Here’s another reason kids don’t belong in detention: trauma changes growing brains

Julian G. Simmons, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

A bill that would release the 112 children in immigration detention in Australia will soon go before the House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate last week, but it could be rejected by a government-majority House.

While it’s widely accepted that detention is bad for child asylum seekers, the long-term effects of that harm are rarely spelled out. Our recently published research sheds some light on this.

So what should members of parliament consider when casting their votes?

Growing brains are vulnerable

The brain has evolved to respond effectively to stressful situations, many of which are normal challenges of everyday life. Indeed, some researchers argue that humans’ extended period of childhood and adolescence (compared to other species) has evolved to maximise our adaptability to the varied environments and social dynamics we traverse. What defines these periods, in this context, is a changing brain, a brain trying to adapt.

This adaptability, however, comes at a cost: growing brains are more vulnerable. Repeated trauma in childhood appears to change children’s enduring hormonal function and brain development, and increases the risk of developing a range of psychological disorders.

Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress” hormone. It plays a complex and wide-ranging role in the human stress and arousal response. Cortisol is also central to glucose availability, blood pressure and immune function.

Alterations in cortisol function are found in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are also a risk factor for these disorders. A recent study found soldiers with lower cortisol output before going to war in Afghanistan were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after traumatic events experienced during their deployment.

Cortisol has traditionally been measured in saliva, blood or urine, reflecting output over minutes or days. These studies have found either unusually high or low levels of cortisol in children who have experienced maltreatment. This defective regulation suggests a system initially pushed into overdrive, and then overwhelmed, becomes fatigued.

But this changing physiological picture, and our constantly varying levels of cortisol, has led to many inconsistent findings.

What did our research find?

Our new research studied the cortisol levels of 70 nine-year-old children living in and around Melbourne. We recorded these levels from scalp hair to determine their total cortisol output over months.

We found that the number and types of traumatic events experienced earlier in childhood correlated with hair cortisol levels. These events included illness and deaths in the family, and being sick or hurt in an accident. More extreme events, such as fires, floods or being threatened or attacked, were relatively uncommon.

Traumatic experiences in childhood alter the development of brain structures during adolescence. These structures include those directly linked to cortisol production, such as the pituitary gland, as well as others linked with emotion processing and memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Alterations in these structures have been identified in mental health disorders.

We have shown that adversity increases the risk of mental health disorders in adolescence. These disorders in turn further alter the way the brain develops.

Childhood adversity, particularly maltreatment, is associated with increased risk for numerous behavioural problems. These include drug use, suicide attempts, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections. The earlier the experience of adversity in childhood, the greater the risk of poor mental health outcomes.

What does this mean for detained children?

Clearly there are differences between the environments of our Melbourne families and those of detained children. But these differences are largely matters of degree.

Children in detention are at very high risk of exposure to physical and sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation and forced relocation. They also commonly witness traumatic events affecting loved ones. These experiences roughly double their risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

The more traumatic events a child experiences, the more likely lasting problems will emerge. A recent German assessment of families seeking refugee status found that 86.5% had already experienced multiple traumas involving war, torture and involuntary displacement.

Children entering detention in Australia already have elevated rates of psychological problems. The trauma of detention is likely to compound these harmful effects, which may persist long after the resolution of the immigration process.

Childhood is a sensitive and vulnerable period; experiences of trauma and adversity can produce harm that endures into adulthood. This inescapable knowledge should inform policy on the release of children from detention and remind us of the care and support they will need when they are finally released.

The Conversation

Julian G. Simmons, Research Fellow in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News



Detained since January, Alimjan Yimit awaits new court date.

DUBLIN, November 11 (Compass Direct News) – Chinese officials have yet to declare a new court date for Alimjan Yimit, a Christian house church leader and ethnic Uyghur in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang detained since his arrest on Jan. 12.

Alimjan’s name appears as Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese documents.

State prosecutors in mid-October returned Alimjan’s case to a Xinjiang court for consideration, China Aid Association (CAA) reported. Court officials have refused to release details of the case to the public, but sources told Compass that further legal action is expected imminently.

Charges against Alimjan include “inciting secessionist sentiment to split the country” and “collecting and selling intelligence for overseas organizations,” CAA reported in June. Officials have threatened to hand down a sentence ranging from as much as six years in prison to execution.

Once a Muslim, Alimjan converted to Christianity more than 10 years ago and became active in the growing Uyghur church. Friends said they believe his faith is the real reason for his arrest.

His wife Gulnur has consistently proclaimed his innocence, pointing out that as an agricultural worker he had no access to information affecting national security and therefore could not be guilty of leaking such information.

Alimjan’s hair, dark when police arrested him on Jan. 12, is now graying as a result of harsh conditions in detention, sources said.

During Alimjan’s employment with two foreign-owned companies, officials from the State Security Bureau (SSB) regularly called him in for interrogation, forbidding him to discuss the questioning with anyone.

In September 2007, they closed the business Alimjan worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.”

Lawyers had hoped for an early acquittal for Alimjan based on evidence of unfair treatment due to his Christian beliefs. A lengthy bureaucratic process, however, has dimmed these hopes.

A trial was initially scheduled for April but postponed while court documents – including interrogation records from the Xinjiang SSB – were translated from Uyghur into Chinese.

When the case was heard on May 27, court officials allowed Alimjan’s two lawyers to be present but banned his wife from entering the courtroom due to the “sensitivity” of the case. After deliberations the court returned the case to state prosecutors citing insufficient evidence. (See Compass Direct News, “Court Cites ‘Insufficient Evidence’ in Christian’s Trial,” May 30.)

In September, Public Security Bureau officers in Xinjiang returned the case to state prosecutors, who again presented it to the court for consideration in October.


Another Uyghur Christian’s Appeal Denied

A second Uyghur Christian, Osman Imin, has aged dramatically and his health has deteriorated due to conditions in a labor camp where he is forced to work 12 to 15 hours per day.

In Chinese documents, Osman’s name appears as Wusiman Yaming.

The State Security Bureau in Hetian City, Xinjiang in September 2007 sentenced Osman to two years of re-education through labor for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.” Associates, however, said his arrest had nothing to do with disclosure of state secrets but with the fact that he was an outspoken Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church.

Authorities first arrested Osman in October 2004, holding him in a detention center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, for an unspecified “violation of law,” according to CAA.

During his initial detention, Osman was chained to a metal bed and beaten repeatedly during interrogations, a source that spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. (See Compass Direct News, “Uyghur Christians Arrested, Jailed in Xinjiang,” February 11.)

Osman was released on bail on Nov. 18, 2004 and bail was canceled in October 2006. On July 26, 2007, however, he was again placed under supervised house arrest and finally detained by police on Nov. 19 for allegedly leaking state secrets.

Officials had called for a 10- to 15-year criminal sentence, but after international media attention they reduced the term to two years in labor camp.

When Osman’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun appealed his sentence in June, court authorities insisted on a closed hearing on grounds that the case involved confidential information, CAA reported. They turned down the appeal, refusing to explain why and denying Osman proper access to his lawyer, which violated normal court procedure.

Compass previously reported that officials had arrested and detained a third Uyghur believer, a woman from southern Xinjiang. Further investigation revealed that both she and her husband were arrested on charges of theft.

Report from Compass Direct News