Kids, don’t pipe down
“My father’s violence became so bad that I witnessed my mother being pinned against a wall with knives”.
This is one of the lines from a letter I received during my youth consultation in a South Australian homeless shelter. Its author was a girl who I will call “Charlotte”. She gave me this letter without hope or expectation that I would share her story.
I was surprised to receive the letter. Charlotte had been silent throughout the consultation. Her face had looked so sad and empty that I thought it best to leave her alone. I was stunned to learn from reading that she was only 17-years-old. She looked much older. As I read on, it was easy to understand why.
The violence of Charlotte’s father was followed by her grandfather sexually abusing her when she was six. Tragically, Charlotte’s cry for help was met with only silence from her family.
So she turned to alcohol to cope. When Charlotte’s family broke up, her mother remarried another violent man. To avoid further abuse, Charlotte fled to a homeless shelter, becoming one of the 22,000 young Australians who are homeless as you read this.
Too often and too easily, children like Charlotte are silenced in our society.
Currently youth organisations are organizing public forums, starting in Melbourne this week, to turn up the volume on children’s rights and wellbeing. These events are a follow up to a UN committee’s mid-year review of Australia’s implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of a Child.
The committee’s report from the review, whilst dressed in the genteel advocacy of the UN, reveal its frustration with Australia’s checkered progress on children’s rights.
On one hand, Australia has made a marked improvement on children’s wellbeing in recent years. We now have national frameworks on early childhood development, child protection and the prevention of violence. Right now the Government is calling for applications for a National Children’s Commissioner. This newly established role will champion the voices of children and young people on the national stage.
On the other hand though, it will take widespread community education and individual responsibility for us to succeed in curbing the frightening trends engulfing Australia’s most vulnerable children.
One such trend is occurring in the out-of-home care system. From 2005 to 2010 there was an overwhelming 51 per cent increase in the number of children placed in out-of-home care. This trend correlates with homelessness. Children who have been in care are significantly overrepresented within Australia’s homeless youth. This is largely because only around a third of these children have a proper leaving care plan.
Secondly, the Committee has recommended that substantial reforms be instigated in the juvenile justice system. Over the last 20 years there has been a shocking rise in the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in juvenile detention.
Today, Indigenous youth are 28 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous youth, an increase since 1993 when the ratio was 17.
These trends are hard for anyone to understand, let alone the Committee, when stacked up against Australia’s relative affluence. Perhaps Mother Teresa’s observation that “it is more difficult to fight poverty in a rich country than in a poor one” can best explain them?
Reversing these trends will require government investment and individual action. But more than that, it will require the right approach.
Evidence shows that community interventions are much more likely to be successful if they embrace an approach which listens to vulnerable children. Listening to children means respecting a child’s voice, valuing their perspective and giving them some ownership and control in decisions which affect their life.
On a personal level, I know how powerful this approach can be. I was five when I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a minor form of autism. When my family sought out specialists to assist me, they got only negative prescriptions of my future abilities. In defiance of this negativity, my family decided to deliver their own behavioural therapy.
It was my family’s respect for my voice that helped me develop my self-esteem. I never felt the burden of wearing a label, I was an equal participant in the world around me. Yet sadly, I have met too many young people with behavioural challenges like Aspergers or a physical or mental disability who have been made to feel as though their voice and participation were less valuable to the community.
Australia will next be reviewed by the Committee in 2018. Since 1997 the Committee has repeatedly called on Australia to respect the views of children. This should be the central plank of our agenda going forward.
Social problems like homelessness, crises like Indigenous juvenile detention and the marginalisation of children with disabilities do not have to be prevailing. We can prevail over them if we respond to a child’s cry for help with serious inquiry, not with silence. If we practice inclusion, not exclusion and if we celebrate, not tolerate a young person’s voice.
These actions on a micro level need to be complemented by action on the macro, such as the development by the Federal Government of a comprehensive plan of action for implementing the Convention as a whole. This plan should work towards giving full and direct effect to the Convention in Australian law.
Charlotte is part of the first generation of Australians to grow up with children’s rights. We may have failed to implement her rights, but that does not mean we cannot learn from her story.
We can use the Convention as a practical tool for promoting a culture of rights and responsibilities in the young that can benefit generations hereafter. But it will take each and every one of us. I believe we can do it. Don’t you?
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