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Introduction and Overview
The concept of children having specific rights is of comparatively recent origin.
Traditional perceptions of society towards children have for centuries held them to be emotionally, physically and intellectually immature, incapable of looking after their own selves and inadequately equipped to make their own decisions (Bronfrenbrenner, 1979). With children furthermore being regarded as little more than possessions of parents, (with no personal rights of their own), the law has historically also granted unquestionable rights for chastisement and corporal punishment to parents (Bronfrenbrenner, 1979).
The subservient status of children in British society even a hundred years ago can be gauged from the fact that whilst the prevalence of child cruelty was common knowledge in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came into being, in 1840, practically half a century earlier than the creation of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (Bronfrenbrenner, 1979). Such was the widespread social and political agreement on the rights of parents to do as they willed with their children. Even in the days of the industrial revolution the penalty for seriously harming an animal was far more severe than for causing grievous injury to a defenceless child (Bronfrenbrenner, 1979).
Although preliminary work on enhancement of children’s rights started haltingly in 19th century Victorian England, the perceived need to take better care of children grew and received concrete legislative backing only in the first half of the 20th century (Maier, 1979). Initial work in the area however focussed primarily on health, safety and education of children, and stopped well short of intruding upon the foundational rights of parents, or the patriarchal rights of fathers with regard to ownership and control (Maier, 1979). Legislative inroads into the all encompassing rights of parents, vis-à-vis their children, grew rapidly only after the Second World War, and resulted in (a) the rising legal authority of social workers to protect children, and (b) the establishment of rights of children for primary and secondary education, as well as for comprehensive health facilities (Prout, 2000).
Whilst the interventionist policy of the British welfare state reached its apex during the late 1970s, (and was based upon the idea that the state had every right to step in for the protection of children, if those caring for them failed to do so), this approach was toned down significantly in the wake of the dismantling of the welfare infrastructure in the mid 1980s (Prout, 2000). The enactment of the Children’s Act 1989, in the wake of the 1987 Cleveland Report, (Therapy with Children) brought about a sea change in the practice of service delivery, and the state and agency relationship for social work practice was subsequently recast by New Labour into today’s working partnership approach (Prout, 2000).
Partnership working, a process that is at the heart of current initiatives of service delivery in community and social work, involves, as per the Audit Commission of 1998, a “joint working arrangements where parties, (which) are otherwise independent bodies, … agree to co-operate to achieve common goals, create a new organisational structure on process to achieve these goals, plan and implement a joint programme and share relevant information, tasks and rewards” (Aldgate & Statham, 2001, p 36). Whilst partnership working in social work is not a brand new concept and was in fact taken up during the years of the welfare state, (in various urban and community development partnerships in the 1970s, as also in the regeneration partnerships in the 1980s), its use in service delivery became widespread only after New Labour, which had previously announced its intention of shifting from a culture of contracting to one of partnership, came to power in 1997 (Aldgate & Statham, 2001). The working partnership model for service delivery can be considered to be significantly different, both from the bureaucratic functioning of Old Labour and the market orientation of conservatives; it is based on trust and communication, rather than on command or on price mechanisms (Aldgate & Statham, 2001).
Debate over the growing authority of social workers with regard to the protection of children, especially in the context of their staying with their parents or being entrusted to care, reached significant proportions for the first time in 1975, in the case of seven year old Maria Caldwell, where the social worker misrepresented the actual position of the case to the court and forced the child to return to her natural parents, despite the child having formed close bonds with her foster parents (Bullock & Others, 1993). With little heed having been paid to the wishes of the child, (who used to repeatedly run back to her foster home), the decision of the court, on the recommendation of the social worker, led to the tragic death of Maria. The conviction of her father for manslaughter was followed by public outrage and debate that resulted in the enactment of the Children Act 1975, which in turn called (a) for taking the feelings of children into account in care decisions and (b) for their right for representation by a court appointed social worker, rather than by the social services department of the local authority (Bullock & Others, 1993).
Whilst media and public debate continued to focus on the need for interdisciplinary working between health, education, social services, and the police, in issues relating to child protection, the next watershed occurred only in 1987 when 121 children in Cleveland were taken into care by social service authorities on concerns of physical and sexual abuse at their natural homes. With opinion on the issue being sharply divided with the social workers and the medical fraternity on one side and the media and the police on the other, the Cleveland Report, (prepared by a committee set up to specifically investigate the matter), commented adversely on the breakdown of communication between agencies and the dominant tendencies of agencies to act without considering the feelings of children; it also discussed the possibility that parents might well act against the interests of their children and recommended the need to involve children in the decision making process (Prout, 2003). The Children Act 1989, which was influenced by the findings of the Cleveland Report, caused a major shift in child care policy; away from state intervention in family life; towards partnership with families and caregivers; and with an emphasis on child intervention in decision making (Prout, 2003).
Despite the introduction of such legal and policy safeguards, the tragic affair of young Victoria Climbie, who was abused, tortured, and ultimately killed, in April 2000, by her aunt and the man with whom she lived, under the eye of social service agencies, revealed that true partnership in working, and consideration of the wishes of the child, was yet to take place (Prout, 2003).
The report that followed the death of Victoria Climbie was accompanied with the publication of a green paper called Every Child Matters, which focussed on four key themes, (a) increasing the focus on supporting families and carers, the most critical influence on children’s lives (b) ensuring necessary intervention takes place before children reach crisis point and protecting children from falling through the net, (c) addressing the underlying problems identified in the report into the death of Victoria Climbie, namely weak accountability and poor integration, and (d) ensuring that the people working with children are valued, rewarded and trained (Background to …, 2008).
The green paper was followed by intense debate and consultation with people working in children’s services, parents, children, young people and other members of society, and led to the publication of Every Child Matters: the Next Steps, and the enactment of the Children Act 2004 (Background to …, 2008), steps that provided legislative support for developing more effective and accessible services directed around the needs of children, young people and families, and the use of partnership working in child protection, the focus of this essay.
The rights of children in present day Britain are legally protected by laws that deal especially with the protection and well being of children, as well as by laws on health care, education, and social security (Prout, 2003). Children’s rights are protected by family law, education law and employment law. The United Nations Convention on Human Rights, ratified by the UK in 1991, not only gives children over 40 specific social, economic, cultural/civil and political rights, but also provides guidance on how governments should enumerate and protect these rights (Prout, 2003).
Whilst the British legal framework provides a robust support system for safeguarding children’s rights, New Labour has, over the last decade also worked at establishing the concept of working in partnership by all bodies, schools, local authorities, medical relief agencies, carers, and parents, for protecting children; it is a concept that calls for active involvement of parents and consultation with children as well as for their participation in the decision making process (Milligan & Stevens, 2006). With participation with children also being a key tenet of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the practice of service delivery is shifting to include the views, opinions and experiences of children and young people in care, as well as in their natural homes (Milligan & Stevens, 2006).
This principle, that of enabling children to participate in the decision making process, however continues to be a topic of intense debate, with many individuals still remaining unconvinced of the ability of children to rise above their emotional predilections and take logical decisions. As the recent case of Baby P, the 17 year old infant who was tortured and murdered by her mother and her boyfriend in Haringey Council of North London shows, it clearly does not apply to children who are too young to express their feelings or to develop opinions.
Whilst the benefits of allowing children to participate actively in decisions that concern their emotional and physical well being have been underlined time and again and indeed are integral to the modern partnership working model, it is difficult to apply the same yardstick, as is normal with adults, to all children (Milligan & Stevens, 2006). The maturity and learning of children, child psychiatrists confirm, are strongly influenced by their life experiences, which include their natural home or care environments and their access to health services, as well as by care and learning programmes (Emond, 2003). A number of research studies reveal that the quality of early childhood life and programmes can significantly improve the ability of children to do well in education, work and in life; this being especially true of children who are experiencing disadvantage (Emond, 2003). Whilst such studies do point towards the existence of sharp differences in the abilities of children from different backgrounds to participate in decision making, such issues are accentuated for children in care or in disturbed domestic situations, because of the absence of the democratic process in their everyday lives (Emond, 2003).
Extant research also points to the fact that notwithstanding governmental initiatives and instructions to social workers to involve children in decision making, the views of children or youth are seldom considered, not just by administrators but also by researchers. Two recent research exercises one by Berridge and Brodie, in 1998, and Thomas, in 2005, on children’s homes, whilst delving in depth on views of managers and social workers, give scant attention to the views of children (Stevens, 2006). Such attitudes, which are too ingrained to be removed by recent legislation, dampen cognitive evolution and the ability and confidence of children to participate in decision making.
“Residential child care units may be seen as sites where these micro-political processes can be seen at work. Children in residential child care tend to be among the most powerless in social terms and reports of their opinions rarely contain their actual views” (Stevens, 2006).
The extent to which children can participate, experts argue, can also be linked to the way they are perceived in society. Children in care are by and large perceived with ambivalence, either as possible victims who require to be taken care of, or as potential threats who need controlling; “one of the consequences of this ambivalence is that they are seen as passive recipients of services, and not as “active and creative actors, as a subject and citizen with potentials” (Stevens, 2006). Osborne and Bromfield (2007) concluded on the basis of an extensive study on children in care that the decision making facilities of such children can be affected in small and large ways by a multitude of developments.
“Even small oversights can have a lasting and negative impact on the child or young person; for example, not being told why workers had moved on, or not being able to bring a pet to a new placement. Such occurrences can compound feelings of loss, grief, sadness and the feeling of being ‘different’ from other children and young people” (Osborne and Bromfield, 2007)
A “CREATE” Foundation report (2004) found that children were also affected by negative care experiences that arose from systemic defects like the ones elaborated below:
“(a) slow systemic procedures that prevented timely and adequate response, (b) court processes that did not adequately consult with children and young people, (c) lack of resources, support and training for carers and caseworkers, (d) inadequate early intervention strategies to support families to stay together and prevent entry into care (e) inadequate entry into care support, (f) inadequate support and preparation for young people preparing to leave car, and (g) inadequate post-care support.” (CREATE Foundation, 2004)
Similar issues come up when children live in disturbed natural homes and feelings of insecurity and attachment could well make them cling on to oppressive natural parents or opt to remain in distressful conditions. Issues of culture and overall family environment also play a large part in shaping the response of children in disturbed homes, and partnership agencies and parents need to understand this phenomenon and respond accordingly. Children from ethnic backgrounds often face specific challenges on account of the different cultural environment of their homes, their inadequate English language skills, and the exclusion of their families from mainstream society.
“There is apparent under-reporting of child sexual abuse in Britain’s Asian communities and a varied capacity amongst professionals to respond with cultural competence. Professional approaches originate in cultural contexts, which are often different from those of most British Asians. If the proportion of children and non-abusing carers from Asian communities who access relevant services is to increase, professionals need to develop better understandings of cultural imperatives which determine behaviour in those communities. Consultations with Asian women in Bradford reinforce the view that culturally competent practice and respectful dialogue are essential to the protection of children. They also highlight a number of recurring themes. Members of Asian communities are aware of child sexual abuse, they recognize that the issue needs to be addressed by all communities and they report that many of those affected within their own communities have found it difficult to access relevant services” (Gilligan, & Akhtar, 2005).
Decisions regarding removal of children from natural homes also need to take account of the influence of grandparents and fathers upon children and not be swayed totally by considerations of maternal ability and circumstance. With the role of grandparents in the lives of children reducing steadily, the role of fathers in child development, welfare and protection has never been more important. Fathers play critical roles in child development that often go much beyond that of providers of economic security, and incorporate nurturing, caring and supporting activities. Fathers play strong roles in (a) healthy child development in the home and school context, (b) creation of gender identity for both male and female children, (c) responsible sexuality and reduction of teen pregnancy, (d) emotional and social commitment, and (e) financial security.
Whilst current service methodologies are women focussed, with social workers feeling more comfortable working with mothers, partnership working calls for much greater involvement of fathers, where possible, as well as consideration of the feelings of children about being separated from their fathers.
“Mothers are the gate keepers to the father’s participation. Mothers have to believe that the family will benefit from the father’s participation. Furthermore, this discussion implies a systemic bias for excluding fathers. It is easier to manage the ongoing interactions over the course of a case by working only with one parent, the mother. In frontline practice, the potential for a compliant relationship with the mother takes precedence over a comprehensive working relationship with all the family.” (Father Involvement …, 2005)
Mothers and social workers need to involve fathers as much as possible for partnership working to be more responsive towards child needs. Involvement of fathers by agencies could however lead to complications where relationships between parents are strained or in case of divorced and single mothers. Maternal grandparents can play significant roles in such conditions in creating conducive environments for protection and welfare of children and their involvement in partnership working could prove to be immensely beneficial.
The building of effective partnerships for protecting children is dependent upon involving all relevant agencies, namely the local authorities, social work agencies, schools, medical providers, police, community organisations, parents, and children.
The recent episode, involving the horrific murder of the 17 month old child, known as Baby P, at the hands of her young mother and her boyfriend, despite the active engagement of social workers and medical practitioners, (Hyland, 2008) should not be seen as an aberration but as an indicator of the potential dangers faced by children in extremely different conditions and the individual and collective responsibilities that need to be exercised by all partnership members. The incident also reveals the vulnerability and limitations of methodologies that depend upon taking the opinion of children in cases where they are too young to express themselves.
The extent of cooperation between social workers and parents also plays a critical role in the success of working partnerships. Whilst the barriers that come about because of cultural differences between social workers and members of Britain’s ethnic communities, especially from concepts of shame and honour, have already been elaborated earlier, barriers of class, income and education can also lead to lack of communication between social workers and parents and affect the appropriateness of decisions that concern child protection.
In such cases, where unintended and invisible power differences work against the establishment of an equal working partnership, it is the paramount responsibility of social work agencies and social workers to build the foundation of a stable, democratic and equal working partnerships, take special pains to find out the wishes of affected children, and involve them as far as possible in the decision making process. The problems associated with knowing the wishes of children are complex; they differ from individual to individual, can be applied only to children over a certain age, and can even otherwise be solved only with patience, open mindedness, respect for children, and understanding.
Working in partnership with parents for the protection of children, whilst a desirable objective, has numerous limitations and needs to be approached with care and caution. The adoption of a one shoe fits all approach in such cases is inherently fallible and can lead to horrific tragedy, as was evidenced by the Baby P tragedy, where the social workers kept the child with the mother despite numerous indicators of the dangers of doing so.
Policy makers and social workers need to realise that all methodologies have their advantages and limitations. Social workers need to work with empathy; they need to scrutinise the working of all involved agencies, as well as parents, and refrain from being blinkered or authoritative in their approach, if they are to protect today’s beleaguered children from the fate that befell Maria Caldwell, Victoria Climbie, and Baby P.
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