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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
Ms Terry Zeeher, Clinical
Sumission lodged by:
Terry Zeeher (Ms), Clinical Psychologist
May 9, 2002
I wish to provide background information to support the submission from
the Australian Psychological Society, based on my experience of working
as a psychologist in the Woomera Detention Centre between 28/3/02 and 13/4/02.
I agree unreservedly with the conclusions reached in the APS report which
states that the detention experience has multiple negative effects on children,
and that these effects can be expected to be extremely long lasting.
I would like to list the questions that are proposed by the APS for investigation
by the Enquiry, and provide my own responses to them, based on my personal
observations. In order to provide a background to these observation I will
provide a brief description of the working environment.
There were two psychologists and a psychiatric nurse at the Centre during
the period I was there. Of the approximately 280 detainees held at the Centre,
around 48 were considered to be at risk of self harm or suicide. This number
included approximately seven children under the age of eighteen. People
considered at risk were required to be monitored at intervals of 15 to 60
minutes by officers in the compounds. Those on 15 minute observations were
required to see one of the mental health staff daily. Because of the large
number of people on observation, the system had broken down, and it was
impossible for staff to give severely disturbed people the care they needed.
It is not an exaggeration to say that self harm and suicide attempts (attempted
hangings, overdoses of prescription medication, slashing, drinking of toxic
substances, jumping from high places) occurred every day within the Centre,
often a number of times each day, and the perpetrators included children
as young as eight years.
Q1 What steps are currently being undertaken to monitor the psychological
welfare of the children in detention? In particular, what steps are being
taken to monitor the psychological wellbeing of children arriving from war-torn
A To my knowledge children were not screened in any way to ascertain
whether they had suffered trauma prior to their arrival at the Centre. No
child came to the attention of psychologists in the Centre until symptoms
of psychological disturbance were observed by officers. This typically took
the form of some act of self harm.
Example: two [word deleted] year old boys attempted separately to
hang themselves. I assessed one of these boys. He said he would continue
to attempt to kill himself until he succeeded, or until he and his family
were given visas, and that it was better to die than to be locked up any
longer. He was sent to Woomera Hospital overnight with his father, then
returned to the compound and placed on 15 minutely observations. The father
expressed his extreme concern about his son, saying he had been a happy,
achieving child until his incarceration. Now, he said, his boy is "crazy",
and he feels quite unable to control his behaviour. The second boy who attempted
hanging was briefly placed with his uncle to attempt to ensure his safely,
then returned to his mother who felt unable to cope with his behaviour.
Because of staff limitations minimal follow up was available to these two
Q2 What qualifications and training do staff who care for children and
their families in detention centres have? What knowledge to they have of
psychological issues faced by people who have been subjected to traumatic
experiences and are suffering high degrees of anxiety, stress and uncertainty?
A Psychologists employed within the centres would have varying degrees
of experience in dealing with victims of trauma. Few would be likely to
be specialists in this area, though it is likely that most would be able
to deal with the emotional effects of trauma if they were able to spend
the requisite amount of time with each individual. At a practical level,
this was impossible during my period at Woomera. The psychologists and psychiatric
nurse went from one crisis to the next, and it was too often the case that
detainees received care after self harm or attempted suicide, rather than
receiving appropriate preventative care. Amongst the general nursing staff,
understanding of the emotional responses to trauma was variable. Where understanding
was inadequate detainees were accused of refusing to take responsibility
for themselves, of attention seeking behaviour, and of failing to take proper
care of their children when they were simply too distraught to do so.
Q3 What provisions have been made for psycho-educational assessment of
children's specific learning needs prior to their attending formal educational
A I cannot answer this question except to say that the children spent
only half a day at school, and it seems unlikely that any assessment of
their needs would have occurred given time limitations.
Q4 What provisions have been made for the psychotherapeutic treatment
of children who are sufferein chronic and/or vicarious trauma as a result
of witnessing threatening behaviour while in detention?
A Again, because of limited resources, only children exhibiting overt
disturbed behaviour received attention. There was no systematic procedure
to otherwise identify children who had witnessed threatening behaviour.
Q5 What provisions have been made for families who have been seriously
affected by displacement to participate in family therapy?
A No family therapy is available in Woomera Detention Centre. As
a general rule, if severe conflict occurs between a husband and wife the
husband will be placed in a different compound, leaving the wife to care
for the children of the family unassisted.
Example: A woman and her [very young] daughter came to the Medical
Centre in an extremely distressed state. The woman said her husband had
become "crazy" (indeed he had recently exhibited quite bizarre
behaviour, though no psychosis was detected when he was assessed). The family
[words deleted], had recently been moved to a different compound, and the
wife also reported the child had become very disturbed because she was afraid
of the children in her new accomodation. The child was reported as screaming
and throwing herself on the ground when required to enter the compound,
was biting her fingernails and had begun bedwetting. The husband was moved
to a different compound and the wife was left to look after [the rest of
the family]. An application was made to allow the wife and [family]to move
to the community house in Woomera township, but this was refused by DIMIA
because the family's initial visa application had been refused, so the wife
was considered to be at increased risk of escape.
Q6 What critical incident debriefing procedures are in place for children
who have witnessed their parents, other family members, or social acquaintances
engaging in acts of self harm or being harmed while in detention? What psychotherapeutic
support is in place for children who themselves have been harmed or have
engaged in self harmful acts while in detention?
A There is no systematic way of ascertaining when children might
have witnessed disturbing events, as quite frequently occurs because of
the crowded conditions. Unless the child exhibits symptoms of disturbance
they receive no intervention. As described above, support to children who
have self harmed is frequently inadequate because of staff limitations.
Q7 What provisions are in place for parenting programmes that provide
support for parents of children under extremely difficult psychological
and physical circumstances?
A There are no assistance to parents in Woomera other than that provided
by friends and family.This frequently places great stress on older children
who may be required to care for younger siblings, or provide support for
an emotionally disturbed parent.
Example 1: A twelve year old girl began head-banging. She was the
eldest [words deleted], and had been required to take on the care of her
younger siblings because her mother suffered severe anxiety and associated
irritability, and had recently made several suicide attempts, including
setting fire to herself. The father of the children refused to assist with
Example 2: A thirteen year old boy attempted to hang himself. His
mother had been severely depressed for several months, and refused to leave
her bed. He said he had attempted to kill himself because his mother didn't
eat and cried all the time, he was tired of getting up in the morning and
seeing the fences and dirt. He said the family was being tortured, and it
didn't matter where he was kept, he would find a way to kill himself.
Q8 What efforts are being made to provide parents with the opportunity
to model traditional family roles for children, such as working to earn
an income, meal preparation, other household duties, etc.?
A There is no provision for families to prepare their own food. Accomodation
is usually shared by a number of familes so there is no family privacy.
Some work is available for a very few people outside the compounds. I understand
they are paid something like $1/hour. One woman told me she would like to
obtain work so she could buy chips and lollies for her children, as they
saw other children getting these things and she could not afford them.
Q9 What opportunities are in place for the assessment of safety issues
such as bullying, and sexual or physical abuse of children in detention
A There was one allegation, later shown to be unfounded, of
sexual abuse of a young girl. This was investigated. Beyond this I cannot
comment. I heard rumours of parents using excessive physical punishment
as a result of their distressed mental state, but saw no actual evidence
of this myself.
Q10 What socialization opportunities are available either within detention
centres or in the wider community for children to develop skills and independence,
engage in social activities, participate in cultural traditions, and communicate
and interact with same-age peers and adults from similar ethnic and religious
A Socialization opportunities are extremely limited for the children
remaining in Woomera. Many complain of loneliness and of having lost their
friends when they obtained visas. The children leave the centre to attend
school, which is based at a now disused Catholic school. They have no contact
with the children who attend the local Woomera School. The have few opportunities
to develop skills and independence and no chance to see their parents demonstrating
these attributes. I saw no opportunity for any significant practice of cultural
traditions, and frequently the families occupying shared accomodation are
from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Q11 What provisions are in place to ensure the maintenance of privacy
in a manner commensurate with usual cultural practice?
A Difficulties are created by the crowded conditions.
Example: An elderly woman [words deleted] was a cause of considerable
conflict in her shared accomodation as other occupants considered her habits
unclean and blamed her family for this. An application was made to DIMIA
for more suitable accomodation for the family [words deleted] but this was
In conclusion, I believe that the current policy of mandatory detention
for asylum seekers can only result in continued psychological damage to
the children who are detained. The isolation of the detention centres, the
manner in which they strip autonomy and dignity from inmates, the uncertainty
associated with the visa application process, and the way in which inmates
perceive themselves as unfairly treated, or even persecuted, all serve to
create an atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness. This in turn frequently
precipitates frank mental illness in an already highly vulnerable population.
Children of parents affected in this way are damaged in a severe and lasting
way by this experience, as described in detail in the Australian Psychological
I have found this a very difficult report to write. Never before in my professional
life have I felt so helpless, so often. I could not give the people in Woomera
Detention Centre what they needed most: their freedom. I felt guilt because
I was part of the society that had inflicted this wrong upon them, and because
it was impossible for me, and my colleagues, to provide them with the level
of care that was their right as human beings.
Updated 9 January 2003.