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Social Construction of Childhood Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3490 words Published: 6th Jul 2017

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In order to consider how child protection policy and practice has been shaped, a definition of child protection and significant harm and abuse is required. The Department for Education (DFE, 2011) defines child protection as the action that is carried out to safeguard children who are suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm. Furthermore the Children Act (1989) defines harm as ill-treatment including neglect, emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Interestingly, Parton et al (2012) suggested that determinations of what should be considered child abuse are socially constructed, and are therefore reflective of the culture and values at a specific moment in time.

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To begin, childhood is a status that is documented worldwide and throughout history, which sometimes sees the child as innocent ,vulnerable, a consumer, a worker alongside other household earners, a threat to society and it is a construction that changes over time and place (Prout, 2005). Historians of childhood have argued over the meaning, such as Aries (1960) cited by Veerman (1992, p5) stated the concept of ‘childhood’ didn’t exist before the seventeenth century; therefore children were mini adults with the same rights, duties and skills. This idea was supported by the poor law (1601) which was a formal system of training children in trades to contribute to society when they grew up (Bloy, 2002).

Another example came from Locke (1632-1734) and the ‘Tabula Rasa’ model. This proposes that children were morally neutral and were the products of their parents (Horner, 2012). The nineteenth century showed it was the parent’s responsibility to offer love and pertinent correction, to bring out the good in their nature thus helping them to become contributing members of society. This could easily lead to blaming the parents as good or bad based on the behaviours of their child, since the child was not considered as his own agent. Legislation such as the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act would support Locke’s idea as children who were sent to workhouses, would participate in schooling to imprint knowledge. Evidently a number of scandals occurred from inmates eating rotting flesh from bones to survive. The government’s response implemented sterner rules for those operating workhouses, along with regular inspections (cited by Berry 1999, p29). Fox Harding (1997) described this era as ‘laissez faire’ which was based on the family being private with minimal state intervention around children.

An alternative concept from Rousseau (1712) suggested the idea childhood being about innocence and a child was born angelic until the world influenced them. This was significant in terms of child protection with the implementation of children’s charities such as Save the Children (founded in 1919). They portrayed children in a variety of adult situations and as poor victims worthy of being rescued using contemporary ideas of childhood (Macek, 2006). Interestingly the Children and Young Person’s Act (1933) was also introduced to protect these children from any person legally liable and likely to cause injury to their health. What is obvious is that harm was not clearly understood, considering caning in schools was common until 1987 and stopped because of corporal punishment being abused in schools (Lutomia and Sikolia, 2006).

Moving into the twentieth century took a wide shift from the ‘laissez faire’ approach and along with the concept of childhood, became the notion of state paternalism. Child protection practice was based on extensive state intervention to protect children from poor parental care (Fox Harding, 1997). These changes led to a sharing of blame with their parents for children becoming anti-social (a demon) or a great achiever (an angel) in society. The demonic model illustrated by Pifer (2000) was already seen in childhood construction but blamed society, not the child, when as Rousseau noted is the romantic discourse that becomes tainted with the crooked outside world. These historical concepts dictated that children should be seen and not heard and every aspect of the child’s life should be determined by their parents or guardians. Although the shift is evident, it could be argued that the laissez faire and paternalist perspective shared a common view of children having limited capacity for independence and decision making. Pollock (1983) would argue that children were not miniature adults as Aries (1960) claimed, but actually were at a significantly a lower level of development and so had distinctive needs from adults. This suggests as immature people they could make mistakes and be excused from full responsibility for their actions.

Given the current high profile debates on children, it is public outrage and moral panics in the media that frequently changes the way things are seen. The research into child deaths has prompted changes in legislation (Parton et al, 2012). Key events such as the death of Maria Coldwell (1974) and Jasmine Beckford (1984), led to specialist workers instead of generic workers. The immediate bureaucratic response which reframed child protection practice was no longer intervention into preventative work but became more focused on assessing risk. Serious case review’s in to a child’s death was undertaken as a way of discovering how the tragedy occurred, who was responsible, what professionals were involved, rationalising individual actions and learning lessons for future practice (Rose and Barnes, 2008). The public’s perception of social workers placed more pressure on this notion of identifying risk before the child died which developed many theories and models for the professional to practice.

In contrast to the numerous child deaths, the Cleveland case in 1988 evidenced the over enthusiasm of state intervention. Children were removed from their families based on medical assessments grounded on uncertain scientific knowledge (Hawkes, 2002). The inquiry recommended greater rights for parents and children and suggests the separation from families was seen as abuse itself (Ashden, 2004). This, and proceeding enquires into the deaths of children, offered dilemmas for social workers representing the most visible agencies within the child protection system, in terms of whether a child should be removed or not. This event was a major policy driver to the Children Act 1989, where parent’s rights have been replaced with responsibility and ensuring children turn out to be good citizens of society. However it could be argued that in practice today the Cleveland event still carries stigma with parents believing their children are going to be taken into care. Sexual abuse statistics from the NSPCC (2012) state 20, 758 children in 2009 were subject to sexual abuse with a decline in 2010/11 to 17,727. This result could offer a suggestion that preventative work and forceful criminal justice system in the last two decades is responsible. Alternatively it could be argued there may have been no decline at all and is purely a drop in the number of cases being identified.

Interestingly Child protection: Messages from Research conducted in the early 1990’s (DoH, 1995) examined the role of the Children Act 1989. The document defied the socio-medical model of child abuse and reframed and contextualised the notion of the ‘dangerous family’. This suggested that the responsibility was to be laid on the parents of children that fall out of particular construct in order to combat poverty and crimes. Children such the murderers of Jamie Bulger in 1993 were children carrying out unthinkable, far from innocent acts. However this case offered a different construct as children with a ‘dual status’. They committed a crime as an adult yet they were still children in need of protection. Society wanted to look at their background to decide if watching horror movies or having divorced parents or poor discipline made them kill a little boy.

Given the media’s response the nature nurture debate came to the forefront with notions of being born bad, to being made bad. Fascinatingly the historical view had been to protect children, yet moral panics made society shift to demonising children, branding them as wicked and evil (Bracchi, 2010). The legislation that had previously sought to protect children had also come into conflict with the boundaries of criminal law, as it does not recognise them as children over ten years of age (Molan, 2008). It could be argued that criminal law agrees with Aries (1960) and children are mini adults, yet social workers guidance refers to children up to the age of seventeen. One could question how professionals can work together when legislations cannot agree what age a child is.

Further spotlight cases such as Victoria Climbie (2003) highlighted failings of multi-agency workers (Lamming 2003) and facilitated to shape the next change in legislation. The Every Child Matters green paper which outlined five outcomes to be achieved by all children was enshrined in law as part of The Children’s Act (2004). These were defined as, stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, achieve economic wellbeing, and make a positive contribution (Knowles, 2006) which gave professionals direction on the minimum requirements for every child, and allowed social workers to intervene to meet these needs in child protection practice. Nonetheless, the coalition government in 2010 abolished this agenda (McDermid, 2012) suggesting that families are not as important, even though it has underpinned social work practice for a number of years.

Nevertheless child deaths continued to be a growing problem, the Baby Peter case (2008) indicated that individuals are failing children and again multi-agency communication is poor in assessing risk. Another case that followed approximately a year later was the Edlington boys (2009) who tortured two young boys. Society then blamed foster placements and care systems suggesting they do not work and foster placements are as bad as the families they were removed from. Cases such as these developed blame culture, where children were perceived as being failed by the government workers; usually the social workers less often the police and the politicians (Community Care, 2012). The public outcries and criticisms of social services made social workers practice on the side of caution. This suggests the romantic concept of childhood (i.e. protection of innocence), came to the forefront and children were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. It appears that each disaster that happens the social construct of children changes.

Indeed, researchers into twenty-first century childhood such as Sue Palmer (2006) refers to a ‘Toxic Childhood’ which is the harm society is causing to children through a competitive, consumer driven, screen-based lifestyle. The media and internet evidence how much it has made it available for children to consider adult notions and behaviours, alcohol, sexual activity, drug use and teenage violence that show that differences between adulthood and childhood are disappearing. Nevertheless it could be debated that contradictory attitudes remain commonplace with children being constructed as innocent little angels and little devils, innately capable of the most awful types of crime until the adults in society influenced them as Rousseau (1712) noted.

Despite these criticisms the families that children live continue to be judged as secretive with children growing into poor citizens due to not being protected by them. Very often poor families are classed as poor parents and certain constructions take place without the family even being assessed. To exemplify Tucks (2002) identified a connection between all forms of abuse and social deprivation, but a possible explanation is that perpetrators target vulnerable children or women to secure access to children; socially deprived neighbourhoods are characterised by relatively large numbers of lone parents. Through the pressures of their circumstances and in family crisis, parents had become caught up in a child protection system that was more attuned to assessing risk than to bringing out the best in parents struggling in adversity (DoH, 1995).

Moreover Owen and Pritchard (1993) identified the difficulties in classifying ‘at risk’ and the criterion for assessing what constitutes abuse. Indeed professionals hold a variety of opinions towards what constitutes abuse and could be argued that this alone diminishes the identification of risk to a child. Nonetheless professionals are still expected to protect children by the Children Act 1989 which does outlines ‘significant harm’, but it is very ambiguous in terms of definition (Brandon et al 1999). Munro’s report (2011) on Child Protection agrees that social work involves working with this uncertainty and not able to see what goes on in families which suggests little shift . The defensive practice may come from workers who are expected to manage this uncertainty if the issue of abuse and neglect is not clearly labelled.

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Since the implementation of the Children Act 1989 the emphasis on the child’s rights has become very controversial. The idea of protecting children by giving those rights may have been problematic for adults in terms of taking them seriously which arguably could be minimal representation they have had over the years. Additionally adults may be averse to handing over power to their children, because as the early historians suggested, the adult knows what is best for their children. Franklin (2002) suggests a conflict between adult’s rights and children’s rights could offer explanations for ‘demonization’ of children. Another idea could be that giving children rights takes away a child’s ‘childhood’. This may have been viewed from the idealistic construction of childhood being a period of innocence where they consider that children should not be concerned with important decision-making and responsibility.

To further support children’s rights, the Children Act 2004 updated the legislation to include the abolishment of physical punishment (NSPCC, 2012). However, Owen and Pritchard’s (1983) idea of ‘cultural relativism’ whereby specific behaviours in some families is attributed to cultural practice, questions the concept of how significant harm can actually be measured. In cases of child abuse, black and ethnic minority children could arguably be at a higher risk, as warning signs that would have been picked up are ignored and accepted to be cultural practices and norms. For instance Rogers, Hevey and Ash (1989) state that the beating of West Indian children can be viewed as traditional use of chastisement within that culture, rather than observed as physical abuse of children. Owen and Pritchard (1983) propose this aspect to ‘racist beliefs’ and stereotyping, where culture is considered deviant rather than the actions of a caregiver.

Conversely Munro (2008) considers Effective Child Protection and points out the significance on the value of relationships between families and the worker and suggests this leads to better outcomes by understanding the families and cultures. An effective assessment and intervention in child protection draws from having good interactions and aids parents to disclose information and collaborate with authorities. It could be argued if a worker does not believe in certain cultural practices that children could become at risk when maybe they are not.

Another point to consider is the risk posed by professionals that work with children. Society has created an assumption that the rich, social workers, teachers and other professionals that work in child focused roles follow the legislation on protecting our children from significant harm. Yet through the power of this trust professionals have abused in ‘safe’ spaces for children. For example the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by the school caretaker in 2002, identified ‘significant failings with regard to police vetting procedures’ (HMIC, 2004) and the notion of grooming and abusing positions of trust was incorporated into the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Considering the Act was implemented in 2003 Nursery manager Vanessa George was found guilty in 2009 of abusing children in her nursery. The review found a systemic failure in communication throughout and highlighted a common theme of assumption provided a fruitful environment in which to abuse, a point that has been proficiently highlighted by the mainstream press. The child protection policies and procedures were inadequate and rarely followed (Community Care, 2009). This suggests that Vanessa prayed on the innocence of children knowing how society views her as a practitioner.

Cases such as this called for a review of vetting adults who work with children and formed a piece of legislation, the protection of freedoms Act (2012) which focuses on roles working closely with vulnerable groups. Some children related posts such as governors and school inspectors were being removed from the lists although they require having contact with children (Kelly, 2012). Additionally supervised volunteers will no longer be classed as working in ‘regulated activity’. Therefore, individuals barred from working in ‘regulated activity’ can still volunteer at your school, as long as they are supervised. It could be argued that although the government is keen to scale back the cost of vetting, it does not take into account the risk of grooming which is not negated by supervision. Furthermore, this process does not allow schools to check the barred list when recruiting volunteers which suggests it is providing a false sense of security for all.

A further report into child protection by Munro A child centred practice in 2011, established that a universal approach to child protection is preventing the main focus of the child. Munro recommended that the Government and local authorities should continually learn from what has happened in the past, however this could be difficult when cases such as Jamie Buglers that clamped the hatchet to protect the boys. One could question what lessons can be learnt from such secretive cases. Additionally, it could be argued that Munro’s child centred approach offers a potential negative impact on children and professionals. For instance, if the government removes the prescriptive practice that professionals may be using as guidance, this could create the potential to miss the signs of a child being abused based on judgement alone.

Having considered this idea, future risks assessment needs to change, a theoretical and practical model needs to be considered to allow state intervention in cases where a caregivers ability to care for a child is questioned. The British government will be pivotal to play a major role in reforming existing legislation and constructing new strong legislation to allow involvement by care services in the most high risk cases of child abuse. This request on the government is a consequence of the philosophy of risk now predominant in the UK, and is assumed that the government has the skill to anticipate and stop abuse and harm which in turn holds the government responsible when this does not happen.

In conclusion, the historical views of childhood can be seen throughout the numerous ideological discourses which determine how constructions of childhood continue to influence laws and legislation concerning the ways in which child protection is shaped. Although it is recognised that childhood warrants some degree of protective status, socioeconomic and cultural circumstances also affect young children’s behaviour and the way professionals practice. Those changed conditions also influence adult beliefs about rearing children and how protecting children should be. The emphasis on risk and assessing risk has changed over time, certainly through media, society and legislation.

As outlined there are some recurrent issues such as the recognition of significant harm, taking appropriate action, effective communication and achieving an appropriate balance between supporting families and disruptive intervention to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. Nevertheless child protection has been around for a number of years and indicates that there is a correlation between legislation, society and the construct of childhood which continually mirrors each other and will probably continue to do so.


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