Physical Restraint: Adult Violence Against Children

Children,  as young as 5 years old, have been arrested and placed in handcuffs at school. There are times when, in the lives of all families, children get into trouble-either in the home, at school or in the community. That is just a fact of life. This ‘trouble’ can become an issue that may warrant the direct involvement and intervention of outside agencies and/or authorities. Depending upon age and nature or severity of the ‘trouble’ as well as jurisdiction, these children can be referred to the juvenile justice system. In some cases, it can be child welfare systems who become involved in this child’s and family’s life. Almost all are determined to have the authority to  potentially separate children from their families and communities through out-of-home placement. Residential facilities, such as secure detention centers, house children placed there as a consequence of some inappropriate behaviors, among them violent criminal acts.

However, not every young person is placed in detention facilities because of violence they have subjected others to, but some can be placed out of the home for the violence they have experienced or been subjected to. My concern does not center on what brings children into the ‘system’, all under an umbrella of ‘child welfare’ or ‘juvenile justice’, this message pertains to the policies and practices of behavior management while in custody. This is my exploration of children’s experiences of legitimized violence in the form of ‘restraints’, utilized in detention facilities that are regulated and taxpayer-funded.

The very nature of the imprisonment of children,  children held in custody, is that it is inherently unsafe and presents more negative, and sometimes life-long harm than positive life-affirming outcomes. Where’s the academic growth and life skills preparedness? Where is the social-emotional learning and support? Where and who are the role models? How are families meaningfully engaged and empowered? If these elements are not present and embedded in policy and daily practices, then what is the point? … put more young people in jail, keep them contained, all serving to keep you feeling safe in the knowledge that they are ‘in their place’?

A physical restraint is defined as any method of one or more persons restricting another person’s freedom of movement, physical activity, or normal access to his or her body. It is a means for controlling that person’s movement, reconstituting behavioral control, and establishing and maintaining safety for the out-of-control individual, other individuals, and school staff. Physical restraints have been in widespread use across most human service, medical, juvenile justice, and education programs for a long period of time. While some have proposed physical restraint as a therapeutic procedure for some children and youth, this view has no scientific basis and is generally discredited.

Harmful and unsafe care characterizes the vast majority of  punitive settings in which children are placed. Behavior management interventions, designed to ensure children’s safety, rely too heavily on the displays of violence, from adult to child. It sounds rather absurd that children are continued to be ‘controlled’ as though it were 200 years ago, with full awareness that these techniques and even worse physical restraints were used to control and oppress enslaved people. Yet, it is being justified as a strategy for ensuring children’s safety, keeping them from harm.

When was the last time that we have ever seen depicted in any film, a white person or parent, as a normal means of disciplining their child, doing so without suggesting some dysfunction or abuse? The intervention most often is a calm and rational discussion at the dinner table. The outcome is either curtailed privileges or increased responsibilities. Of course, that is all wrapped up by the ‘go to your room’ command.

Given the genius and intelligence all around us, students and scholars alike, and the illuminated expertise across all fields of study,   one must examine why there are any reminders of strategies used by whites to control blacks, as though they were animals, still in existence and used with children. Also in our field of awareness, it is statistically factual, that the vast majority of youth in custody, detention centers and other  residential settings, are children of color. Why does this not trigger any alarms?

When children get into physical fights, it is usually with other children. From a child’s earliest ages, adults discourage the use of violence as a way to resolve conflict. Parents warn their child, “Don’t hit!” “That’s not nice.” However, children model their behaviors and coping mechanisms by quietly observing their adult behaviors. While many children in custody have special needs, most of these needs pertain to past trauma. Therefore, it is most advisable that we not re-traumatize them as a means of controlling outbursts.

The routine use of physical restraint as a response to challenging behaviors is highly questionable and truly problematic. There is evidence that points to the conclusion that there are no safe restraint positions. Furthermore, the use of physical restraint does not work, in terms of keeping children safe. Children in custody have said that they did not change their behavior because of the threat of physical restraint.

Given the consistent over-representation of black and minority ethnic boys in custodial settings, retraint practices have been highlighted as a particular problem for these children. Pain-inducing physical retraint is categorically wrong and should be discontinued. Some argue that it can be used in caring and supportive ways that make children feel contained, safe and in control. Adult violence against children is not a demonstration of care.

We must consider how ‘restraint’ is experienced by children. Pondering this question should bring us to recognize its validity, and thus question whether it is acceptable in any circumstances. Research concerning the use of physical restraint in custodial settings has historically been carried out by adult researchers, although there are certainly examples of research focusing on how children experience physical restraint. Children appear to accept that restraint may sometimes be justified. However, they also complain that restraint is often chaotic, traumatic and harmful; it can trigger complex and problematic responses.

The use of physical restraint may appear to be ‘a given’ as a necessary means of managing problematic behavior. There is an underlying justificatory assumption, drawing on the dual conceptualization that children are inherently irresponsible; and that some children are either at risk or pose a risk – the victim or threat dichotomy that lurks beneath the discourse around locking up children. There seem to be justifications for treating some children as being beyond control, and ‘in need’ of coercive interventions, for their own protection or that of others.

What is often overlooked is the recognition that children are already citizens with human rights underpinned by national and international legislation and standards. In the under‐recognition of this perspective, there has been little debate about the way that challenging situations can be managed with children in custody, in ways which preserve their rights and personal integrity.

As adult policy and decision makers, including those who are ‘on the ground’ in real-life situations where children are in custody, absent family consent, advocacy or support, it would be presumably morally appropriate to question the rights of any one to place their hands on minor children.Beyond that, how do we convince ourselves that physical restraint, violence, as a form of behavior management is morally, psychologically or professionally without harmful consequences to the child being restrained.

Although children can commit very harmful transgressions against others, we know that they are still developing and can’t reliably engage the world nor can they process and manage impulses and emotional responses to everyday life challenges. However, as adults, more mature and compassionate, our life experience and professionalism, inform us that very clearly. Additionally, ‘violence begets violence. Using violence to manage behaviors is counter-intuitive to the messages we send t children every day about how violence is pointless. Undoubtedly, there are less harm-producing ways to de-escalate situations and bring order to an environment than violent physical restraint.

Better solutions may be identified through a more full involvement of children in order to generate more insightful strategies for punishment, and/or reducing the incidents of potential danger from harming themselves or others. We want to understand better the experiences of children who are subject to physical restraint by staff in secure facilities. Also, there should be a sincere desire to consider the value that alternative techniques may hold from the perspective of children and young people.

This entire topic raises important questions about children’s rights, parental rights and children’s voice. Do they have a voice in determining policy and practices which impact them directly? What exactly constitutes and defines ‘breaking the law’? What is the age of criminal responsibility and then what is the legitimacy of punishment? We must have clear, well-thought out policies and provisions for maintaining and ensuring children’s safety, even when they have demonstrated what looks to be their disregard for the safety of themselves and others.

Consulting with youth who were formerly immersed in the everyday experience of imprisonment and the use of physical restraint, they will surely have very real and powerful recollections of scenarios in which it had taken place. In addition, the passage of time meant that they would have been able to reflect on the bigger picture, looking beyond the individuals involved or the minutiae of events. Are we asking children to accept restraint as an inevitable feature of the custodial regime, and in so doing, perpetuating their own use of violence as a coping strategy, and simultaneously asking them to believe that it is ‘for their own safety’?

Discussing children’s experiences of being restrained, or witnessing its use, children can inform us of things that led up to the incident itself. Have we not considered that, situations outside of institutions can be identified as the ‘trigger’ for displays of violent behavior? Family issues, outcomes of court proceedings, existing frustrations about practitioners or service providers?

Gender stereotyping and what constitutes ‘normal’ behavior, invites us to acknowledge how gender, and the politics of identity might impact on the way that children’s behavior in custody is understood. Anger and frustration, confusion and a sense of powerlessness with limited learned coping mechanisms that are pro-social are not so subtle indicators that behaviors are often misplaced emotional releases.

In institutions whereby its purpose is to provide safety and structure to children, while they are expected to comply with rules and behavioral expectations, need to also provide opportunities for children to have voice in their care. Children need to feel that these spaces provide them with safety, from harm[esp. from adults], when their histories may reflect violence. In these environments, any past trauma may be logically assumed by staff and should caution against unintentional re-traumatization through policies and practices.

Children need to expect that in institutions that they are placed in will be safe spaces, though regimented and guided by strict rules of conduct. We want them to feel that they are all accepted as they are individually, while certain behaviors are not tolerated. These institutions should want to ensure that children learn to process and regulate their emotions, but aim to teach them, pro-social strategies for coping and expressing their normal range of emotions without judgment, blame, coercion or oppression.


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