14 min 
Essays & Issue Five

How could you do this to us?

By Christine Hill

This essay won the 2017 Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition for Non fiction and was first published in Writers Victoria.

I find myself in no-man’s-land – a large and largely empty space between freedom and detention. It has taken months of patient planning to get this far. Copies of passport, driver’s licence, Working with Children check, Federal Police check, and proof of professional status, together with detailed ‘Visitor’ forms and my car’s registration number, were long ago completed, signed, carefully scanned, and sent as requested. Apparently the copies were not clear enough for the detention centre administration so I sent them again. When new information was requested I sent the forms again. When colour copies were requested I sent them again. When the office could not locate my completed, signed, scanned, clear, detailed, coloured copies I sent them again. No reason was given the next time; they knew there was no need. I sent the copies again. I learned to wait, to ask for nothing, and to expect nothing – familiar working territory for a psychotherapist, but for an infant it is a sign ofdespair.

In the spring of 2014 I was taken to visit a place in Melbourne where families were imprisoned, guards accompanied children to school, and babies were born and raised in detention. I met people of all ages but, as a perinatal psychotherapist, I was particularly interested in the babies and their parents.

Many of the parents were depressed. This was not surprising. They believed that they were coming to Australia for a better life for themselves and for their children; instead they were isolated, interned, and identified by number.

Confused and frustrated by a slippery and slow-moving bureaucracy that appeared to have no deadline for refugee-status decision-making, parents were powerless to act. My efforts to gain access may have left me feeling like a character in a Kafka novel but, unlike these families, I was free to leave, to make plans for my future, and to live a useful life.

I discovered that the birth of a baby in detention was logged as an “incident”. The incident was given a number and classified as “minor”. I learned that asylum-seeking families relied on the kindness of strangers for ‘luxuries’ like children’s clothes, nursery items for babies, and even bananas. And while there were many kind strangers, there was very little joy for babies and their mothers. With this in mind I resolved to make a space for play.

Babies are born to play; it is how they communicate with mother, father, and others. Research from a range of disciplines has helped us appreciate that infants arrive in the world with an extraordinary capacity for communication; all they need is a mother (or other) who is willing and able to respond. Studies in developmental psychology have shown that, within one hour of birth, healthy infants can mimic tongue, eye and mouth movements and sounds; a few hours later they can imitate a range of facial expressions, and head and finger movements. By two to three days of age they can tell the difference between a smiling, frowning, or surprised face, and accurately imitate each one. From birth, babies move their bodies to the rhythm of their mother’s voice. A healthy mother will respond by adapting her speech to her baby’s movements, and a healthy baby will respond to her speech, and so on; in this way a pattern of playful communication can begin.

Neuroscience gives us hard data that confirms the crucial role of environment during the first months of a baby’s life. At the time of birth, neurons (brain cells) in the cerebral cortex (the part of our brain responsible for processing information) are standing by, ready to link up via their synapses (the space

between brain cells). The stimulation of birth and the infant’s early environment creates a surge of synaptic connections at a rate of two million per second. The number, type, and duration of connections are dependent upon the quality and quantity of the infant’s interactions with others. By the age of three months, the parts of the cerebral cortex that oversee vision, hearing, and touch have realised maximum synaptic density. An infant’s environment shapes her brain, literally.

The twentieth century British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby may have been surprised by the extraordinary development of neuroscience but not by its findings. He believed that our very survival depends on our attachment to our caregivers. Challenging psychoanalytic theory that failed to accommodate the influence of environment, he borrowed from ethology to mount a scientific argument for the infant’s biological need to have mother physically and emotionally present. Bowlby’s recognition of the attachment needs of infants was an important contribution to our understanding of human development. There is now an abundance of research telling us that the cognitive, physical, and emotional health of each and every baby is dependent upon a warm, loving, and reliable caregiver who is sensitively attuned to that particular baby. The absence of such a caregiver can have devastating consequences. One example of the long-term effects of emotional deprivation is the abandoned children of Ceauşescu’s Romania; Australia’s infants in detention may well prove to be another.

As a volunteer, I am forbidden to exit the other door, the one that leads into the detention area. Having spent many months proving my identity, I am now instructed to not be myself. I am told to leave my politics and my professional status at the door, along with my phone, money, and anything sharp. My basket of play-things is searched and a mirror-toy is confiscated. For some unknown (and perhaps unknowable) reason, I am not to be trusted, much like the people I have come to see – young babies detained indefinitely with their well-meaning parents. In 1992, when Paul Keating, the economic reformist and so-called visionary, introduced mandatory indefinite detention for illegal maritime arrivals in Australia, could he, even in his wildest imaginings, have envisaged this?

Prior to the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, there was no readily available data on the ages of the children. The 2014 Inquiry found that, by the end of March that year, there were 153 infants under the age of two years and that these infants accounted for seventeen per cent of all children in detention. From January 2013 to March 2014 there were 128 babies born to mothers in detention. By September 2014 the average length of detention for children and parents was one year and two months. In May 2015, a Senate Estimates session revealed that one child had been in detention for one thousand, seven hundred and seventy four days.

With coloured fabric and sweet-smelling flowers, I create a physically beautiful space in the far corner of this enormous room, as far away as possible from the door and the disinterested guard who sits beside it. I wait, not knowing if anyone will come, or when. I look through the large windows, past the decking, past the out-door seating, past the fake grass, towards the barbed-wire fence. It looks like rain. The guard tells me that ‘they’ are lazy and will not come. I see a woman, her scarfed head bent, shielding herself from the cold wind. She is pushing a baby-stroller that is covered in clear plastic. I watch her negotiate the rough, unsheltered path that links this space with the accommodation block some distance away. She slowly makes her way to the door that marks the boundary between detention and no-man’s-land. As she stands there, uncomplaining, quietly waiting for the guard to notice her, I am reminded of my dog, waiting for the release command, the one that allows her to run off-leash and play in the park. The guard eventually looks up from his phone and unlocks the door, remotely, via a button under his desk. The woman struggles in the windy conditions, one hand on the stroller, the other pushing open the door, not looking at the guard who does not move to help. Once inside, she checks her scarf. I walk towards her smiling, my right hand outstretched in greeting. She responds with a shy smile and her baby looks at me warily from behind the plastic shield.

As mother removes the shield, she speaks softly and gently to her baby. All warm and pink, the baby girl returns my smile, shyly like her mother, before looking away. She twists her body, trying to find her mother’s face, to check if it is safe to smile again. Her mother’s features are all she needs – a myriad of messages exchanged in one shared gaze:

“Are you there? I’m here.

Do you see me? I see you.

Do you know how I feel? I think so.

Will you keep me safe? I’ll do my best.

Will you help me learn what I need to know? I’ll try”.

But if her mother is depressed, if her mother’s face is blank, the baby’s questions go unanswered and she will not know what to make of me, or indeed, of anything. She will have no reliable reference point, no secure base from which to explore, no safe place to which she can return, and worse, no expectation of one.

When the shield is off, and mother has smiled her approval, I greet the baby. Her arms wave and her legs kick. The play has begun.

Donald Winnicott, the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, described play almost poetically as an experience that leads to trust and confidence in one’s capacity to live creatively. For Winnicott, play is not so much about the toy or the game but rather about what takes place between the minds of those playing. Play needs space and time. It needs minds that are not depressed, minds that are open to new experience. Play needs hope, and hope needsplay.

Several babies and mothers play on the mat. One mother sits some distance from her baby who is busy trying to grasp a rattle and put it in his mouth. She does not look at him but absent-mindedly picks up a soft toy and strokes it while staring into the distance. I say that her baby is very clever to persist with the rattle but she seems unable to think of his experience. After a while baby crawls towards her to hungrily grasp her clothed breast. Everyone, including his mother, laughs at his determination; he notices this, and looks pleased with himself. In the midst of the play a group of guards walks past. All the mothers freeze, and so do their babies.

A strikingly beautiful woman hands me her equally beautiful baby girl as if it is my right, not hers, to hold and admire her. This mother is warm and generous in her conversations with other mothers and babies but I notice that when she is with her own baby they are unable to look at each other. I wonder what they cannot bear to see. I do not ask; I play. Over the following weeks and months mother’s tragic story is told, in fragments – broken bits and jagged pieces, too awful to hear all at once. Perhaps she does not look in order to protect her baby from seeing what she has suffered, and still suffers; perhaps her baby knows.

One morning, after I have been visiting regularly each week for several months, the receptionist announces that I cannot go into the room to play because my forms are not on file. She says she knows I have completed them – she watched me do it (again) last time– but she cannot let me in because she cannot find them. When I calmly suggest that this is insane, she is un- perturbed, her voice unnaturally bright as she admits: “There are a lot of insane things in this place”.

After one year of making and holding a space for babies to play it is clear that everyone is struggling. Infants born in detention celebrate their first birthday in detention, and their parents, who had previously made good use of the play space to nurture healthy relationships and delight in their babies’ development, are losing hope. Mothers who had once laughed and played, encouraging and supporting their babies’ play, are now quite depressed. Some threaten suicide. While this is desperately sad there are no words to describe the change in their babies. These once joyful, confident, playful infants are now withdrawn, frightened, and easily distressed. Some are refusing milk, sleep, and comfort. There is very little play. It is alI I can do to keep coming, reliably each week, at the same time, to hold the space and with it the possibility of hope.

In 1952, when the Austrian-American psychoanalyst René Spitz showed his film, ‘Grief: a peril in infancy’, to a group of experienced psychiatrists and psychoanalysts he shattered some of their long-held beliefs (or delusions) regarding the mental health of infants. The film clearly showed the physical and psychological decline of very young children who were separated from their mothers and given no reliable mother-substitute. These medical specialists were moved to tears as they witnessed the terrible pain caused by early emotional deprivation. Spitz had opened their minds to uncomfortable truths, truths they could no longer ignore, causing one distressed senior analyst to reproach him with “How could you do this to us?”

A 2010 study, commissioned by the Australian Government, analysed the health records of 700 people in detention and found a clear association between time in detention and rates of mental illness. A number of studies before and since clearly demonstrate that children and adults in detention suffer much greater levels of poor mental health than do families in the general community. This has prompted a number of organisations of health professionals, including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, to call for an end to a government- sanctioned system that is making people sick. The conclusion reached by the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention was plain: “it is the fact of detention itself that is causing harm.”

When the mental health of the mothers deteriorates further, they stay in their rooms and fathers bring the babies to play. Their commitment to doing what they believe is best is admirable, but these men are exhausted. They provide every aspect of physical care for their babies and for their wives, staying awake all night to watch over them, fearful that their wives will self-harm. With no space in their parents’ minds for play these immaculately dressed, carefully wrapped babies lie motionless and quiet, asking for nothing and expecting nothing.

Very gently, not wanting to overwhelm her, I bring a bright-coloured but soft- sounding rattle towards a baby girl. Lying on her back, she holds her arms stiffly by her side, her fists clenched, her eyes dull. Gradually she turns her head to look at the toy but she makes no attempt to reach for it and soon turns her head away. Her depleted father does not notice.

Successive Australian governments have argued that the policy of indefinite detention deters people smugglers and prevents deaths at sea. Hence, while some nations responded compassionately to Nilüfer Demir’s heart-wrenching photograph of the drowned body of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Australian reaction was more like: “I told you so!”. When Le Monde journalist, Philippe Dagen linked Demir’s now iconic image with Picasso’s Guernica and Poussin’sLe massacre des Innocents, he reminded us that atrocities involving infants in the name of politics or progress are not unprecedented. Surely we must ask: since Herod’s slaughter of infant boys and the Nazi bombing of Basque families, have we learned nothing?

Sadly, it appears that clinging to delusion is preferable to learning the truth. The Australian government’s criticisms of the ABC’s Four Corners report (October 2016) on children detained on Nauru suggest that this is the case. Having failed to effectively silence those who have seen for themselves the human cost of this head-in-the-sand approach to the mental health of families who wanted nothing more than an opportunity to live a safe life, our political leaders would rather risk ridicule than see what we have seen. Of course it may well be a defensive mechanism, one that needs to work hard to protect a fragile but blustering ego. After all, as some of us know, it is not easy to be in the presence of babies and their parents who did not drown but who are dying insideanyway.

Delusion may also explain the Border Force Act which was passed by both sides of Parliament in 2015 and sold to the Australian people as a necessary security measure that would discourage people smugglers. The Act effectively ensures that the general public remains ignorant of the actual experience of people in detention facilities. This may be a misguided attempt to protect the public from the guilt and shame of knowing the truth, but it is unlikely to protect us from the judgement of future generations who will wonder why we did nothing to prevent the systematic destruction of the mental health of innocent children and their parents.

More than seventy years since Spitz’s film a large body of research supports and reinforces his findings: We know that emotional deprivation is catastrophic for infants. We know that indefinite detention not only causes but is, in itself, emotional deprivation. We know that infants and their parents have been, and are still being detained indefinitely. Yet with all this knowing, where is the reproach?

The father apologises. He says he cannot come to playgroup anymore. He must watch his wife. She has twice attempted suicide. He tells me that there is no God and that drowning would be better than this. I wonder who will play with the baby.