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National Consultation on the Child Abuse Reporting and Management Protocol

National Consultation on the Child Abuse Reporting and Management Protocol

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Feature Address

by Heather Stewart

Project Officer –

Child Protection

UNICEF

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is fitting that as the world is pondering the findings of the United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children, which was launched at the UN on 11 October 2006, the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is considering a national protocol to govern the reporting and management of child abuse in these islands.

This UN Study on Violence Against Children documents an appalling range of the worst forms of violence and abuse meted out to girls and boys across the world – from physical to sexual. It speaks to the unique vulnerability of young girls and boys as persons dependent, reliant and at the mercy of the adult world. Child violence is caused fundamentally by unequal relations of power, and the exercise and abuse of that power more often than not by adults- whether in the family, in our schools or in our communities. Violence against children is perpetrated by both private as well as state actors. It is a horrendous violation of human rights – more so because it is to adults that children look for guidance and for the inculcation of values that would lead them to responsible citizenship. {{more}}

The world over, societies are shocked by the media reports of the abuse of children. Invariably, public reaction demands drastic action against perpetrators. It also generates lobbies for the mandatory reporting of child abuse by professionals who come into contact with children. The hope is that enforcement of such laws and policies will:

* bring help to affected children,

* treatment and, or punishment to offenders, and

* send a strong message of deterrence to prevent the abuse of children in the first place.

Yet, very mixed messages often emerge from the public and professional debates over issues relating to the mandatory reporting of child maltreatment, no matter the status of the country – whether rich or poor. The ambiguities for children are aptly captured in this verse from a dramatic piece:-

“It’s all so confusing this brutal abusing

They blacken your eyes and then apologize.

Be Daddy’s little girl and don’t tell Mommy a thing

Be a good little boy and you’ll get a new toy.

Tell Grandma you fell off the swing.”

But why is there such ambivalence over an issue that evokes consistent public condemnation? Essentially, the answer lies in defining violence. A widely accepted definition of violence is “an act carried out with the intention of, or an act perceived as having the intention of, hurting oneself or another person.” But the dilemma is that there is a range of social norms that essentially legitimates violence. One can go from a violent act that is culturally condoned, for example slapping the hand of a 3 year old, to a violent act that is culturally condemned, for example punching the face of that same

three-year-old.

But Ladies and Gentlemen, if we are true to the spirit and letter of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this Convention makes it impossible for today’s society to simply resign itself to management of the violence that crosses the legitimate line. Rather, the aim must be to eradicate all forms of violence against children, including corporal punishment. This does not in any way suggest that we must suddenly criminalize caregivers for a practice into which most of us have been socialized, rather, through education and training we can coach adults into interacting with children in the same civil and respectful way that adults ought to interact with adults.

And just how should the state respond to breaches in the protection of children? There are countries, such as the United Kingdom, which do not have mandatory reporting laws and others such as many Nordic and North American countries which do. However, there are some essential points that must be noted when these systems are examined:-

1. Nordic countries which tend to have better structured social systems that ameliorate broader factors such as the incidence of poverty, drug abuse and domestic violence – factors that contribute to the abuse of children, are better at preventing abuse in the first place. These countries provide greater access to universal services such as day care, family supplements and home health visitation. This, my friends, should be our first lesson – if we invest in prevention, investment in curative services is reduced.

2. Conversely, the United Kingdom has not to date considered a mandatory reporting policy. However, this country has a highly developed code of professional accountability, backed by significant written guidance and inter-professional communication that already facilitate the interagency response necessary for child abuse management and reporting. The second lesson to us then – the challenge of responding to child abuse will demand a new profile and orientation of staff to do things differently and to work across ministerial boundaries. There is no room for territorial disputes between the relevant professions, whose paramount concern at all times should be the best interest of the concerned child.

Having countered those issues, what is the best type of legal response to the abuse of children? During these kinds of debates, there are a series of issues to be examined:-

1. Who is a reportable child? Under present legislation in the Caribbean, reportable children are usually those under the age of 16 years, as in most countries, the age of sexual consent is 16. There is however, a lobby to move raise this age upwards to under 18 years to provide protection to a greater number of young people in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

2. What should be the standards of abuse? – Here the main division focuses on whether abuse should be classified based on the parental action and intention or the actual harm caused to a child.

3. Who should be the mandated reporters? – To date the majority of countries with mandatory reporting (about 58 in 2002), limit reporting to professionals working with children and typically include medical, child care, school, social work and law enforcement personnel. But, this list is expanding to include non-traditional professional fields such as commercial film and photographic processors, as the scope of documented abuse widens. In fact, trends among reporting countries indicate that eventually the mandated standard for reporters will become any person, including listed professionals in demonstration of the social responsibility and ownership for child protection concerns beyond one’s professional confines. In this regard, the question of privileged communication is always an ethical dilemma. Historically, exchanges between attorney and client, clergy and penitent, doctor and patient and husband and wife have been protected. But in tracking the trends in this regard, one finds an increasingly strong public policy for disclosure. Consequently, one is seeing spreading abrogation of the protection afforded to doctor and patient and husband and wife relationships.

4. And what about reporting penalties and immunities? – While there are no sanctions in English policy except for the condemnation of peers, courts and enquiries; failure to report incurs criminal sanctions in the majority of US states. While some commentators denounce reporting penalties for their exposure of professionals to sanctions on issues that involve considerable discretion, others note that penalties must be created to encourage compliance, but request that in addition, criminal and civil immunities should be granted for all mandated and permissive reporters, who do so in good faith.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today must be seen as a necessary, first step in a series of essential steps that ought to be taken to better protect the children of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. For laws and policies alone will not change the situation for children, but laws and policies must be enforced if they are to serve their purpose. Effective partnerships in implementation will make the difference. Politicians must take the policy decision; technicians must effectively carry them out.

But, a word of caution. The literature shows that while mandatory reporting laws and policies have been very useful for data gathering purposes and for guiding a coherent response to children and families affected by abuse, it is not yet known how effective they are in preventing cases of abuse and neglect.

There is a story told of a huge, strong woodsman who, one day on his way to the mountains, heard loud screams and saw a child struggling in the river. Good, brave man that he was, he jumped in immediately and saved the child, only to be greeted by more screams of another child struggling down the river. Again, he saved that child. This scenario was repeated several times and all day, until at nightfall he struggled up the river, there to find at source, a horrible gnome who was caging children to be thrown in the river next day. Strong as he was, it was not difficult to slay the gnome, release the children and continue with his life’s journey which did not include lifeguard duties at the river all day.

The moral of the story? It will be essential for the Ministry of Social Mobilisation, Social Development and Local Government, as the official state organ for the care and protection of children, to assert and insert itself much earlier in the chain of preventive events and inform national policies that would lessen child abuse, neglect and abandonment and the other causes leading to either fostering, adoption or residential care.

A solution for the total protection of children does not exist – there are no easy answers. However, I’m sure that you will agree that remedies must be sought and tried.

UNICEF sincerely applauds the efforts of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for both seeking those remedies and trying them, and UNICEF pledges its continued support in this regard. The life chances of many children are dependent on this positive state action.

Thank you for listening.

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