The criminal justice system can be an overwhelming experience for anyone. But for children hauled before Canberra’s courts, it can be terrifying.
However, for the last three years, Magistrate Robert Cook has looked past the line of lawyers, prosecutors or family members filling the courtroom and attempted to connect with the youths charged in the ACT Children’s Court.
He reaches out and tries to put them at ease. He asks them how they are going, or what they’ve been up to.
“One of the things I try to make sure I say to young people when they come before the court is I’m not here to sentence them based on who they are, what they believe in or where they come from,” he said.
“I’m only here to sentence them on a particular event which occurred at a particular time on a particular day that they were involved in, and that’s it.”
Magistrate Cook believes it is “fundamentally wrong” that children are brought into the criminal justice system at 11, 12 or 13 years of age, with so many appearing before him having faced a “terrible existence”.
“And what society is then asking me to do is to put them in jail, and I cannot understand that,” he said.
“It is completely wrong. And here we sit as a modern democracy, as a modern community, and yet we want to lock up children.”
Magistrate Cook knows only too well about the tragic upbringing many young offenders have had to endure to survive as his own early years were marred by violence.
On Wednesday (28 July), he publicly told his story for the first time to a packed crowd in Griffith as part of Menslink’s Midweekers, a series of events where speakers talk about defining moments of their lives.
He remembered one Sunday morning years ago when he was a Grade 3 student. He had just come out for breakfast with his mother and twin sister, but he saw a stranger sitting at the table as he sat down to eat.
His mother asked if he wanted toast, and he replied, “yes”. But within “milliseconds”, he said this stranger punched him so hard in the chest he flew out of his chair into a wall.
“I was then picked up and shaken and reminded that I should say please,” he said.
For about the next 12 years, he, his mother and his sister were exposed to domestic violence.
“I would be punched regularly, probably because I looked like a baby giraffe,” the tall magistrate told the crowd.
He and his sister were taken into care several times before returning to their mother.
They moved across the country and went through so many different schools he was unable to build any friendships.
“The only person that my sister and I anchored to was each other, and we still talk today, almost every day,” he said.
“And there’s Mum, of course, and she was always prominent in our lives until she passed away.”
After school he joined the Air Force, went on his first tour of the Middle East in 1978, met his wife, and had three children.
While trying to decide what he wanted next from life, he thought back to an Australian television show he watched as a teenager called Consider Your Verdict.
The impression that courtroom drama series had on him spurred him into action. He worked in private practice, was admitted to the ACT Bar in 2010, joined the Magistrates Court bench in 2013 and has spent the last three years in the Children’s Court where his subjects have left a lasting impact on him.
“[These are] young people who are in the most adverse of circumstances. I had it easy compared to some of these kids,” he said.
Menslink Midweekers are free events held every four weeks at Gryphons Caffe Bar on a Wednesday evening. They’re open to every man, woman and young person interested in discussing issues affecting young guys in our community. The next Widweeker will be held on 25 August with guest speaker Ben Farrinazzo.