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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.