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To change the conditions which underlie child maltreatment and reduce its prevalence will require a different set of interests, skills and personnel than have been marshalled to date.

The XXth ISPCAN Congress I went to last month in Japan was a reminder of the extent of the system each country provides in protecting its children from harm and improving their chances in life. We have our backwoodsmen glibly and callously proclaiming that children are their parents’ responsibility, usually when some financial commitment is being discussed but the truth is that children in any country suffer or benefit from the culture in which they find themselves, their family’s and community’s competence in the child-rearing business and the services available to them.

The question is how these can be configured to keep children from harm and enable them to make the most of their lives. Parents have a primary role but haven’t the power individually to fully shield their children from adverse influences or fully provide for their optimal development. This is more the case with some children than with others.

This is why countries provide variously for protection of their children and enhancement of their potential through government and civil society policy on housing, work, income, cultural enrichment, safety, childcare, schools, healthcare and special needs of one kind and another. Each of these policy areas and the details of their implementation can be researched and examined to determine if they are good for children. Such research and examination is the subject of the international meeting I’ve just attended. The topic categories for the three hundred or so lectures, papers, posters, symposia and workshops of the Congress give an indication of its wide scope. They were:

  • Primary prevention
  • Ethics, law and society
  • Trafficking, sex tourism and sexual exploitation
  • Disability and children
  • Children in care
  • Child offenders
  • Recognition and evaluation
  • Epidemiology and outcome data
  • Evidence-based mental health and treatment issues
  • Child deaths and death reviews
  • Corporal punishment
  • Cultural practices
  • Domestic violence
  • Children and disasters
  • Medical recognition and diagnosis
  • Positive parenting
  • Mental health needs of children
  • Training

Another classification of the topics is the level at which they operate – values/policy, management and practice. Lectures and papers addressed all three levels.

In an interesting lecture Professor Mike Wessells of Columbia University looked at all three levels within systems he has studied in West Africa. He found uptake of services to be low despite government efforts but it improved when the top-down approach was complemented by a bottom up component.  Using methods such as Participatory Action Research and Socratic dialogue, family and community processes for child protection were enhanced and structures for youth leadership and community driven action on behalf of vulnerable children were developed.  

“It illustrates how community driven linkages with the formal system promote the use of formal services and enable ownership, effectiveness and sustainability of the system.”

A consistent conference theme from people with long experience who gave keynote addresses was that child protection needs to be seen as a whole system if it is to work. There must be close collaboration between the three levels as just described and as across other divides such as between central and local government. Family and community strengths must be carefully sought and interventions matched to them.

Professor Kim Oates, Dr Susan Bissell and Dr Michiko Kobayashi in each of their lectures reviewed overall progress in child protection. They found little impact to date on rates of child maltreatment of the child protection systems that have evolved in the fifty-two years since the publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome” by Henry Kempe and others which ushered in the present era of recognition of child abuse and neglect.

There has been substantial progress in identifying abuse and neglect and in helping affected children and families but not in primary prevention. That has been my experience as well and was the reason I was attracted by the conference title, “Toward Child-Centred Societies: Learn From the Past, Act for the Future”. The focus has moved from practice issues toward the social milieu at national, community and personal levels which gives rise to family violence, both ill-treatment of children and its common accompaniment of intimate partner violence.

To change the conditions which underlie child maltreatment and reduce its prevalence will require a different set of interests, skills and personnel than have been marshalled to date. As Professor Oates concluded in his masterful lecture, “Perhaps the next big advance in child protection will come by learning from other organisations which, while unrelated to our field, can have much to teach us.” The principle of connection of people to power in a coherent system will remain relevant.

A coherent system for children

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