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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Australian Four Corners Video

There is  no doubt that the video presently making the rounds of social media and world news sources is a tough watch. The series of videos show abuse of a boy over time in an Australian institution.

The videos can be found here and here and here and here. But remember, they are not an easy watch as you will se child abuse and torture of a teenage boy, Dylan Voller.

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation video posted to YouTube

It will be easy to get focused on how the institution saw the management of children in this fashion as somehow acceptable.  And yes, that is an important question. The larger conversation though, is needed about how we treat people within prison systems. In this case - children. Strip searches, isolation and torture, which occurred in this case, come from a philosophy of how people (and I use that word very consciously) are worthy of being treated when in custody.

There are very different correctional philosophies with Norway often being cited as one where rehabilitation is the paramount objective; Canada with some balance between retribution and rehabilitation and the United States seeming to tip more towards retribution.

The Australian case is a moment for societies to consider what is the purpose of the criminal justice, child protection and mental health systems and how are they to inter-relate and inter-connect. If we just look at the case of this boy, we will miss the much larger discussion.

Affecting the discussion is an increasing sense of fear in our societies. There may well be valid reasons for some of that given recent events in Europe from what appears to have been a series of terrorist tragedies to the domestic events such as the Orlando shootings in the USA. Such large scale tragedies deflect us from the reality the, by far, the vast majority of people are in jail for crimes related to mental health, addiction, trauma and poverty. Dylan appears to be an example of such a person.

How he was treated (and many other cases of people being put into things like long period isolation) will have lasting impacts on their mental health. Every time such methods are used we reduce the probability of successful reintegration into society. The trauma and its mental health impacts accumulate over time. There are many who suggest that techniques like solitary confinement do substantial long term damage to the health of people incarcerated. Some examples of that data can be found through a PBS documentary as well as this report the American Psychological Association.

By using these incarceration techniques we are adding to society's burden. Add to this the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics and we see that traumas like this move through generations within the DNA. The implications are that the children of such an abused person will pass their trauma on to the next generations.

With the type of abuse that Dylan appears to have experienced, we also reduce the probabilities that he could be a successful parent. Not only then does the DNA carry the trauma but there is a significantly increased possibility that the social emotional environment of the next generation will be impoverished. This creates a further burden for society through child protection and its related systems.

It is this broader conversation that should be happening. Yes, what specifically happened to Dylan matters but the underlying philosophies and practices related to people like Dylan is the bigger picture. A further question that should be examined is why, as societies, are we so willing to buy into approaches that have been shown to not work - indeed to make things worse. A good part of the answer is that we fear people in prisons and also they deserve what they get - except that it is the larger society that pays the greater price.

Let Dylan Voller's case be an opportunity for the bigger conversation.

Another view on this conversation can be found at the blog of Tony Tonkin.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Intolerance as a risk for children

There is a growing intolerance that is becoming evident in the public discourse. There seems a willingness, perhaps under the rubric of freedom of speech, to target individuals, groups of persons or classes of persons. There has been suggestion that racial and immigrant intolerance was related to the BREXIT vote. Some are noting that the present US presidential race is seeing an increase in caustic rhetoric that is sexist, racist and reminiscent of the politics of oppression.

There has been a linkage to violence with the shootings in Orlando recently targeting gays. There are divisive arguments about refugees, Muslims, minorities. Here in Canada, we still see evidence of racism with a Black person in Toronto, for example, likely to be carded by the police for being Black.

One can hardly spend time on Facebook without coming across various forms of "hate" speech. Twitter has just banned Milo Yiannopoulous for racist comments about a Black actress. In essence, we have seen the growth of emotional terrorism. It is a form of tolerated bullying.

What does this have to do with child protection? In general terms, it is the most vulnerable families who come to the attention of child protection. These are also the families that are the targets of the intolerance - poor, racial minorities, LGBTQ community. Many live in areas where community supports, schools, social services and health care are not as well funded.

When we allow intolerance to grow, then there is also a reduced motivation to find the solutions that can be driven by both public and not for profit agencies. It tends to breed the "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" type of thinking. And if they cannot, then they are not worthy people.

It also breeds laws where people who can least manage in vulnerable positions are then put at greater risk. Examples can be seen with a variety of legal efforts to limit access to reproductive rights in the United States. But lest anyone think this is a US bashing commentary, be assured it is not. For the intolerance appears to be growing across many nations.

When you also see the economic challenges that many countries are also facing, then, as seen with BREXIT, there is a diminished willingness to support vulnerable populations that "are not like us".

This emotional terrorism increases the vulnerability of vulnerable families and, in particular, children. The growing field of epigenetics shows that trauma experienced in one generation is passed on to subsequent generations through the DNA. Thus, when we fail a generation of children, we create both the social and genetic conditions to carry the problems into the next generations.

This point is made explicitly clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Report in Canada which shows how the traumas arising from the Indian Residential Schools are still being played out in First Nations, Inuit and Metis families across the country.

Child welfare gets asked to intervene in families where, in reality the problems are not protection of children but systemic neglect that arises from the emotional terrorism (which often plays out in physical conditions) that society has imposed on communities. Child welfare cannot solve these problems and intolerance will lead to the problems becoming more entrenched than they are already.

The growing social unrest that follows marginalization, which we are seeing in a variety of forums, will put pressure on child protection as these pressures get lived out in family life. There is a need for a large conversation across many political, social and policy forums. Child protection should be part of the conversation so that players can see the downstream implications of intolerance.