“The violence in my childhood has led to me having schizophrenia”
Meet 18-year-old Brenton*. He migrated to Australia from Madrid when he was two, along with his father and sister. Within a few years, his dad deserted the children. Brenton and his sister were placed in foster care. Their foster father was violent and subjected Brenton to constant abuse. No teacher picked up on Brenton’s home-life because he was barely at school. He might as well have been invisible.
Eventually Brenton and his sister ran away. When they were located by police, the children were separated and Brenton began living with a succession of foster families. No matter how caring the particular family, Brenton’s traumatic early childhood had done irreversible damage. Violence and petty crime became his coping mechanism for all of life’s punches.
Brenton spent time in Adelaide’s decrepit Magill Training Centre and afterwards began living on the streets where he says he had to “fight to survive”. When I met him in a homeless shelter, Brenton was just coming to terms with his schizophrenia.
Unfortunately there are many invisible children like Brenton who have fallen through the cracks of our systems. As their stories do not invoke the big headlines like the carbon tax or people smuggling, they are rarely told. And when they are, we focus on the crime, not their neglect. States like Victoria consider nonsensical options like mandatory minimum sentencing.
These children desperately require the rights they are entitled to under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty lays out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of kids. Under Article 19, children are to be protected from abuse at the hands of their legal guardian. Under Article 27, they have a right to a standard of living adequate for their mental and social development. In short, the Convention provides a shield against the dangerous behaviours of abusers like Brenton’s foster father and an instrument to make vulnerable kids more visible.
In short, the Convention provides a shield against the dangerous behaviours of abusers like Brenton’s foster father and an instrument to make vulnerable kids more visible.
Yet despite Australia having been a party to this treaty for 22 years, we have barely heard about it. This lack of awareness is partly why Australia, in comparison to countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, has been so slow to implement children’s rights.
Indeed, most of Australia’s kids do grow up in healthy and happy families. I have met extraordinary foster parents who provide loving homes. But this should provide no excuse for being complacent in protecting the rights of vulnerable kids. Doing this only veils what’s really going on: realities like the 22,000 young Australians who are homeless on any given day.
Last October seven youth advocates, of whom I was one, shared the stories of kids like Brenton during our presentation of the Listen to Children NGO Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. We spoke about our personal experiences with child poverty, homelessness, out-of-home care, Indigenous disadvantage, juvenile justice and disability.
We also gave credit where credit’s due. In recent years, the federal government has inserted the Convention in the objects of the Family Law Act. It has created national frameworks on violence prevention, early childhood and child protection. Our call for an independent national Children’s Commission was also adopted by the government in May this year.
However there is a missing crucial piece to these political commitments: a national plan of action for implementing the actual full complement of rights set out in the Convention.
This was the main recommendation made by the UN Committee in their recent review of the federal government’s progress. With a Children’s Commission about to be established, a plan of action that sets an agenda for the Commission and joins up existing frameworks is the logical next step.
In particular, a plan of action could enable us to do two key things. Firstly, it could help us generate greater awareness of children’s rights. It was baffling to the Committee why the Convention had such low prominence in Australia. The treaty poses no threat to us. Rather it is a tool for inspiring commitment to and responsibility for children’s rights in all of us, youth included. Only with widespread awareness will we be able to strengthen our communities and systems to ensure that no child goes under the radar.
Only with widespread awareness will we be able to strengthen our communities and systems to ensure that no child goes under the radar.
Secondly, a plan of action could help us to work with children, not just for children. Partnership with kids is the key and it starts with listening. The Convention’s Article 12 sets out how a child’s views are to be given due weight in all decisions which affect them. To illustrate, it was the stories told by Brenton and his peers of the dehumanising conditions of Magill Training Centre which helped influence a political commitment to replace it. It is in these moments – when kids feel their voice is respected – that they mentally shift from the shackles of self-loathing to the freedom of self-belief. The new facility replacing Magill, designed in accordance with youth views on rehabilitation, opened just recently.
Making kids visible is both a means for achieving greater child wellbeing and an end in itself. As we move towards the 2013 Federal Election, I know that children’s wellbeing can transcend politics and we can achieve bipartisan support for the incoming national Children’s Commission and a national plan of action. We all care about kids. We can all help make them visible.
Chris Varney is the recipient of the National Award for Youth in Advancing the Legal Rights and Interests of Children and Young People.
*Brenton’s real name has been omitted to protect his privacy