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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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Submission to National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

The School of Education and

Early Childhood Studies,University of Western Sydney

Prepared by Criss

Morandini, Cathie Harrison, Leonie Arthur and Bronwyn Beecher

3rd May, 2002



stories of three children in detention at Villawood


- a girl aged fifteen months

- a boy eight years old
A - a girl aged seven


impact of stress and trauma on children's development and learning


impact of detention on children's psychosocial development


rights to play and education



University of Western Sydney, Bankstown Campus is located approximately

twenty minutes from Villawood Detention Centre. Within the School of Education

and Early Childhood Studies there is a strong commitment to social justice

and to the celebration of diversity. The undergraduate early childhood

program developed by academics at the university promotes awareness of

the rights of children and encourages students as early childhood professionals

to become informed advocates for the rights and well being of children

within diverse communities both in Australia and within a global context.

A number of early childhood students and staff are members of the Early

Childhood Social Justice Group. The awareness of the importance of early

care giving on the mental health and development of children, familiarity

with current research on child development, play and learning has motivated

intense concern and distress amongst both students and staff regarding

the current government policy and practices in relation to children in


As part of the strong

commitment to the rights of all children the early childhood team at UWS

Bankstown has undertaken visitation to Villawood Detention Centre. Chris

Morandini, a casual lecturer at the university, has established connections

with a number of families at Villawood Detention Centre. She has visited

families and children and used play equipment from the early childhood

resource centre at the university to support young refugee children and

their families. Students are also currently involved in developing play

resources to share with children in detention. The following documents

the experience of three families within Villawood Detention Centre.


stories of three children in detention at Villawood - Chris Morandini


- a girl aged fifteen months

On one of my first

visits to Villawood Detention Centre I met S. S was in Villawood Detention

Centre with her mother and father. At this time it was clear that S's

mother had severe mental health issues. Her mental health subsequently

deteriorated to a stage where she had acute depression and other severe

symptoms of physical illness. Although clearly in a very distressed state

and although many other refugee families expressed concern for her it

was only the intervention of concerned visitors from outside that enabled

S's mother to get some psychological support. She was eventually assessed

by an independent psychiatrist and moved to the Psychiatric Unit at Bankstown

Hospital, Banks House.

What did this mean

for Baby S aged fifteen months? With her mother in psychiatric care and

her father also deeply distressed I observed that other detainee families,

particularly the women took on the significant caring role for a child

so young. The family separation and the additional trauma of this situation

occurred at a critical time in S's development. It is during the first

two years that the formation of secure attachment and bonding is most

critical for subsequent development. This situation is therefore of great


As a visitor from

the Australian community and as an early childhood professional it is

difficult to comprehend why such a situation was allowed to occur without

prior intervention. It was the concern of detainees and others outside

that eventually resulted in a response. Without such advocacy S's mother

would most likely have stayed in the Detention Centre unattended. This

situation has huge implications for the long- term well being of the child.

Both the child and her mother are now in Banks House with an ACM guard

at the door. One is forced to consider the first 15 months of this child's

life and what we have offered her in Australia? Where is the evidence

of the Australian commitment to the United Nation's Rights of the Child

for Baby S?


- a boy eight years old

Since coming to

Australia H and his family have resided in three different states. He

and his family have spent time in Port Headland Detention Centre in Western

Australia, Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia and now Villawood

Detention Centre in New South Wales. H. has an older sister M., just sixteen

and an older brother M. around seventeen years of age. His family is from


On my first meeting

with H. I asked him about his interests via his sister as interpreter.

H did not make eye contact with me or M. His dark brown eyes looked glassy.

"I don't know. Nothing, nothing," he said. Dr R., a doctor

of medicine, from Afghanistan said, 'You see he is not interested in

things. He is not happy and just wants to sit around. This is what detention

does to children". My observations confirmed Doctor R's assessment

of H. H. was lethargic, irritable sad and depressed.

On my second visit,

accompanied by an early childhood student, I met with H's family and Dr.

R. Dr R. and I initially sat on the edge of the soft fall surface of the

play equipment in the visitor's yard. Dr R had searched for visitors'

chairs for his guests and had been apologetic when unable to find any.

It was as if he was searching for a way to be hospitable in an environment

that offered little in the way of hospitality. The student and I set out

the large game of snakes and ladders that we had brought. Then the children

from different cultural groups came over and joined in the game and played

together. H seemed more responsive and active on this visit and used his

skills to take control of the turn taking of other player in the game.

He was in charge and appeared to enjoy this temporary sense of control

so lacking in other aspects of his life. Dr R responded with interest

and acted as mediator, reminding children that landing on the snake's

head meant sliding back. Adults and children played alongside each other

during this experience becoming immersed in it and happily unaware of

the surrounding situation at least temporarily. For a time we were no

longer visitors to prisoners in a detention centre but friends playing


During my most recent

visit to Villawood detention centre H was happily running around excitedly

as a visitor had given him a Game Boy with a Pokemon Game.

H's family are returning

to Iraq next week. They spoke about being unsure of what they would find

when they returned but said that they would be glad to be out of detention

and that some how they would live in a community again even with all the

uncertainty that this held. They believed that it had to be a better life

than they had experienced since coming to Australia and spending time

in Port Headland, Woomera and Villawood Detention Centres.


a girl aged seven

A is a member of

a refugee family consisting of mother, father and four children. Following

a riot in one detention centre A's family were separated. The father,

older brother and mother were sent to prison as result of damage that

occurred during the riot. The youngest children were sent to separate

detention centres. A., the youngest, was being cared for by other detainee

families at Villawood Detention Centre.

The family was eventually

reunited at Villawood. The family members experienced varying lengths

of internment with the father being the last to be released after a period

of some months. The family commented that since coming to Australia they

had only experienced incarceration. The mother explained that they felt

that there were 'no kind people in Australia' but said that it

is better now 'at Villawood visitors started to come.' She described

how they started to meet some kind people from the community… She

explained that after visit of a 'kind Australian' she rang her

husband and said that 'there was some kindness here, that there are

some kind people here and that there are some kind people who will come

and visit you.'

This family that

had survived significant trauma before coming to Australia then experienced

the trauma associated with detention and the rioting that has occurred

within detention centres. The reaction to the riot, the family split up

and the isolation of the family members within different detention centres

exacerbated this situation. The effects of such traumas are evident in

the behaviour of children like A, who show very little eye contact. While

being very polite and following adult guidance the interactions and connection

with others appears to be very non specific with little evidence of attachment,

trust or security. The lack of bonding and linking with adults, and the

absence of specific family ties or connections with parents is clearly

evident. The children seem to have adopted a number of coping mechanisms

and at times the randomness of interactions is disturbing.

Miles and Huberman

(1994, p1) suggested that 'words especially organised in to incidents

or stories have a concrete and meaningful flavour that often proves far

more convincing to a reader, another researcher, policy maker or practitioner

than pages of summarised numbers.' The documentation of the experiences

of these three children and their families provides powerful evidence

and insights into the lived experience of children and families in detention.

The Australian response to their experiences is a tragedy that cannot


Early childhood research

and knowledge provides evidence of both the short and long term negative

impact of incarceration on children, as outlined below.


impact of stress and trauma on children's development and learning

Current research

on brain development highlights the early years as being a critical period

for children's development and learning. The human brain is most vulnerable

to disruptive and traumatising experiences during the first three years

of life (Perry et al 1996, Shore, 1997).

Parents and children

who are seeking assylum have already suffered stress and trauma in their

country of origin and on the journey to Australia. Placing them in detention

further exacerbates this stress and trauma. Brain research indicates that

"early experiences of trauma …can interfere with the development

of the…brain, resulting in extreme anxiety, depression, and/or the

inability to form healthy attachments to others …and can also impair

cognitive abilities" (Shore, 1997:xi). This is clearly evident in

the stories of depressed children at Villawood Detention Centre outlined

by Chris Morandini.

This stress and trauma

places children at risk of developing problems in later life. Children

need to be safeguarded from harm. They need to be in a safe and secure

environment that promotes healthy development and learning. They also

need appropriate support to deal with stress and trauma.

Research cited in

Sims, Hayden, Palmer & Hutchins (2000) indicates that children who

experience trauma and who do not receive appropriate support are at risk

of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and of having mental health

problems and/or learning difficulties in later years. Parents who are

traumatised themselves are unable to offer this support and there are

not staff with appropriate training in detention centres to offer the

necessary support to families or children.

The Australian Early

Childhood Association's Draft Position Statement on Children who are refugees,

assylum seekers and in detention states that

In order to grow

and develop normally, a child has certain age-specific requirements which

must be satisfied. Basic health care, nutrition and education are generally

recognised as necessary for the physical and intellectual development

of children. Beyond these, however, healthy psychosocial development depends

in large measure on the nurturing and stimulation that children receive

as they grow, and on the opportunities that they have to learn and master

new skills. For refugee children, healthy psychosocial development also

requires coping effectively with the multiple trauma of loss, uprooting

and often more damaging experiences. In short, tragic long term consequences

may result where children's developmental needs are not adequately met.
(AECA, 2002: 1)

The United Nations

Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should be protected

from violence. Yet children in detention are constantly exposed to violence.

Institutionalisation means that there is little privacy for families,

or for children. Children experience adults who are depressed, angry and

frustrated and they are exposed directly to adult violence, riots, hunger

strikes, self-mutilation and attempted suicides as well as to the violent

and aggressive behaviours and attitudes of detention staff.

Child Protection

legislation and procedures in various states in Australia focus on preventing

child abuse. Suspicions that children are at risk of harm are grounds

for making mandatory reports - for example the NSW Children and Young

Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. Risk of harm is defined as when

concerns are raised about the well being, welfare and safety of children

due to several factors. These include children's physical or psychological

needs not being met and children being exposed to situations where ongoing

or severe physical abuse or domestic violence occurs and as a result children

are at risk of serious physical or psychological harm. Children in detention

centres are exposed to such violence and neglect. If this happened to

children in the community it would be investigated and children would

be removed.


impact of detention on children's psychosocial development

One of the major

features of social and emotional development for young children is attachment

and the associated development of trust (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Farmer

and Death, 1996). Children who do not feel secure that their needs will

be met do not develop a sense of trust. Secure attachment to caregivers

is fundamental to children's development of self-identity, self-esteem,

social skills, emotional stability and sensitivity to the needs of others.

Neuroscientists have found that a child's capacity to control emotions

hinges to a significant extent on early experiences of attachment (Shore,


Chris Morandini has

highlighted some of the mental health problems experienced by parents

and the impact this has on children. Depressed parents are not able to

focus on their children's needs and find it difficult to nurture and protect

their children. Consequently children can experience emotional and physical

neglect. When parents are experiencing the stress, trauma and depression

associated with detention they are unable to provide the types of relationships

and interactions with children that result in secure attachments. This

impacts negatively on children's ability to express emotions and form

meaningful relationships in childhood and in later life.

Research has found

that depression in mothers has been shown to produce severe disturbances

in mother-infant interactions (Murray et al 1996). Maternal depression

can have lasting impacts on brain development in children, particularly

in the part of the brain associated with the regulation and expression

of emotions, and particularly for children aged six to eighteen months

(Shore, 1997).

Children in the early

years of life are developing independence, initiative and a sense of self.

They will push boundaries in their search for independence and need adults

who are understanding and consistent in their feedback (Arthur et al,

1996). Adults who are in detention do not have the emotional resources

to deal with curious and assertive toddlers and preschoolers. Erikson

(1963) argues that children who do not receive appropriate support in

these early stages of psychosocial development will develop feelings of

shame, doubt and guilt.

Young children are

also learning to express their emotions in socially acceptable ways and

are developing empathy with others. They naturally experience feelings

such as fear, anger and frustration and need adult support and guidance

to cope with their emotions and to be able to consider others' perspectives.

Adults who are in detention are unlikely to be able to provide children

with this level of support.

Damon (1988) suggests

that children's everyday experiences provide them with the basis of their

moral understandings. Children learn about what is right and wrong, fair

and unfair through observing the way that adults in their environment

respond to different situations. If children's everyday experiences are

trauma, violence, anger and aggression then this makes it difficult for

them to develop empathy and respect for the rights of others and develop

as responsible members of society.

Current early childhood

theory stresses the importance of viewing children within their social

and cultural contexts (see for example the NSW Department of Community

Services Curriculum Framework for Children's Services, 2002). Children's

learning and development cannot be addressed in isolation of their family

and community. Families need to feel strong and empowered to provide the

best care and education for their children. Adults in detention are frequently

emotionally detached, disempowered and display feelings of helplessness

and despair about their situation as indicated in the stories outlined

by Chris Morandini. Families in detention are not able to provide the

sorts of interactions that are necessary for children's language, cognitive

or social development.

Detention also has

a negative impact on children's identity formation as families do not

have access to communities, religious organisations and cultural activities

to support cultural identity. The United Nations Convention on the Rights

of the Child states that children have a right to practise their culture,

language and religion. This right is not being met when children are not

able to access culturally appropriate avenues of expression and identity

such as cultural groups and religious organisations within the community.


rights to play and education

Play is a fundamental

right of all children as stated in the United Nations Convention on the

Rights of the Child. Children require a secure and caring environment

and opportunities for play in order to develop and learn. Children in

detention have few opportunities to play and do not have access to early

childhood services such as child care or playgroups.

All children have

a right to relevant educational experiences within a context that provides

physical and emotional security and safety. Such experiences are even

more urgently required when children have experienced significant family

disruption and trauma. The continuity and intellectual engagement which

appropriate educational experiences provide for children can help to alleviate

or off set the effects of significant family trauma and disruption. Educational

experiences which are sensitive to the particular needs of children in

detention and responsive to the diverse socio-cultural contexts of which

the children are a part are essential to their emotional wellbeing and

to their intellectual and social development. Such experiences are most

likely to emerge when refugee children live within, not separate from,

Australian communities with access to the appropriate resources and professional



  • Detention of

    young children and their families is inappropriate and harmful to children's

    development in the short and long term. Provision should be made for

    child asylum seekers and their parents to be housed in the community.

  • If detention

    centres continue to be the chosen strategy for managing asylum seekers

    while their claims for refugee status are assessed then these claims

    should be assessed quickly and detention centres located in major population

    centres. This will ensure access to the range of services that are needed

    by children and their families.

Child and family

unity should be maintained at all times.

  • In all actions

    concerning children who are asylum seekers the human rights of the child,

    in particular his or her best interests, should be given primary consideration.

    Refugee children are entitled to the same treatment and rights as other

    Australian children.

Families should be

strengthened through access to family support services to enable them

to care for their children.

  • All children

    and families should have access to health programs and services.

  • Specialist support

    services should be available to help children address trauma.

Children under school

age should have opportunities to play in environments that are equipped

with appropriate resources and trained early childhood staff. Children

should have access to government-subsidised places in community childcare

services. All school age children should have access to school in the


  • The provision

    of childcare, healthcare and education for refugee children should reflect

    their linguistic and cultural needs. Families should be provided with

    suitable interpreters who speak their preferred language whenever they

    are interviewed or require access to services. Early childhood services

    should provide bilingual staff who can support the child's home language

    and culture and help them learn English.

  • Those working

    with refugee children should receive appropriate training on the needs

    of refugee children and training in working with children and families

    who have experience trauma.


Arthur, L., Beecher,

B., Dockett, S., Farmer, S. & Death, E. (1996). Programming and planning

in early childhood settings. Sydney: Harcourt.

Australian Early Childhood Association (2002). Draft Position statement

on children of asylum seekers, children of refugees and children in detention.

Damon, W. (1988). The moral child. New York: The Free Press.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Miles, M.B., & Huberman A.M.(1994). Qualitative data analysis. (Second


Thousand Oaks, CS: Sage Publications.

Murray, L., Hipwell, 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,


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


Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the brain: New Insights into early development.

New York: Families at Work Institute.

Sims, M., Hayden, Palmer J. & Hutchins, T. (2000) Working in Early

Childhood Settings with Children who have experienced refugee or war-

related trauma. Australian Journal of Early Childhood Vol 25 No 4 Dec



Updated 9 January 2003.