The Rights of the Child
“I see these children with their boredom and their vacant stares, God help us all if we’re to blame for their unanswered prayers.”
Billy Joel, No Man’s Land
Barbara Holborow firmly believes that every child born is everybody’s responsibility. She is of the opinion that there are people in this world entirely unfit to have and raise children, and that some young offenders simply cannot be saved no matter how severe the punishment or how tight the hug.
And she should know. Having served 12 years as a magistrate in the Children’s Court of Australia, and more than 30 campaigning for a major shift in juvenile justice, there’s not a lot Holborow hasn’t seen when it comes to young criminals and abused kids. Her reaction to the sordid tales she encountered in her professional life spurred her commitment to the cause and she has since become the pivotal difference for countless children, as well as playing roles in the creation of a special jail for first-time offenders, develop a “care court” for neglected children and in setting up free legal aid for children in the Australian state of New South Wales.
Holborow has documented her time serving the needs of children in two books released in the late 1990s, Those Track on My Face (William Heinemann, 1997) and Barbara Holborow’s Kids: Loving for Life (Random House, 1999) in which she examined causes behind the behavior of children and how they responded to abuse, punishment and neglect. It was in these books that Holborow outlined her now famous approach to helping children find their voices, express love and accept honest companionship—the community’s responsibility for all its children, the belief that parents need to be more responsible for the actions of their kids, and if these parents are not up to the challenge, then somebody else far more equipped with the right emotional tools should do it—no questions asked. In The Good, The Bad and the Inevitable, Holborow takes her readers a step closer to understanding these strategies and ideals.
A collection of about 80 cases Holborow presided over in her time in Children’s Court, The Good, The Bad and the Inevitable is a heartfelt and honest rendering of the rough state of children’s justice in Australia. Holborow presents a no holds barred look at just how horrific some kids have it, how badly they will behave for a little attention, and how ridiculously ill-equipped some parents (and lawyers) are to deal with the actions and emotional reactions of their offspring.
Take young Dorita, for example. Holborow paints for us the entire picture of a young girl born suffering heroin withdrawals, whose parents were both in prison on her first day of school. Put into care with her aunt, Dorita was finally away from drugs, but was forced to come along while her new family committed various robberies and break-ins. She was raped, beaten and emotionally battered. By the age of ten she had attended nine different schools, having been booted from all of them. Though she eventually found acceptance at a farm for runaway girls, Dorita was constantly reminded of her parents’ utter disregard for her, as, when released from prison, neither bothered to contact her. She eventually overdosed on the drug she was addicted to at birth. As Holborow says, “Dorita [was left] with nothing. No hope, no love. No-one could reach her.”
Dorita’s story is just one of the hopeless tales recounted by Holborow in a tough, just-the-facts way. We also learn about baby Emily, whose mother placed the young girl’s hands on a hot plate to demonstrate how dangerous the stove was. There’s Layota, who was fed sleeping pills by her mother so she would stop crying. We meet Terry, the young offender Holborow chose to trust, allowing him to remain in a minimum security detention center when police were pushing for harsher punishment following a malicious damage charge. He later broke out and raped a young girl. We hear about Kieran, whose mother was so distraught at the breakdown of her marriage that she began dressing Kieran as a girl. And about Robert, shaken to death by his frustrated father. And the list goes on and on.
Holborow tells these stories with a fierce and uncompromising directness, refusing to sugarcoat such sadness with bites of inspiration, or anecdotes about responsibility or blame. She presents fair accounts of lives gone awry, and it is in this honest directness that Holborow’s sympathies arise.
Very schoolmarm-ish in her storytelling, Holborow often sounds as though she is giving a lecture, that her readers are the very people she is attacking, and it works—after all, returning to Holborow’s main theory, every child is the responsibility of everyone. These stories may very well be about kids we don’t know, nameless, faceless, “other people’s” kids, they still deserve a helping hand from anyone willing to reach out. Holborow’s sympathy comes in her frustration that kids ever get to the stage where they’re setting fire to property or selling themselves on the streets for spare change.
Whether discussing the rights of children, the devastation of abuse, or the deficiencies of the children’s justice system, Holborow maintains her belief that change is possible if only people allowed themselves to be more in tune with the problem: “If you don’t have strong families,” Holborow told ABC’s Australian Story not long ago, “you don’t have strong communities—if you don’t have strong communities, you don’t have a strong Australia. Politicians say children are our future [but] children are now.”
Holborow expands on this in her book by saying, “The support of a community is one of the greatest things that can help us through our lives”, mentioning the tireless work of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Samaritans like Father Chris Riley who continues to assist young people to find their way by offering shelter, food and various loving environments across Australia, and Elsie’s Women’s Refuge for battered wives.
With her no nonsense outlook and deep set compassion, Barbara Holborow is living proof that with a little dedication and strong shoulder, people can make a difference. She is less concerned with presenting band-aid solutions, instead wishing to remodel the children’s judicial system from the inside out, as well as to educate about the best way to keep children safe, happy and out of trouble or direct danger, and that despite regulations saying so, parents are not always the best guardians for their children.
Her book, though tragic and, at times, difficult to read, showcases the very reason communities should be looking out for their young, good or bad. Rarely are her tales uplifting, with Holborow instead playing on reader sympathies to get the ball of change rolling. On the page, as in the courtroom, her directness works.