Not caging children under 14 is the bare minimum we can do to not torture kids | Sophie Trevitt

I’ve watched smart, funny teenagers unravel behind bars. Australia needs to raise the age to keep young kids out of prison

It is deeply distressing that on the one hand I, a 30-year-old white woman cancer patient, receive cards from strangers in the mail wishing me well and a speedy recovery while my former clients – 10-to-14-year-old Aboriginal children who have been mucking about – receive death threats online despite seriously needing our help.

We are all humans worthy of love and care.

Society began using imprisonment on an industrial scale as a form of punishment, ironically as an act of kindness. We started locking people away as a gesture of mercy. It was seen as less barbaric than corporal punishment or public whippings or beatings. There is no world in which I am campaigning for physical violence, but it is wrong to pretend that locking people – especially children – away in cages is vastly kinder than beating them in public.

At some point society decided it was not only OK, but beneficial, to lock up children as young as 10 behind bars. I have spent a long time trying to imagine that moment. Imagine closing and opening your eyes and thinking: OK this is it. This is the way we will restore harmony on our streets – we will put children in cages and adults behind bars.

When I lived and worked in Alice Springs I represented many grandmothers of children who had been snatched from the streets by grown men and thrown into police cars and concrete cells.

The police station in Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
The police station in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

I watched smart, funny, naughty children transform into desperately unhappy, terrified teenagers. I would go to bed at the end of the day full of fear that I would have one less child in my care the following morning. There doesn’t have to be beatings and torture for caging children to be profoundly harmful (although this can, and does, happen too). Taking children away from their families, removing them from their sense of self and belonging, are just some ways in which children are frequently and repeatedly hurt by the state.

I will never forget the beautiful children or their courageous grandmothers who I grew to know and love when I lived in central Australia. There are some terrible tales that will stay with me for the rest of my life, precisely because we didn’t manage to break those children free.

I remember one teenage boy who I watched unravel as his whole world and sense of self came apart. I have never been so terrified for another human being. He went from a kind, funny humble young man to someone who clung on to my shirt and spoke in gibberish, and yet we consider this barbarity somehow more “civilised” than corporal punishment. It is unconscionable to tear children from their families and lock them away in cages. No one deserves that.

Change the Record, the Human Rights Law Centre, doctors, teachers, parents and grandparents and so many concerned citizens have been working tirelessly, calling on all state and territory governments to “raise the age” to at least 14 years old, to keep these very young children out of prison.

No one is suggesting a 14-year-old belongs behind bars. However, if we are going to draw an arbitrary line in the sand under which children can never ever be locked away, let’s choose a line backed by the relatively conservative Australian Medical Association and the Law Council of Australia and build from there. Let’s urge state and territory governments to not only change the laws to something that’s backed by industry expertise, but also by our regional polling.

The ACT government has announced that it will legislate to prevent children under 14 being arrested and thrown behind bars. Victoria too has promised it will raise the age (but only to prevent the detention of children under the age of 12 years old). Not caging children under 14 years old is not revolutionary – it is the bare minimum we can do to not torture kids who are in our care.

• Sophie Trevitt is winner of Liberty Victoria’s Voltaire Human Rights Award for 2023 and former national director of Change the Record


Sophie Trevitt

The GuardianTramp

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