Age-appropriate Justice Proceedings
The Psychological Costs of
Failing to Protect Children During Treatment by Legal-authorities
The commitment of adults to protect children involved in legal proceedings has been anchored for decades in international conventions and in the legal systems of individual states.
Children rights: Legal authorities play an important role in ensuring the security of civil populations; at the same time each society faces the challenge to balance the goal of protecting their citizens with the need to safeguard each person’s right to equal protection before the law.
This is particularly true with regard to ensuring the rights of child-defendants and child-witnesses, the young who have needs that are different from those of adults.
Even when convicted of crimes, children have the right to be acknowledged as children deserving of care appropriate to their young age.
Maturation processes and rehabilitation: Such age-appropriate treatment by legal authorities takes into account the intensified pace of maturation processes in early life. The rapidness of their developmental changes renders children as suitable candidates for learning and rehabilitative processes. Children involvement in such reparation activities may contribute both to their own well-being and to the well-being of society as a whole.
Children’s vulnerability: Adapted treatment by those who administer the law express a recognition of the special vulnerability of children:
The level of children’s emotional maturity impacts their ability to process difficult experiences; the level of their cognitive maturity determines their ability to realize the full meaning of what it is that they have done; and their level of social understanding greatly influences their ability to fully grasp the legal reality they’re involved in.
Legal authorities must also keep in mind the extent to which children must depend on parents, in terms of their day to day life functioning and of their emotional stability.
Dependency and trust in adults: Children need adults who can be trusted around them. During the course of their development, the relationship with those adults who are responsible for them is internalized; this can facilitate a child’s capacity for empathy towards the other and can enable her or him to participate more and more fully in social life.
Trust in adults as benevolent and protective figures may well be eroded in situations in which a child’s needs are ignored and violated by adults who represent the law. This rupture of trust is likely to widen when a parent’s ability to stand by and protect a child is limited or absent altogether.
Coping abilities: Compared to adults, children are much less equipped with resources for facing threatening situations, since the mental apparatus which helps an adult find his or her way through these crises develops only over time.
Legal proceedings, such as arrest, interrogation, and sentencing pose mental and emotional challenges that may lead, even in adults, to the development of severe psychological handicaps. Children and adolescents find it harder than adults to cope with such situations.
Experiences of fear, helplessness, shame, and guilt felt in encounters with legal authorities might result in high psychological costs for children, affecting them for life.
Susceptibility: Needless to say, minors are more susceptible than adults to fall prey to unfair legal processes.
Special modifications of the legal system designed to meet the needs of children and adolescents ensure the presence of appropriate procedures, thus limiting the potential for psychological damage.
Risk of Traumatic results: Consequences of failing to adapt the legal system to the needs of children might include post-traumatic symptoms; a breakdown of the formation of a positive self-image and of relational trust; a significant decrease in the quality of day-to-day functioning; and an increase in the chance that children will become early dropouts from schools and other institutions that might nurture them.
The separation of a child from his or her family might affect parents’ and siblings’ well-being as well, thus causing serious harm to family functioning.
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