New Zealand declares seclusion rooms are unreasonable and oppressive

The seclusion room door

In December 2017, New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman ruled that a school should pay $3000 and issue a formal apology to the family of an 11-year-old autistic child who was put in a “seclusion room” 13 times in nine days. The seclusion room was a dark cell, without windows or light. The treatment of the child came to his parents’ attention, and then to that of the public, when a behavior therapist came to the school, and found the child alone, unmonitored, and crying for help. That was in October 2016. Soon after, it was “discovered” that the use of seclusion rooms was fairly common in so-called special schools across New Zealand. In November 2016, the Education Minister proposed banning the use of seclusion rooms in schools. That became law in early 2017.  At the end of 2017, New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman declared the school had acted “unreasonably and oppressively”. Later the Ombudsman explained, “I just think we’ve got to be careful and sensitive about those times when the going gets tough and when we need to, in schools, manage difficult, challenging behaviour like this. This report of ours is a reminder of the need for dignity and humanity at all times and it’s just something we should never ever forget and we should not take our eye off the ball.”

While the decision of the Ombudsman is a positive result, why does it take so much effort to recognize that seclusion rooms are an affront to dignity and humanity? As the Chief Ombudsman noted in his decision, the result only occurred because the child’s parents were furious when they discovered how their child was being abused and, critically, raised a ruckus. Why must parents raise a ruckus to have their children treated decently and humanely?

This isn’t only about minors. Ashley Peacock is an adult living with intellectual disability, autism and mental illness. Under New Zealand’s Mental Health Act, Ashley Peacock was a compulsory, institutionalized patient. In that capacity, Ashley Peacock had been placed in solitary confinement, “seclusion rooms,” for years on end. In 2016, his parents started a national and international campaign to get their son out of the hellhole of solitary confinement and into more appropriate community based services. In 2016, Ashley Peacock was 38 years old. He had spent ten years in “care” institutions. Most of that time, he spent in isolation. In 2017, Ashley Peacock was moved to a community location. In December 2017, New Zealand announced it would phase out seclusion rooms in psychiatric institutions within two years.

Advocates for autistic children worry that, despite the law, schools might still use seclusion rooms. Consider this: no one knows how many hours that eleven-year-old child spent in solitary confinement, crying and pleading for help, because there are no records kept. In other schools, teachers refused to talk to police about their use of seclusion rooms. Hopefully, New Zealand will invest in enforcement of the new laws, but more will be needed. We must ask ourselves about our investment in torture that passes for education, on one hand, and for care, on the other. Why should parents have to be furious in order to keep their children, at all ages, from being tortured? When did solitary confinement become an integral part of education? When did the vulnerable become the execrable, the cursed?

 

(Photo Credit: New Zealand Herald)

In the camps, the women sigh, “O brave new world”

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy is deterrence. What happened to asylum being the key plank of asylum policy? Deterrence in this instance means “offshore camps”, particularly on the islands of Manus and Nauru Islands. Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea, where a trial opened today to challenge the legality of the “processing camps”. The charge is that the Papua New Guinean law does not allow for detention without any charge. Detention camps. Processing camps. Or, as Marianne Evers said of the camp on Nauru, “I actually liken it to a concentration camp.” Not surprisingly, the Australian government takes offense at the likening, “I think invoking concentration camp is a disgrace.” Calling the camps on Manus Island and Nauru Island “concentration camps” is a disgrace, but the camps themselves … are fine?

No.

Last week, New Matilda published three sets of letters by women asylum seekers currently imprisoned on Manus Island. The women are from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan. They describe terrible hardships in their homelands, terrific struggles to get to Australia, and then debilitating, crushing conditions on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. They describe the dire mental health crisis that sweeps through the camps, especially among the younger men who are increasingly suicidal. They write about their struggle for safety for themselves and their children. They write a great deal about their children. They describe the life draining out of their children within the universe of trauma that constitutes the detention camp. They describe the cultures and public policies of violence against women in their homelands that compelled them to leave, to seek personal safety and dignity.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report last week on Manus Island, based on a January visit. The agency confirms the reports of the women asylum seekers. The physical conditions are “harsh”. The living quarters have no privacy, which is a particular concern to parents of girls; are unbearably hot; and have grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. And that’s the family compound. The conditions in the compound for single male adults are worse.

The conditions are generally and specifically traumatic. They breed mental health crises on an individual, collective and structural basis. For the adults, it’s terrible. For the children, it’s crushing.

The UN list of dehumanizing conditions goes on, but here’s the point. This is what happens when deterrence is a key plank in asylum policy. Since Australia began “offshore processing” its asylum seekers, have the numbers gone down? Absolutely not. They’ve risen, incrementally. Does that mean the policy hasn’t worked? According to the State, it means the State hasn’t arrived at the proper balance of harsh and brutal. When the Australian government can match the brutality the women, children and men have fled, then it will have arrived at what it considers to be an appropriate asylum program.

Australia has invested political capital, national identity, and hard cold cash in brutalizing asylum seekers. They have sought partners. First they turned to Papua New Guinea, and this week, they turned to New Zealand. Australia sees asylum seekers as another `opportunity’ for regional free trade agreements. This time trade is in battered bodies and dreams.

Why can’t asylum, rather than deterrence, by the key plank of the asylum policy? What would it take to move the concept of the right to asylum to the center of all asylum policy? Ask the women asylum seekers on Manus Island. Repeatedly, they say they fled violence but they sought peace. Peace, rather than `security’, must govern asylum policy.

Meanwhile, the women who sought peace sit in the harsh camps on the remote islands, look at their children, look at themselves, look at the guards, look at where they’ve come to and where they’re probably going, if the State has its way, and they sigh, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t.”

 

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)