When is a child old enough to make such an important decision?

When is a child old enough to make such an important decision?

There were some disturbing scenes in a Sunshine Coast home and later at Brisbane Airport when four girls were forcibly removed from their mother’s care and dragged onto a plane to take them to their father in Italy.

The four girls, ranging in age from 9 to 15 were brought on a “holiday” by their mother to Australia in 2010 but never returned to Italy. The parents who are separated had a “consensual separation agreement” it terms of custody for the girls when they were in Italy. When the girls failed to return, the father invoked the Hague Convention – an international treaty of which Australia and Italy are signatories that require any children who are “wrongfully removed or retained outside their country of habitual residence” to be returned.

When a child is emotional, they will easily get influenced by what they are being told by the adults around them ... 

As the court heard the case over the past few months, the girls were repeatedly reported expressing their desire to stay with their mother and not return to Italy. Chris Smith from 2GB told Channel 7’s Sunrise program that he thinks that “the court has got it terribly wrong and that the ruling stinks” as the girls wishes were not given more weighting in the court. However, it was reported that the judge found that the girl’s wishes were “significantly influenced” by the mother’s family.

Four Sunshine Coast sisters are caught up in an international custody battle between their Australian mother and Italian father.

Four Sunshine Coast sisters are caught up in an international custody battle between their Australian mother and Italian father.

And Dr. Justin Coulson, a parenting author who has a PhD in Psychology says that children of this age are easily influenced.

“All the girls are operating on emotion and on the limited cognitive capacity they have to consider what’s coming in the future,” he says. When a child is emotional, they will easily get influenced by what they are being told by the adults around them and although Coulson says he can’t speak for this case specifically and the extent to which it has occurred, he believes that “any parent who uses emotions to manipulate the way children are going to feel about things are doing them a disservice.”

According to the publication Decision Making by and for Individuals Under the Age of 18 by The Australian Law Reform Commission, research shows that “the cognitive ability to make independent decisions is generally in place by the age of 14 to 16, but this cognitive ability has not fully matured and individuals of this age will continue to be more susceptible than adults to psychosocial factors.”

The girls' mother reaches out as one of her daughters is dragged away.

The girls' mother reaches out as one of her daughters is dragged away by Australian Federal Police officers. Photo: Seven News

Dr. Coulson agrees. He explains that the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for executive function like planning, thinking ahead and the ability to hold multiple ideas don’t reach maturity until the mid-twenties.

“So they can’t foresee with any real degree of accuracy what their lives are going be like in a few years’ time.” Dr. Coulson says that “the oldest one will have a more nuanced perspective but will still be limited and certainly nowhere near the capacity of an adult.”

Jean Piaget, a leading child psychologist theorized that there are four stages of cognitive development in a child’s life and the ability to reason and think logically progresses with age. While children under the age of seven are unable to consider anyone else’s perspective in their thinking processes, children in the seven to 11-year-age group are beginning to become less ego-centric and start to understand different scenarios and entertain thoughts of “what if this were to happen”. The final stage in Piaget’s model relates to children over the age of 11 and this is where the child will begin to demonstrate “adult-like thinking abilities” by being able         to hypothesise and comprehend abstract logic.

While the girls will all have different levels of understanding and visions of their future, Dr. Coulson says the extent to which the girls feel forced into the situation will determine the impact this saga will have on their lives. “If they really don’t like where they are being sent, especially the older ones, they will rebel, they will resist and they will push hard against the system.” He says that the life impact could be “potentially damaging” as they don’t fully understand that the reason behind them engaging in deliberate rebellious acts or severing relationships or not doing well at school all have something to do with the fact that were ordered to live their life in a particular way.