactions between caregiver and child and there is a critical period
for its development during the first year of life.
- Infants are biologically
programmed to elicit these attachment behaviours from their carers in
order for them to survive and thrive. Factors crucial in this process
are the emotional availability of the caregiver to "tune"
into the infant's signals and cues and respond accordingly. Examples
include holding and comforting, making eye contact, face to face interactions,
positive touch, the use of smell, touch and sound, playing, smiling,
talking with babies.
- Through these
sensory interactions with the caregiver the infant learns how to regulate
his or her emotional state and control distress which is important in
the development of emotional stability and socialisation.
- Parental mental
ill health, overwhelming stress, social disadvantage, and poor education
or knowledge about child rearing, can all lead to disruption in the
development of secure attachment relationships, which in turn has an
effect on the infant's developing brain, sometimes with irreversible
consequences for the infant's capacity to think, feel and form meaningful
stable relationships. These consequences can continue on through childhood
and into adult life.
- The longer term
consequences of this disruption or dysfunction in the parent-infant
relationship can be prevented through targeted early intervention (Kowalenko,Barnett,Fowler,Matthey
- Parents from
differing cultures rear their children in ways which will best ensure
their survival and socialisation according to their culture's norms
and values. This means that healthy child rearing can be accomplished
in diverse ways and generally occurs when parents themselves are healthy,
well informed have had adequate parenting themselves and are not harassed
by poverty or other overwhelming stressors (Wolff 1994).
With this general
understanding of the importance of early care giving on the mental health
and development of children, specific factors for young refugee children
in detention need to be understood.
In general, refugees
experience very high rates of mental ill health and psychological distress
( RANZCP College Statement #46).
Refugee parents may
have experienced torture, imprisonment, persecution and institutional
violence by the political regimes of their country of origin, or have
witnessed a spouse or close family members undergoing such experiences.
Many families prior
to detention in Australia have experienced long and perilous journeys
and been in transit for months or years in refugee camps or in countries
where they have had no citizenship rights, lived in very poor and overcrowded
housing and where basic needs have been barely met. Children are conceived
and born in such situations of deprivation, uncertainty and with minimal
or no health care.
and poor mental health is often chronic and continues after re-settlement
and acquisition of relative safety. This stems from a myriad of complex
factors including the consequences of traumatic stress, enormous grief
and loss, social and cultural dislocation, language barriers, ongoing
fears for family and friends left behind, physical health problems, loss
of status and acculturation stressors.
Refugees in detention
experience, in addition, ongoing uncertainty regarding their immigration
status. This, of course, impacts on their mental health more acutely.
The effects of these
factors and forces will compromise many refugee parents' capacity to care
for their children.
both parental depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (common in
adult refugees) have direct effects on the development of infants and
post-traumatic symptoms are often extremely irritable, have unstable moods
and poorer impulse control. Infants experience these moods and behaviours
as frightening and in turn are unintentionally traumatised by the parents'
symptoms. This sets in train a series of difficult interactions, which
if not alleviated, can lead to an insecure attachment and poorer social,
cognitive and emotional outcomes for the child.
It is well known
that depressed mothers in turn are less sensitive to their infants and
are less likely to talk and look at their infants. In extreme cases this
can result in emotional and physical neglect resulting in the infant's
failure to thrive.
populations, depression in mothers (and mothers in immigration detention
are profoundly disadvantaged) has been shown to produce severe disturbances
in the mother-infant interaction (Murray et al 1996).
Parents who are emotionally
unavailable and irritable will experience difficulty managing the normal
oppositional behaviour of toddlers leading to an increased risk of coercive
and abusive discipline. Boys are particularly at risk of later anti-social
behaviour and cognitive impairment in this context (Sharp 1995).
The following anecdotes
illustrate the difficulties in recognition and prompt treatment of mental
health problems of families in detention and the adverse consequences
for their children
I saw had a generalized anxiety disorder. Her two and a half year old
was accidentally burnt by her when she spilt a cup of tea on his leg.
The burn was minor but to reassure the mother they were both admitted
to the local hospital. The mother then became even more anxious. The child
refused to walk and would only lie curled up in the foetal position in
the mother's lap. This situation went on for some weeks until eventually
the mother was given counselling and things improved."
(Dr Simon Lockwood, G.P., Woomera Detention Centre)
with a 5 month old baby presented with concerns about harming her child.
The baby was removed from her care by child protection services and placed
with another family in detention. The mother was severely depressed and
possibly psychotic. She was finally admitted to the local hospital with
her baby and treated with medication. It was reported she recovered and
is back in detention with her baby."
(Dr Fiona Hawker, Psychiatrist, Rural & Remote Mental Health
In this case adult
mental health services had recommended an admission to a specialised mother
infant unit which did not occur.
It is not known what,
if any, after-care this mother and her infant were offered. Post-partum
depression with intent to harm oneself or the infant is a medical emergency.
It usually requires
immediate hospitalisation preferably in a specialised mother infant facility
to ensure safety of both, treatment of the mother's illness and also to
prevent separation of mother and child which can be detrimental to the
attachment relationship. In addition, specific treatment for the mother-infant
relationship is usually required, or at least needs to be monitored.
The effects of institutional
living on parents in detention undermines and significantly limits their
already compromised capacity to nurture and protect their children. There
is little privacy for families, individuals are identified by numbers
not name, parents lose their roles and responsibilities, there is regimentation,
constant surveillance and in at least some detention centres, sparse recreation
facilities for families.
parents of young children become completely disempowered . They cannot
cook for their children or do anything for their kids. They lose their
self-esteem they stop caring. Most of the parents I see have mental
health problems, many of the mothers are depressed. Mothers of toddlers
often don't care if they turn up for meals or if they wander off .mothers
and children housed outside detention in the community housing project
in Woomera do better. These children are better fed, and clothed, mothers
are able to look after them better."
(Dr Simon Lockwood, G.P., Woomera Detention Centre)
Parents feel helpless,
despairing and enormously guilty because they are unable to help improve
their children's situation. Pregnant women in isolated centres such as
Woomera experience further trauma and loss through the accepted practice
of transferring women at 36 weeks gestation to regional hospitals for
delivery. This vignette describes one such experience for a mother and
her family with young children
A couple with
a 2 year old and a baby aged 5 months repeatedly begged, "Please
take our children, find a place for them away from here. He will change
to a savage not a human. Please do something for a family to adopt him
until we can care for him again. He doesn't trust in us anymore. He can't
play, he won't eat, he can't sleep well".
This family had
spent 9 months in detention and had recently had their application for
refugee status refused. Mrs Z had her first child in the Middle East,
in a normal, uncomplicated delivery and had breastfed him for 12 months.
She was too distressed to tell me about the second child's birth so the
story came from her husband. During the interview she was expressionless
and almost mute, occasionally tears coursing down her face. She cared
for her infant in a mechanically adequate way with no animation. She appeared
helpless in the face of her older son's behaviour.
Her second child
was born in a hospital 200 kms away by caesarian section that she says
she did not understand or consent to. This occurred after a period of
4 weeks enforced bed rest, away from her husband and son, under guard
in the hospital. She did not see her baby for some days and could not
breast feed when she was returned to her. She was returned to the centre
one week after delivery and given no follow up, apart from occasional
visits to the detention centre nurse, who gave her panadol and wound dressings
but did not help Mrs Z dress or clean her wound. The wound continued to
weep for 6 weeks and remains painful. She feels violated and disenfranchised.
The 2 year olds behaviour deteriorated during and after his separation
from her. The parent's relationship was also clearly under stress, "He
says I should be getting better everyday, instead I am getting worse".
The toddler was
indeed angry and disruptive. He threw any offered toys away and spat at
people, he attempted to eat bits of foam that lay on the floor. He repeatedly
leave the room and when he succeeded, wandered quite far until returned
by a guard. His father said " You see his behaviour ? It is because
we are sad and weeping all the time. He has lost his trust in us ..
His wife had an
air of despair. She attempted to limit her son's behaviour but soon gave
up. She asked to leave the interview to take him back to the compound.
She remained quiet and withdrawn occasionally weeping throughout the interview,
initially placing the baby in his pram in the corner of the room, facing
the wall. She fed her without eye contact The infant (at a developmental
stage when most babies interact socially at every opportunity), made no
attempt at eye contact and looked profoundly sad. She made little sound
or complaint, but later became more animated when direct attempts were
made by the interviewer to smile at and talk with her.
Mr Z feels unable
to protect his children, impotent and trapped, reduced to less than human
himself and unable to fulfill his role as father and husband. I asked
whether his desire to have the children placed with another family came
out of fear that he might hurt his child, and he said, partly this was
true, relating an attempt to cut his own and his son's throat when their
refugee application was rejected after 8 months of waiting. He says he
was only stopped from hurting himself and his child by other detainees."
(This vignette submitted
by Dr Sarah Mares, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist )
Clearly parents who
are disempowered and depressed are less able to protect their children.
In addition, events in the Woomera Detention Centre and to a lesser extent
other centres have demonstrated without any doubt that detention is a
dangerous place for children. Children of all ages have been exposed directly
to adult violence, riots, hunger strikes, self mutilation and attempted
suicide by other detainees. As there is no separate accommodation for
families children are exposed to the extreme acting out and despair of
adult detainees including in some cases their own parents.
have been burnt down in 18 months, there is no pre-school- any equipment
supplied to younger children is destroyed by the adolescent or adult male
detainees women and children need to be moved out .they cannot
be protected in detention.
(Dr Simon Lockwood, G.P., Woomera Detention Centre)
Toddlers and pre-schoolers
are exhibiting phobias and other forms of traumatic anxiety when exposed
to reminders of violence in Woomera such as fire trucks and tractors.
These anxieties continue on release into the community and cause disability.
For instance, a three year old has, since his family's release to Adelaide,
continued to exhibit phobias from his detention experience - even cyclone
fencing causes him distress. (personal communication, Steve Thompson,
Psychologist, STTARS - Survivors of Torture, Trauma and Rehabilitation
While symptoms of
trauma and distress may be more obvious in older children, infants only
present with global problems in physical functioning- settling, feeding
or sleeping difficulties, listlessness, apathy or irritability ( Schwartz
et al 1994) which is likely to go unrecognised by staff in detention centres.
trauma and developmental harm detected and what services are required
to treat infants and young children
Assessing young children
for trauma related developmental harm and attachment difficulties requires
specialised skills. Prompt access to child mental health services which
can assist and support primary health workers or provide a direct service
to refugee families is essential for such assessment.
Assessments of the
parent's capacity to provide consistent protection, nurturing and stimulation
appropriate to the developmental level of the child need to occur through
direct observation of carer and infant and by assessing the mental health
problems of parents. Parents require prompt access to mental health services
to identify and treat these problems, and support in parenting their children
whilst this occurs.
The child's family
is central to the child's recovery from developmental harm. Refugee families
will require continuing and high level support to assist with the many
and ongoing environmental stressors they experience during detention and
on release to enable the child's safety to be ensured over time.
refugee parents and their infants should follow best practice guidelines
in infant mental health this means high quality ante-natal and peri-natal
care including screening for ante-natal and post-natal depression, parenting
education, appropriate language and cognitive stimulation for children,
regular visitation in their place of residence, family support, and the
gamut of well baby care offered in the community.
All of these interventions
must be delivered by services and persons who are culturally sensitive
and inclusive of the values and beliefs of refugee families. Specialist
refugee services, bilingual and bicultural workers should be utilised
and work in collaboration with mainstream health services.
However a fundamental
condition which must be met in order for any intervention to work is the
child's safety. Detention poses, by its very nature ongoing threats to
the physical and emotional health of children and therefore will undermine
any therapeutic interventions and efforts.
and its influence on the mental health of families
Infants begin learning
about their culture from birth through the daily caregiving they receive.
Cultural beliefs and practices give meaning to everyday life. Refugee
families experience enormous cultural loss and bereavement on arrival
in Australia and invariably experience "culture shock", the
disorientation and confusion associated with attempts to understand new
lifestyles, social structures, the geography, and the educational, health,
welfare, legal and government systems which they must negotiate in order
A strong sense of
cultural identity and maintaining access to one's cultural and religious
community (religious figures, schools, education and other resources)
can enhance resilience and coping in the face of these tumultuous changes.
Detention, by its
institutional nature must severely reduce the opportunities for families
to practise their culture and religion because they simply do not have
access to like communities, places of worship, rituals and activities
of cultural significance.
of Immigration Detention on the well being of children
The evidence previously
cited and the vignettes discussed show that the policy of mandatory detention
of families who seek asylum in Australia has direct and harmful consequences
for families of all children- infants and young children being especially
vulnerable. In summary
- Infants and young
children are placed in a physically harsh and restricted environment
with inadequate space and facilities for safe play and development.
- The detention
environment is dehumanizing. For example, children witness their parents
and themselves being introduced and identified by number not name, and
subjected to the daily humiliations that detention involves.
- Children witness
their parents' powerlessness in the face of the institutional environment.
- They are exposed
to adults who are depressed angry and suicidal.
- Their parents
are unable to protect them from witnessing the violence and despair
of adults living with them.
- The parents themselves
inevitably feel hopeless and guilty, in part with the recognition that
they are exposing their children to their own despair and unable to
make their circumstances better.
- The extent of
untreated trauma and depression in some of these parents puts their
children at risk of emotional neglect and physical and emotional abuse.
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and children in Immigration
The rights of child
detainees in Australia are far from being met under the Convention for
reasons already outlined in this submission. These include the right to
- family life and
to be with parents unless separation is in their best interests
- highest attainable
standard of health
- protection from
all forms of physical or mental violence and the right to recover and
be rehabilitated from neglect and abuse
- practise their
culture, language and religion
- rest and play
- primary education
and secondary education
- appropriate protection
and humanitarian assistance
- not be deprived
of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily with detention only in conformity
with the law, and as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible
period of time.
- be treated with
humanity and respect for their inherent dignity and in a manner which
takes into account their age
- access to legal
assistance and the right to challenge their detention
- not be subjected
to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
- Continued long
term detention of young children and their families is unjustifiable
on developmental, medical and mental health grounds. Provision must
be made immediately for child asylum seekers and their parents to be
housed in the community and not held in detention centres. Immigration
detention is directly and indirectly traumatizing for infants, children
and their families. The impact of living in this environment compounds
existing problems experienced by parents already compromised by past
trauma, loss and continuing uncertainty about their future. Mental health
interventions and services will be ineffectual in this context of ongoing
- Children and
their parents must have access to the full range of health services
available in the community including adult and child and adolescent
mental health, early childhood and disability services and bicultural
workers. These are most likely to be available in urban or large regional
- Pregnant refugee
women must have access to high quality antenatal care which ensures
they are fully informed and consent to the type of child birth options
available to them. All efforts must be made to prevent prolonged separations
from pregnant mothers who have other young children. After delivery
mothers must have access to perinatal mental health services and mother-infant
- State and Federal
governments must make clear and immediate agreements to ensure that
the best interests of child asylum seekers are upheld in delivering
health and welfare services to them.
Kowalenko, N., Barnett,
B., Fowler, C., Matthey, S., (2000) The Perinatal Period Early Interventions
for Mental Health. Vol 4 in R Kosky,A Hanlon, G Martin& C Davis (Series
Eds.), Clinical Approaches to early intervention in child and adolescent
mental health. Adelaide: Australian Early Intervention Network for Mental
Health in Young People
A., Hooper, R., Stein, A, and Cooper, P., (1996) The cognitive development
of 5-year-old children of post-natally depressed mothers. Journal of Child
Psychology & Psychiatry & Related Disciplines, 37(8).927-935
Perry, B., Pollard,
R., Blakley, T., Baker, W., Vigilante, D. (1995) Childhood Trauma, the
Neurobiology of Adaptation and Use-dependant Development of the Brain:How
states become Traits, Infant Mental Health Journal 16 (4) 271 - 291.
RANZCP (2000) Position
Statement #46 Principles on the provision of mental health services to
Sharp, D., Hay, D.,
Pawlby, S., Schmucker, G., Allen, H.& Kumar, R.(1995) The impact of
post-natal depression on boy's intellectual development. Journal of Child
Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1315-1336
Schwarz, E., Perry,
B.,(1994) The Post-traumatic response in children and adolescents. Psychiatric
Clinics of North America, 17(2): 311-326
Wolff, S., (1994)
The Scope of Infant Mental Health: Pointers to helpful interventions Newsletter
of the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health, Vol 6,4, December
On behalf of AAIMH
I would like to thank Dr. Sarah Mares and Dr. Louise Newman for their
helpful comments and contributions in the preparation of this submission.
Updated 9 January 2003.