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This research paper considers the controversies, debates, and challenges associated with promoting children’s welfare and ensuring their protection from abuse and harm. An overview of child protection as a concept and a practice is offered. Key concepts and definitions are examined emphasizing the contested nature of child abuse. Current issues in child protection theory, research, and practice at the international level are explored including the need to protect children in situations of ‘natural’ disasters and emergencies, as well as in political conflict and war. The global challenge of protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation in the context of new technologies is also considered.
- Defining Childhood
- Defining Children’s Rights
- Defining Child Abuse
- Defining Child Protection
- Current Challenges in Protecting Children at the International Level
- Child Protection in the Context of Disasters and Emergencies
- Safeguarding Children Abused in Armed Conflicts
- Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse, Exploitation, and Sexual Trafficking
- Internet Abuse and Online Protection
Examples of the ill-treatment of children exist throughout history and across cultures, including infanticide, abandonment, forced marriage, child labor, and sexual exploitation. While the standards of care afforded to many children in previous centuries may fall short of those considered to be necessary in the present day, there is, at the same time, considerable evidence that children have been valued, nurtured, and cared for in every era:
Every society has to deal with the issue of the care of its young and has devised some means of intervention into family life to ensure this. These efforts have been influenced by the cultures, material circumstances, technologies and politics impinging on those societies. (Corby, 2000: p. 20)
This research paper explores the controversies and debates associated with such efforts in order to offer an overview of child protection as both a concept and a practice. It begins by exploring and clarifying definitions before examining some of the key changes in focus in protecting children, as well as current challenges and emerging directions in child protection theory, research, and practice. While most attention previously has been given to child protection at the level of the individual state, the processes of globalization have brought about, now more than ever before, cross national issues which threaten the welfare and development of children. For example, the Pinheiro’s (2006) World Report on Violence against Children for the United Nations found that physical violence against children in the home is widespread in all regions of the world and estimated that each year worldwide 150 000 000 girls and 73 000 000 boys experience sexual violence; 1 800 000 children are involved in commercial sexual exploitation and child abuse images; and 1 200 000 children are victims of trafficking. This means that child protection is no longer merely an issue that individual societies have to address, but a global concern.
Defining what is meant by ‘child protection’ and associated concepts such as ‘child abuse,’ ‘welfare,’ ‘harm,’ and even ‘childhood’ is a complex and contested activity. This means that conceptualizing child protection issues is fraught with definitional dilemmas and complexities. It is, therefore, vitally important to debate and clarify what is meant by the various terms associated with this field of practice to understand child protection at the international level.
Childhood itself is a social construct rather than a fixed biological period, with the rights and protections afforded to children and young people of particular ages and stages of development at times highly variable and contradictory (Ariès, 1962). For instance, the age at which children are held criminally responsible, can have sexual intercourse, are entitled to marry or vote has shifted throughout history and still varies considerably across, and even sometimes within, nation states. The United Nations (UN) (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention, recommends that states where the age of majority is set below 18 should increase the level of protection for all children under 18.
Defining Children’s Rights
Built on varied legal and cultural traditions, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations for those nations who are signatories. The Convention outlines the fundamental rights of children, including the right to be protected from economic exploitation and harmful work, from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, and from physical or mental violence, as well as establishing that children should not be separated from their family against their will. Specifically, Article 19 of the Convention sets out children’s rights to protection from all forms of violence in the following terms:
Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them.. In most countries, laws already define what sorts of punishments are considered excessive or abusive. It is up to each government to review these laws in light of the Convention.
Additionally, Article 34 states that:
Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.
The UN Convention is widely acknowledged as the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most ratified international human rights treaty with all UN member states except for the United States, South Sudan, and Somalia having approved it. As such, it provides a useful foundation for the building of a theory and a practice of international child protection. At the same time, however, the Convention has generated continuing debate, with opponents fearing that ratification could undermine individual nations’ sovereignty and interfere in the private lives of citizens (see Gran, 2010). Others have argued that simply adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not guarantee the protection of children’s rights in real-world situations (Blanchfield, 2013). For example, it has been noted that some countries widely criticized for abuses of children’s rights, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, and Sudan, are signatories (Blanchfield, 2013). Even a country such as the United Kingdom, where the notion of children’s rights is well established socially and embedded within social policy and social work practice, has an ambiguous track record on ensuring the rights of all children. The UK government has been criticized for breaching some of its human and children’s rights obligations in the way in which it approaches children involved in the asylum system (Clements, 2006) or in the way that young offenders are transferred from youth custody to adult prisons (Puffett, 2013). Additionally, Blanchfield points out that a number of Islamic countries have attached reservations to their adoption of the UN Convention which state that ratification would not apply to provisions that they deem incompatible with Islamic Shari’a law or values. She adds that this raises concern that such reservations could allow for broad interpretations of the Convention’s provisions, particularly in the area of child marriage and education for girls (Blanchfield, 2013: p. 16). Ultimately, the most significant limitation of the Convention is not the rights it enshrines, nor its ability to influence legislation in those nations endorsing it, but the variability of actions which flow from such legislation in protecting children and their rights.
Defining Child Abuse
While the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights of children to be protected from all forms of violence and abuse, as outlined earlier, it does not offer definitions of specific types of abuse or the range of behaviors that might constitute them. This too is a contested and difficult area. Child abuse is as much as a social construct as is the concept of childhood (Corby, 2000). What are deemed to be optimal, acceptable, or abusive parenting practices vary considerably over time and across and within cultural contexts. For example, in some jurisdictions, the use of parental corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children is viewed as harmful and is outlawed, while in other cultures, it is seen as a necessary and responsible way of raising children. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2013):
Child maltreatment, sometimes referred to as child abuse and neglect, includes all forms of physical and emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development or dignity. Within this broad definition, five subtypes can be distinguished – physical abuse; sexual abuse; neglect and negligent treatment; emotional abuse; and exploitation.
The above-mentioned definition is one of thousands on child abuse that have been proposed internationally. The discrepancies and inconsistencies between them reflect real and, at times, deeply conflicting social values and standards relating to the state’s role in intervening in the lives of its citizens. Nonetheless, there is now considerable support for the five subtypes of child abuse included in the above WHO definition. The development of these core categories of child abuse is, in large part, the consequence of the long history of social workers and other professionals being confronted with ever more complex and diverse cases where children have been harmed. This has forced appraisal and reappraisal of the nature and range of abuses faced by children. For example, it is widely stated that awareness of child abuse in the modern era stemmed from the ground-breaking work in the 1960s of American pediatrician Henry Kempe and colleagues who outlined the term ‘battered child syndrome’ thereby bringing the issue of child physical abuse into the professional and public consciousness. However, it was not until a decade and a half later until survivors of child sexual abuse began to raise awareness of this ‘new’ form of abuse (Amstrong, 1978). Awareness of emotional abuse and neglect followed yet later (Garbarino et al., 1986). The nature of sexual abuse perpetrated by children and young people (Hackett, 2004) and the abuse of children in institutions, such as the well-documented series of cases of abuse within the global Catholic Church (Keenen, 2012), are even more recent developments.
It is also necessary to operationalize each of the five subtypes of child abuse within national policy, legislation, and guidance. In the United Kingdom, this guidance comes in the form of the Working Together document which was first published in 1988 (DHSS, 1988) but which has been updated at regular intervals until the most recent iteration in 2013 (HM Government, 2013). While the categories or subtypes of abuse included in these documents have remained largely static, the accompanying guidance has been expanded considerably and the definitions of each abuse category has shifted considerably as new knowledge and better research evidence about the nature of the form of abuse has been generated. In addition, there is a further complexity faced by social workers who need to work with general categories of abuse in their practice and make decisions about whether the circumstances of individual cases fall within these categories and, importantly, what action is therefore warranted. Defining and redefining child abuse, it appears, is a continual process.
Defining Child Protection
Finally, in terms of definitions, increasing awareness and a body of practice knowledge and empirical research about the various subtypes of child abuse has led to the development of a particular strand of social work practice which has become known as ‘child protection.’ ‘Child protection’ is a term that describes the philosophies, policies, standards, guidelines, and practices that guide when to, and how to, intervene in the lives of children in order to ensure their protection from these various types of abuse and maltreatment. While social workers do not have a monopoly on child protection practice, with professionals such as doctors, teachers, psychologists, and the police integral to the child protection task, child protection represents a field of social work practice that is recognized, and recognizable, internationally. For example, a review of published research within the last 2 years in the journal International Social Work reveals papers addressing child protection issues in the following diverse countries: Nigeria, Uganda, China, India, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While all countries have some sort of child protection system, it is however clear that some are more developed and better resourced than others. It is important that each country develops its own approach taking into account tradition, culture, and the specific challenges it faces (Ortiz et al., 2012). Each country should identify the way in which social workers should respond to these challenges, while at the same time clarifying the child protection responsibilities of other professional groups. It is increasingly acknowledged that it is vital to involve those who are on the receiving end of child protection services, both children and parents and carers in this process, not least because their rights and their experiences have been overlooked in the past.
UNICEF (2006) defines eight components necessary for the building of protective environments internationally that will prevent and respond to child abuse, including actions across societal, governmental, and professional service levels:
- Strengthening government commitment and capacity to fulfill children’s right to protection;
- Promoting the establishment and enforcement of adequate legislation;
- Addressing harmful attitudes, customs, and practices;
- Encouraging open discussion of child protection issues that includes media and civil society partners;
- Developing children’s life skills, knowledge, and participation;
- Building capacity of families and communities;
- Providing essential services for prevention, recovery, and reintegration, including basic health, education, and protection; and
- Establishing and implementing on-going and effective monitoring, reporting, and oversight (UNICEF, 2006: p. 1).
Social workers’ specific responsibilities in relation to these tasks vary considerably according to how their professional roles are conceived in different countries, but often they are central to the identification of cases of abuse and in the provision of services to help children recover from their experiences.
Current Challenges in Protecting Children at the International Level
Such is the diversity of factors associated with the abuse of children internationally that it is impossible here to offer a comprehensive list of the challenges currently facing the international community. Instead, a number of key indicative themes are presented which illustrate the challenges that social workers face internationally in their attempts to improve the protection of children in the communities in which they work.
Child Protection in the Context of Disasters and Emergencies
The United Nations estimates that 66 million children around the world are affected every year by ‘natural’ disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and drought. Dominelli (2012) points out that the term ‘natural disaster’ is problematic as the behavior of human beings strongly influences the occurrence of what are seen as naturally occurring crises and disasters. Child protection is a particular concern in situations of emergency and humanitarian crisis. Many of the specific elements that underlie such crises, such as displacement and poverty, bring with them specific risks to children. The likelihood that children are vulnerable to the range of forms of child abuse discussed earlier is heightened in situations of natural disasters. Disasters can undermine community and family structures and large numbers of children can become orphaned or separated from their families without warning. Even where children are not separated from their parents as a consequence of disasters, families may be projected into situations of serious unpredictability and can lack access to their most basic needs, such as food and shelter. In such conditions, children may become vulnerable to neglect or exploitation and experience acute stress responses and profound loss. Their education can become disrupted and their development delayed. Girls may be particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse during emergencies. For example, research in Bangladesh and Ethiopia has indicated that risk of sexual violence and forced marriages increases for girls during and after disasters (Swarup et al., 2011).
Social workers play an important role in stabilizing the conditions in children’s lives in the aftermath of disasters and restoring the conditions necessary for survival, recovery, and growth. For example, Sim et al. (2013) outline the critical role played by social workers in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China. Here, it is estimated that over 1000 social workers were involved in immediate rescue efforts and the subsequent reconstruction of damaged communities. Social workers worked to develop community cohesion, support parenting, and offered direct counseling to children.
Nonetheless, despite some good examples of practice, there is a general lack of connection between the orthodox practices associated with humanitarian aid and those involved in protecting children. As Ridsdel and McCormick suggest:
Despite the heightened vulnerability of girls and boys during and after conflict and disasters, currently humanitarian action does not give adequate priority to child protection and care, a situation that reflects the broader lack of attention given to this important issue in fragile and non-fragile states. (Ridsdel and McCormick, 2013: p. 3)
This is further compounded by many states in the global South that are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters having underdeveloped child protection systems. As well as calling for social work educators to develop more systematic programs of training and education in disaster social work (Sim et al., 2013), it is important to develop awareness among social workers of the child protection implications of disasters so that addressing such needs becomes a core element of the practice of social work interventions in disasters. This is particularly the case given predictions about the likely future increase in the frequency, severity, and unpredictability of disasters. For instance, Save the Children (2009) predicts that every year over the next decade 175 million children will be affected by disasters brought about by climate change across the world. Perhaps then, climate change poses the biggest challenge to child protection at the global level. In this way, Dominelli’s (2012) call for the social work profession to move to a new model of ‘green social work’ is echoed in the need for a ‘green child protection practice’ that sees protection of the environment as a fundamental element in preventing and responding to the abuse of children.
Safeguarding Children Abused in Armed Conflicts
Political conflict, civil unrest, and war violates children’s rights and blights their lives in many areas of the world. Political conflict and war is a human, rather than a ‘natural,’ disaster, created and waged in large part by adult men but with both a direct and an indirect impact on children’s development, well-being, and safety (Santa Barbara, 2006). Children are frequently abducted during the course of armed conflicts and displaced from their families and communities, with some being forced into the military against the provision of Article 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which limits the involvement of children under the age of 15 in any branch of the armed forces. The organization Human Rights Watch estimates that between 200 000 and 300 000 children are serving as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world, with approximately 100 000 of these children fighting in Africa alone. Children are harmed in war as a result of their direct involvement in armed conflicts as soldiers, where they are vulnerable to death and injury, disablement, and emotional trauma. Child soldiers are brutalized through being forced to kill and inflict violence on others, leading them to be both victims and perpetrators at the same time. Kimmel and Roby (2007) describe the use of child soldiers as a form of institutionalized child abuse. Other children abducted in war are sold into physical slavery or prostitution where they are subjected to rape and sexual abuse. Children who are not recruited directly into fighting are often the victims of war and political conflict. It is estimated that half of all civilians killed in wars across the world are children. Additionally, living in communities bound by war and political conflict is an emotionally disastrous condition for children, breeding insecure attachments and leading to posttraumatic stress, and grief and loss responses. Furthermore, political conflict often exposes children to religious and social intolerance and models the inappropriate use of violence. War is therefore a core and distinct form of abuse of children at the international level.
Social workers are active across the world working with communities affected by war and political conflict. For example, Bhadra (2012) describes support offered to children by professionals and community volunteers affected by communal violence in Gujarat, India. Interventions included working with children in refugee camps using activity-based and narrative approaches that allowed children to tell their own stories of the conflict and its impact, bolstering caregivers’ capacities to providing nurturing environments for children, through to the development of community-oriented peace-keeping measures and school-based interventions that promote the values of tolerance and acceptance. Denov (2010) highlights the complexity of responses needed by children involved as soldiers in the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. She points to the important role social work should play in protecting children involved in war given the profession’s commitment to the empowerment of marginalized communities, but laments that:
Social work has been largely silent on the issue of children affected by war, and has been suspiciously absent in international debates and discussions concerning war and political violence and related global trends and processes. (Denov, 2010: p. 804)
Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse, Exploitation, and Sexual Trafficking
The sexual abuse of children was traditionally viewed as a domestic crime, perpetrated by adults on children, most often fathers on their daughters (Corby, 2000). However, increasing awareness of differing forms of sexual abuse over the last 30 years has seen social workers’ understandings of the dynamics and manifestations of child sexual abuse develop radically. This includes the awareness that a significant proportion of all cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated not by adults but by children and juveniles (Hackett et al., 2013), knowledge that a significant proportion of victims are boys (Hunter, 1990), as well as the realization that child sexual abuse is not confined to individual homes, but extends to all areas of society and to many institutions (Finkelhor et al., 1988). However, one of the most disturbing features of an increasingly globalized society is the spread of child sexual abuse and exploitation as an issue which now transcends national boundaries. Not only does child sexual abuse occur in all societies, but the ways in which children are abused and exploited sexually often have international dimensions. These global dimensions contain three major strands: the involvement of children in prostitution; the production of abusive images of children (sometimes referred to as ‘child pornography’); and the trafficking of children for the purposes of sexual abuse (US Department of Justice, 2010). The need to protect children from more traditional forms of child sexual abuse continues, but such protective efforts are compounded by, and made more complex as a result of, these globalized features.
Throughout Asia, Latin America, and the countries of the North, there have been increasing reports of growth in the number of children involved in prostitution. There are many factors underpinning this growth, and these factors differ across the world, as does the scale of the problem. In some countries, child prostitution as a phenomenon has existed for centuries, embedded in historical and cultural practices. In most countries, it is brought about as a combination of problems of poverty and socioeconomic inequality, the subordination of women and children, and the perpetuation of attitudes and values that view children as economic commodities (Heiberg, 2001). Approximately, one million children around the world are forced into prostitution every year and the total number of prostituted children could exceed 10 million (Willis and Levy, 2002). Children are frequently trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, either through well-organized criminal networks or through the actions of family members or acquaintances. In some cases, parents or children themselves are lured through offers of a better life or good employment, only to be trafficked into sexual or physical slavery in unfamiliar and alien cultures. Once involved in prostitution, children are also highly vulnerable to rape, physical violence, and a wide range of physical and mental health problems.
Child protection social workers have a role to play in preventing child trafficking through providing increased social welfare and educational opportunities for families at risk, as well as in supporting the rehabilitation of children from prostitution into safe and protective communities. A review of support for trafficked children in the United Kingdom (Franklin and Doyle, 2013) highlights how responses should be primarily dealt with as a child protection issue, with a need for some specialism to ensure that trafficked children’s particular needs and circumstances are understood. However, their research into the reality of responses revealed that a lack of understanding among social workers of the immigration system and pressures relating to the immigration process acted as a barrier to supporting trafficked children, as did lack of appropriate placement provision.
Internet Abuse and Online Protection
A final illustrative example of the challenges facing child protection social workers across the world is that of the online abuse of children. The rapid development of new online technologies is a truly transnational phenomenon, even though the availability of such technologies is unevenly spread among children in industrialized as opposed to low-income societies. New information technologies are, however, transforming children’s lives in many ways across the world. In terms of child protection, the Internet has significantly increased the availability of information for children about abuse and has provided routes for them to communicate their experiences and gain support. As such, new technologies can challenge the secrecy and isolation brought about by abusive experiences and exert considerable protective influence on children. The widespread use of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, has networked children in ways not possible previously. At the same time, these new technologies have also brought with them considerable additional risks to children. While new technologies have not created sex offences against children, their use has enabled a shift in the nature and scale of such abuse (Buschman et al., 2010).
Online abuse can include both virtual and actual elements. Livingstone and Haddon (2009) have described the following set of categories to understand risk and harm related to children’s online activities:
- online harm from content: where the child is a passive recipient of pornographic or harmful sexual content;
- harm from contact: where the child is targeted as a participant by an adult or another child in activities such as sexual abuse that is photographed and then disseminated, for online grooming for sexual abuse or for bullying; and
- harm from conduct: where the child actively initiates risky or abusive behavior, for example, by creating or uploading pornographic material, physically meeting an adult encountered online, placing images of herself or himself or another young person online, downloading abusive images of children or bullying.
The range of adult behaviors that constitutes online child sexual abuse includes adults who sexually exploit their own or other children for the production of child abuse images, as well as those who download images for their own personal use. Sex offenders also use online technologies as a way of targeting children for subsequent abuse offline. This includes ‘grooming’ children online with the intention of abusing them sexually offline. Such approaches may involve the assumption by the adult of a false identity, in particular with the offender pretending to be a child (Whittle et al., 2013). Other forms of online child abuse include children being engaged in sexually explicit talk and being encouraged to perform sexually explicit acts on themselves or their friends.
Given these newly emerging types of sexual abuse of children, online safety is now a major child protection concern. The protection task requires a careful balance between shielding children from harm online on the one hand and their rights for information and for freedom of expression on the other. The law enforcement response in such cases is often very challenging as the behaviors involved are not contained within national borders. An initial sexual offense against a child perpetrated and filmed in the USA and then made available online may be viewed by a network of offenders worldwide. In this example, one initial contact offense may lead to thousands of online offences with the comparative anonymity of the Internet allowing the original offense to be compounded many times over. There are frequently difficulties in the identification of children abused through child abuse images of this kind and in seeking prosecution of offenders cross nationally (Wortley and Smallbone, 2012).
The development of these new types of sexual abuse of children challenges child protection practices to develop new ways of responding, placing an emphasis on the child protection community to work together with internet service providers to improve safety measures for children and online reporting mechanisms, as well as educating children and parents about the potential dangers of the online environment. The example of the UK-based Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, which is a world leader in this area, demonstrates the effectiveness of social workers working alongside law enforcement professionals to identify cases where children have been abused online. To play their part in the protection of children from online abuse, social workers need to engage with children in the online environment. Social work has traditionally worked at the heart of service users’ social worlds to improve the quality of people’s lives in the context of their environment. As children move seamlessly between online and offline social worlds, social workers need to embrace both of these dimensions of children’s lives in their protective efforts. Social workers also have a core remit to work with parents to improve their parenting skills and capacities where parenting has been compromised. As such, social workers can educate parents about online risks to children, just as they have done traditionally about, for example, physical risks to children in the home and the external community.
Child protection is not the sole preserve of the social work profession, even though social workers play an important role in safeguarding children from harm across the world. Effective child protection practice requires the sharing of information across professional boundaries and interagency collaboration. Global issues in child protection demonstrate that this collaboration needs to extend beyond the boundaries of individual states. This is a particular challenge to social workers who mainly work within local environments. The variable development of child protection systems across countries, as well as variable levels of awareness about the diversity of issues associated with child abuse, further compounds the challenges and issues associated with international child protection.
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