Taken By The State

‘No child should be put in this position’

Child psychology expert Associate Professor Nicola Atwool teaches in the University of Otago's social work programme and the post-graduate Children’s Issues Centre programme. She has been asked to comment on the two videos in Newsroom's investigation

These comments are based solely on that material and I have no information about the background to the incidents portrayed in the videos. 

In both clips the children are in a traumatised state. The defining characteristic of trauma is that the child’s (or adult’s) coping capacities are overwhelmed and this is clearly evident. There is a well-established body of evidence about the impact of trauma and other adverse circumstances on children.

Even single-event trauma can have a lasting impact. Exposure to multiple trauma or on-going stressful circumstances throughout childhood and adolescence impacts on physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

The effect is particularly profound because their whole developmental journey is shaped by these experiences and without intervention they have a detrimental impact on every aspect of their functioning.

Children and young people exposed to trauma need supportive adults to help them make sense of these experiences. Trauma disrupts the child’s/young person’s sense of safety and without this they develop protective strategies that often manifest as ‘difficult behaviour’. This may mean that the adults in their world do not understand the full depth of their distress and their reactions may generate more trauma for the child or young person.

Any intervention to assist the police with their unenviable task will be interpreted by the child as betrayal. 

The two children in the video clips are completely without support. Research has demonstrated that children judge adults by their actions and only feel heard when adults act on what they have to say. In this case family members are not in a position to protect their child.

Any intervention to assist the police with their unenviable task will be interpreted by the child as betrayal. The police have been put in the position of carrying out an action that is clearly against the wishes of the child and young person in the clips. They do not look comfortable with this task and it is unlikely that they have received any training in how to manage children or young people in this situation.

The situation is made worse for the youngest child because the uplift takes place at night. Young children are often fearful of the dark and being in night clothes would have increased her sense of vulnerability. The young man’s more passive response is equally distressing and should not be minimised simply because he offers less resistance.

The children have become scapegoats of the less-than-perfect systems in place to address such matters. 

It would appear that this situation has arisen because the court has determined that a breach of existing orders has taken place. The children have become scapegoats of the less-than-perfect systems in place to address such matters. The law is an exceptionally blunt implement when disputes between parents are managed by rules. What is portrayed is completely contrary to the Care of Children Act 2004, which places high value on the best interests of the child and has provision for children and young people to have their voices heard in decision-making that impacts on them. 

No child should be put in this position. What is portrayed is traumatisation resulting from the failure to develop systems that are equal to managing these situations without scapegoating the most vulnerable participants. Whatever the beliefs of the respective parents, the path to resolution should never involve the forcible removal of children against their wishes.

Nicola Atwool is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work at the University of Otago. She has professional qualifications in social work and child psychotherapy and has worked in the social service sector for more than 40 years in practitioner and academic roles. She was also employed as a Principal Advisor in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for six years. The focus of her past and present work is intervention with children and young people in adverse circumstances.

The goal of her research is to influence policy and practice to improve outcomes for children and young people exposed to adversity. She has a particular interest in childhood trauma and the ways in which attachment theory, resilience perspectives, and neuroscience contribute to our understanding of, and capacity to support children and young people to have positive outcomes in difficult circumstances.


* See Newsroom's investigation here
* Read Case 1: Snatched from school
* Read Case 2: Waking up to cops in the kitchen
* Read Case 3: Pried from home with a crowbar
* Read: The legislation behind uplifting children

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