20 November is the United Nations’ World Children’s Day
This year, our celebration of Children’s Day, like all such events will be coloured by events, particularly by the coronavirus. For most children, the year has been one of frustration. They have been unable to go to school, have missed out on school picnics, cricket and football, dances and parties. Older children have lost the opportunity to prepare well for their future
The restrictions of COVID-19 have allowed some children to spend more time with their parents and have built their relationships. For other children, the restrictions have made an already tense home situation a place of domestic violence. They have had to deal with violence at home and its effect on their lives. Many children who already struggled at school will finish the year far behind their peers who live in homes where there is a habit of reading and of conversation. Children’s Day makes us grateful for our children. It also invites us to attend to the difference between Australian children who are well supported and those who live with disadvantage.
Stories of children suffering always move us. Stories of children abused physically, sexually and verbally provoke our outrage. We demand justice for the children and sanctions on the people who abused them. Yet when children suffer from neglect, we usually do not hold governments to account. As a result, when to meet the needs of impoverished children would be costly for governments, it ceases to be a priority. And if children behave badly, governments often yield to the media demand that they be locked up. They cease to be seen as children or even as persons and are regarded as pests or gang members.
In our work at Jesuit Social Services with young people who have come into contact with the justice system, we constantly confront this double view of children. They are seen either as little angels or as devils, rarely as children. When they break the law, few people pause to ask why. Many simply condemn them and demand that they be punished. It is right that they be brought to recognise the consequences of their actions, but punishment often weakens a sense of responsibility.
If we do ask why children offend, we often find a story of personal neglect and of neglect by society. They may come from a violent or chaotic home environment, from a region where health and other services are overstretched, may suffer from physical or mental illness, experience education as a place of failure, and have no good role models when growing up. The peers with whom they mix with can encourage them to take risks whose consequences their brains are not developed enough to weigh. If they are sentenced to detention in juvenile justice centres, they are more likely to graduate to life in and out of adult jails with the personal tragedy and loss to society that this entails. To break with this path they need accompaniment and encouragement to find a better way, not punishment
The number of children held in detention is one of the signs that tell whether a society takes its responsibilities to children seriously. In Australia children as young as 10 can be treated as criminals with full responsibility for their actions. The recommended age is 14. That state and territory governments should be so slow to raise the age of criminal responsibility testifies to a lack of care for children, and particularly the Indigenous children who are disproportionately detained.
World Children’s Day is a day to celebrate the gift of our children and grandchildren. It is also a day to keep in mind children who suffer neglect at home and in our society.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.