19 Jun 2019

Tales from the inside: Sarah Hopkins The Subjects

From Nine To Noon, 11:12 am on 19 June 2019

Sydney-based criminal lawyer turned novelist Sarah Hopkins has spent years defending young people in the children's court and now she's turned her experiences into a work of fiction.

The Subjects tells of the over-medicalisation of 'bad behaviour' and the over-criminalisation of children and young adults.

It centres on 16-year-old drug dealer Daniel who finds himself in what he’s told is the centre for gifted delinquents, having just swerved a jail term, he’s sent to a mysterious outback facility, and the judge tells him he’s a very lucky young man.

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Photo: Lyndal Irons

All of the young people at the facility have fallen foul with the criminal justice system, Hopkins says.

“The place that they arrive in isn’t like anywhere any of them have been before, there are sessions with a doctor but there’s no medication. There are classes with headsets and tablets, but no syllabus, there’s field trips with no purpose and they have the sense that they’re part of some kind of experiment, but they don’t know what that’s about or what’s happening in the background.”

The doctor hands Daniel a contract that’s empty of any conditions and Daniel’s perplexed, unsure of what to do with it, says Hopkins. The doctor tells Daniel they can sort out the details together.

“The idea here is that instead of young people going into a place and being told what to do and how it’s going to work, they have some part in making those decisions.”

Each of the characters have experienced trauma in some form, says Hopkins, they come to the school having not ever lived in a place that is nurturing.

The novel’s told in the first person, middle-aged Daniel is looking back at his younger years and he’s also questioning the labels put on him like ‘vulnerable’, ‘criminal’ and ‘delinquent’.

“There’s a big question in the novel about what is the purpose of him telling the story and that’s a question that isn’t resolved until the very end of the book, but there’s certainly a strong sense that he’s trying to correct something, he’s setting the record straight.

“The labels ultimately, in terms of how the young people perceive them, is the label of failure.”

Hopkins has worked as a criminal defence lawyer for over 20 years and has spent a number of years working in the children’s court. She says she saw day in and day out how the system was failing children.

The Subjects is a dystopian novel that is only half a step away from reality, Hopkins says. There’s things that happen in the book that she fears will eventuate.

“There’s also a strong utopian element if you like because it’s what I hope can happen, it’s me looking at the question of what if we got it right with how we support these children and why can’t we?”

The criminal justice system and youth detention is where we need to start, says Hopkins. Then the health system and the over-diagnosis and over-medicalisation of bad behaviour.

Often, we don’t get to the cause of the issues when we over-diagnose, she says.

“I’m not suggesting that mental health assessments and diagnoses aren’t a critical part of addressing the needs of young people who have complex needs, but what I am suggesting is that we might do a mental health assessment but my experience with young people is we don’t often enough do what might be an assessment of how this young person is living, and how this young person has lived, and what kind of complex systems of support are needed to be put in place to really change their trajectory.”