Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

Our justice system is intended to keep the community safe. While we detain young children, we undermine this intention. We are not acting in the best interests of our children. In fact, we are currently re-traumatising children and pushing them into the adult justice system. We need to be smarter and kinder when responding to children at risk. Indeed, Australia must do so as a signatory to multiple UN instruments.

Recently I wrote a paper about trauma-informed practice and raising the age of criminal responsibility. It was a difficult paper to write (and I didn’t get it right the first time, as Reviewer 2 rightly pointed out). It will be published in a special edition of the Current Issues in Criminal Justice journal in due course.

Implementing the #raisetheage Campaign

After a lot of painful reflection, I realised that to #raisetheage of criminal responsibility in Australia from 10 years old to 12 or older, is itself a trauma-informed strategy. This is because #raisetheage realises the relevance of trauma in the lives of children caught up in the youth justice system. But the relationship between #raisetheage and trauma-informed practice goes two ways.

A key hurdle for the #raisetheage campaign is the lack of a clear operational framework. We all agree that children as young as 10 should not be detained in custody. But, no one knows how best to respond to children at risk of criminalisation who have complex needs. There are no clear models that articulate how to respond to vulnerable children under the age of criminal responsibility. SAMHSA’s 4Rs model may be able to assist. (The model also inform the Magnolia Project’s Guiding Principles).

The 4Rs model aims to realise the potential presence of trauma, recognise its impact and significance, respond in a manner informed by this knowledge, and resist further re-traumatisation (SAMHSA, 2014). Suppose responses to children at risk of criminalisation are framed in a way that reflects the 4Rs. The 4Rs would promote practice informed by trauma. Just as importantly, practice would be evidence-informed and focus on individual factors, including culture, strengths and existing supports.

Justice reinvestment from youth detention to trauma-informed services

Currently Child Protection agencies are being criticised for lacking the capacity to support children who have experienced abuse and neglect. If children are no longer within the remit of youth justice agencies (no longer regarded as ‘young offenders’), the danger is that they will be added to the caseload of child protection agencies. Child Protection agencies are already unable to fulfil their mandate to keep children safe. Given the costs of youth justice (especially detention), this money could be re-allocated to new, tailored services based on the 4Rs model. As a result, youth detention funding would be re-allocated to trauma-informed, targeted individual, family and community supports.