Not Australia! This is a juvenile detention centre in Florida
by Mary W Maxwell, PhD, LLB
For the last few days, the RC into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been doing “Cast Study 57.” It’s not really a case study – that’s just the way they catalogue their massive material. Rather it seems to be a general discussion of “How can we improve the lives of kids?’
This Royal Commission began in 2013 and has been extended to 2017. I am not sure when they will quit or how good their recommendations will be. Mostly the whole thing has been wonderful. The counsel assisting, this week, is Gail Furness and she never utters a word of bureaucratese, thank God.
Ms Furness asked open questions to a few panels of social workers, psychologists, etc, and also allowed them to end with individual statements – pleas, for the most part. I was impressed.
As the subject matter kept shifting, I will simply chose four items that came up and which were completely new to me. I might not always get the name of the speaker right (one could see their little name cards, but the names should have been in surtitles for home viewers). So I will instead say “the professor,” “the Muslim lady,” the Aboriginal woman.” — Don’t jump at me for racism; these persons were supposed to report as from their culture.
“No One Said Anything”
The Aboriginal woman reported an experience she had with a group of children; I am not sure if it was a residential facility (and I don’t know the ethnicity of the kids). She said a man with obvious mental health problems dropped his track pants in front of everyone and masturbated.
She said there were police present but none of them – or anyone else– acted as if criminality was involved. Granted, the man was crazy, and the kids giggled. But this lady picked up right away on the fact that a wrong signal was being sent. Is a teenager supposed to think this is OK? And is normal?
In a sense this is what I rant about all the time – the apparent acceptance of bad behavior (generally by judges, Hello Boston, hi there Hobart). The more we say “Yeah, that’s what they do,” the more we are indicating that it is now part of the culture. Ho hum. C’est la vie.
“Shoelaces Ten Years Ago”
Now for a professor. He said there is a culture in every detention centre and some of the practices simply need to change. I quote Professor Morgan:
I could give you a couple of examples of things that are partly cultural and partly just practice. When I first started the job, I went to one of our detention centres and I saw these young boys being taken off to court in the prison transport vehicle. I couldn’t understand why they were shuffling along a cold, concrete floor in bare feet to go to court. So I said to the officers, “Why aren’t they wearing shoes?” “Oh, well, that’s just the regulations.”
I said, “It seems quite degrading to me. What’s the point of the regulations?” “Oh, we don’t know. That’s just how they are.”
So I raised the issue further up and they said, “Oh, well, yes, one child tried to hang himself with a shoelace in the back of a vehicle some years ago.”
I said, “How many years ago?” “Oh, I don’t know. It was about 10.” So I said, “Aren’t there alternatives to shoes with laces, that you can actually have a less degrading way of transporting people to court?” Immediately, that was changed. So that’s one little example of where the culture was: that was just the way it was and nobody questioned.
They were all in a closed environment. You’re brought up – and it’s a quasi military kind of culture, almost — to follow orders.
“To Group or Not To Group”
All the commissioners were listening and asking questions. COMMISSIONER MILROY asked whether a variation in treatment approach occurred according to whether the offenders had acted as a group or as individuals.
COMMISSIONER MURRAY: followed up with this:
The group sexual bullying or humiliation that we have [heard about] in both evidence and private sessions has been in institutions such as the Parramatta Girls Home, which was a quasi juvenile justice facility, or in Defence facilities or boarding schools, it’s tied up with initiation. We have been told that there are leaders and followers in that group.
What puzzles me is what makes for that dynamic: why would some children who otherwise might not be offenders engage in offending because there is a leader that they congregate with or attach themselves to…. Does anyone have anything to tell us about that leader/follower kind of dynamic?
I am reading Dr Watson’s reply from a transcript. I do not know what field he represents.
Rightly or wrongly it kind of makes sense in a way, because we’re all social beings, we want to be connected in some way. So if you have people in an institutional setting from various backgrounds, people want to kind of gravitate and be involved and engaged and whatever. It again comes down to issues around psychological and physical coercion; about the leader doing something coercing the other more vulnerable people.
I think there would be leaders and followers, but you would really have to look at these young people individually and look at their own vulnerabilities about what the drivers are for them socially and how they get on — are they a leader, are they a follower, are they the sort of kid who wants to be involved or are they kind of doing their own thing. So I think group dynamics get very, very tricky, but when you tease it apart you would be looking at the individual vulnerabilities and susceptibilities of the young people.
See what I mean? This Royal Commission is outstanding. I hope it sets the precedent: no BS, just thoughtful answers.
“The Eyes Have It”
Now to the matter dear to our hearts because of Martin Brynt – the secrecy of prisons to the outside world. The following exchange has nothing to do with the age of the prisoners. In fact this RC on child sexual abuse has certainly exposed social realities in ways that will be useful to many.
MS FURNESS (counsel assisting the RC) asks:
How does your work as an Inspector of Corrective Services work to achieve an institution, taking juvenile justice as the institution, being safer for children?
PROFESSOR MORGAN answers:
I guess it is worth saying a little bit about how often we go in. The role of my office is to report to Parliament regularly, at least once every three years, on juvenile detention facilities. In fact, we’re running at areport every year in relation to juveniles.
We did a report in 2011 that was based on an inspection. [That’s] where we go in for one or two weeks to the facility, preceded by a lot of field work and a lot of desk-topping as well. We have access to systems so that we can also validate what we’re hearing.
That report looked at behaviour management at Banksia Hill, — how they were managing the particularly difficult young men and women. … I was worried that we were not giving enough attention to the girls, and I think this is an area where, when we think of abuse in correctional facilities, we tend to focus a lot on the boys.
I did a report on the girls at Banksia Hill Detention Centre that same year. There are still many areas of concern, and I have an inspection due in the middle of the year. We have a regular, formal reporting mechanism up to Parliament, and over and above that my staff and I and the so-called Independent Prison Visitors, who are administered by our office, visit regularly.
I think you can’t overstate the importance of having a regular, visible presence. Things do get fixed quite often simply because people know that we’re there and they know that we will be coming. Do I think that we help prevent systemic abuse? Yes, I believe we do. You cannot always prevent all forms of individual abuse, but we also have networks where the children talk to us, the staff talk to us, and out in the community the families talk to us. So we have quite good, interesting, intelligence networks that tend to tip us off to certain things that are happening. [Emphasis added]
“The Color o’ Yo Skin”
There was an impassioned plea from the Muslim panelist who said that children in ethnic minorities are given the implied badge of “not worth bothering with.” Actually she did not use those exact words but you wouldn’t have been in any doubt that that’s what she meant.
Her comment took me completely by surprise, which just goes to show how ignorant I am. She said no matter which issue it is, the majority kids get the help – or at least programs meant to help, and the others are forgotten. No effort is made to see what part that child’s cultural background is playing in his/her woes.
The Aboriginal woman, who is as wise as the owl, said that if someone mentions the difficulties an Aboriginal boy has, everyone sort of rolls their eyes and says “Oh there they go again.”
Will There Be More Gumshoe Reports?
I thought we had put the seal on this RC a few months ago, but now I see it is worth checking up now and again. You can get all manner of resources from the website childabuseroyalcommission.gov. Be sure to type “gov” as there is a copycat “com.”
Maybe you have something to say, one way or another. The invitation for abused children to come in for a private session has ended but you can send written material. The website says:
You can share your story with the Royal Commission in writing by sending a letter or email setting out your experience to the Royal Commission.
If your story is within our Terms of Reference, it will be provided to Commissioners.
And by the way, the terms of reference are extremely broad. I think I will send something. Maybe we should tell Commissioner McClellan that Fiona Barnett appears to be missing. She has not touched her website pedophilesdoewnunder.com in many weeks.
— Mary W Maxwell is working on a book about Pizzagate. Naturally.
Photo credit: bokeh.jjie.org