First published in Mondoweiss
When kids are brown does anyone care?
Americans are grappling with the incarceration of 10-year-olds and the concept of “tender age detention centers” while morally bankrupt politicians wring their bloodied hands. As courts begin to respond, many folks across the political spectrum are wondering, “What happens to the children caught in this catastrophe?” Interestingly, there is much we can learn from research in the US and from the Israeli experience with regard to children and prisons. The US and Israel both perceive themselves as enlightened “western democracies,” yet both have high incarceration rates, particularly for children of color, sometimes involving the same global prison industries. In both countries, these kinds of children are perceived as the “other,” the “enemy,” the “invading hordes ready to destroy America,” the “Muslim terrorists seeking to kill Israelis.” They are presented as less human and less deserving than white and/or Jewish children and less likely to evoke an empathic reaction.
The New York Times reported that the approximately quarter of a million children with incarcerated single mothers in the US are at risk for ending up in foster care, and as with the recent children on the US/Mexico border, they have the potential to being lost. Stop a moment. Can you imagine losing your own child to bureaucratic chaos and mismanagement? The Dallas Morning News noted, “No one in the criminal justice system is responsible for the safety of children whose mothers go to jail.” It seems that misplacing children in the bureaucracy of prisons and foster care is not a new phenomenon.
Juvenile detention facilities in the US currently hold more than 30,000 children. The Sentencing Project reports that black children are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white children. “More than 60 percent of child offenders are being held for nonviolent offenses like drugs, theft or even violations that only apply to minors.” Some facilities are still guilty of appalling conditions and practices such as the use of violence, restraints, solitary confinement, and the denial of education to a minor.
The approximately 400,000 children in the foster care system are often prohibited from any contact with their parents. Twelve percent of those live in group homes or institutional settings.
The Times article concluded:
These children are typically taken by officials they have never met, without warning, then subjected to intrusive interrogations, medical examinations and sometimes strip searches.
Some three-quarters of cases nationwide involve not abuse, but neglect, a “really broad umbrella” that “often just looks like poverty…There’s no consistent evidence that removing kids is, on average, beneficial, and there’s substantial evidence that it does harm.”
Much has been written about the extensive psychological and cognitive costs of abruptly removing children from their parents and placing them in prisons for indeterminate amounts of time. There is also significant trauma created by imprisoning families with their children indefinitely while basically the US justice system figures out a way to deport them to the dangers they fled, the gangs, rape, poverty, and domestic abuse. Additionally, it appears that the US government has no clear plan to reunite the 2,300 children separated at the border from their parents, including 400 children under the age of 12. Children are likely haunted by the experience of being abandoned and filled with self-doubt regarding their own worth.
In The New Yorker, one ER physician working in Colorado described what she was seeing as “government-mandated child abuse.” These children will be scarred for life because our President has created a false, racist narrative and incessant fear mongering regarding the dangers of migrants and asylum seekers. One could argue that this is a cynical move to keep his base happy as midterm elections loom ahead and as he plans for a glorious re-election. Famously, the President tweeted: “We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief.”
This level of depravity should be met with universal condemnation by anyone with even a shred of moral fiber or perhaps a Christian understanding of our responsibilities towards the weak, the powerless, and the destitute. To have the Vice President invoking his wrathful God to justify such unconscionable policies would be shocking if we were not already so inundated with the daily shocks from the White House.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should not be deprived of liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily and that arrest, detention, or imprisonment should only be used in extreme circumstances for the shortest period of time. Ironically, the US is the only country in the world that has not signed the treaty as reported by the ACLU.
But signing the treaty is clearly not enough. According to Defense of Children International-Palestine, last year an average of 310 Palestinian children were imprisoned for “security offenses” each month, with 60 children 12 to 15 years of age. An estimated 700 children are prosecuted each year in military courts with a 99+% conviction rate. The most common charge is stone throwing which can result in up to 20 years in prison. There have been multiple reports of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse during arrest and interrogation, with 74.5% of children reporting physical violence during arrest and 62% reporting verbal abuse, intimidation and humiliation. Solitary confinement during interrogation has been documented, with an average period of 12 days. The Israeli military courts also put children in administrative detention for months, basically imprisoning them without charges or trial.
To be absolutely clear on this, if a Jewish Israeli child was caught throwing stones at a PA security officer or a Palestinian farmer harvesting his olives, he would not end up in detention. Indeed, if he was from certain Jewish settlements, he would be celebrated as a hero. Such is the justice under military occupation. Jewish children live under civil law and of course are not viewed as the enemy.
According to Addameer, since 2000, more than 12,000 Palestinian children have been detained. The child’s sentence “is decided on the basis of the child’s age at the time of sentencing, and not at the time when the alleged offense was committed.” Children are arrested by Israeli security often in the middle of the night by a large and intimidating group of well-armed, helmeted soldiers. Families cower in the darkness of their homes while mothers and fathers scream to keep their sons from being blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken away. Targeting the most vulnerable puts pressure on the entire community to end any form of resistance. The soldiers also seek to force the children to become collaborators, to deter future participation in demonstrations and stone throwing, and to extort their families financially with large fines. In high conflict areas, there is a pattern of indiscriminate arrests and detention with little or no evidence except the testimony of a soldier.
The arrests are highly dangerous and traumatizing, leading to epidemics of bed wetting, anxiety, depression, PTSD, agitation, and dropping out of school. Childhood trauma also increases the risk of psychological and behavioral disorders in adulthood. Psychologists in the Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture in Ramallah note that targeting adolescents disrupts a critical point in character formation and disturbs the bonds between a child and his family and society. The arrest also causes havoc with the educational process as adolescents are often in the final stages of secondary school, preparing for exams and college.
While children from Mexico and Central and South America have different experiences from Palestinian children, they have much in common. One group is suffering from gangs, poverty, drugs, repression, and violent societies while the other is suffering from a brutal military occupation, recurrent IDF incursions, soldier and settler violence, home demolitions, and poverty. Under these circumstances, taking dangerous desert journeys at the hands of coyotes or heaving a stone at a jeep spewing teargas is an understandable response. Imprisoning either group is a political and racialized decision that creates deep and long-lasting trauma in the children and their families.
While the outrage builds in the US, will anyone pay attention to the fate of the children in the West Bank and Gaza? Their lives may depend on us.