Today, after more reviews, far too many children in Scotland are still experiencing abuse and neglect. Many children’s circumstances end up being investigated by the child protection system and often they are put into care. We are neither preventing child maltreatment, nor providing enough of the kind of support to keep children safely at home.
The young person quoted in the 2002 report put into one short sentence what academics have been trying to say, with thousands of words, for years. The only way to solve child abuse and neglect is for everyone to understand that we can all be part of the problem and part of the solution. We cannot provide effective protection for children if we focus only on investigating individual cases once things have gone wrong.
The biggest barrier to reform is the tendency to seek an individual to blame. It is easy to label someone a ‘bad parent’. It is much harder to take a look at society and recognise the way we organise our economy harms children in the first place and fails effectively to make up for harm after the event.
Children living in poverty are more likely to come into care than their affluent peers. Poverty undermines parenting and exacerbates factors like substance misuse that are associated with maltreatment. But we tend to blame individuals for their drug use, we even blame people for being poor in the first place. There is huge public outrage when a case of child abuse is reported – and rightly so. But where is the outrage about the high numbers of children living in poverty and the lack of support services for people who desperately need them? This individualisation of a social problem means parents who struggle are stigmatised.
The building blocks are in place to tackle the causes of abuse and to provide non-stigmatising support for parenting. There is a range of policies aimed at tackling poverty, substance misuse and mental health issues. However, it is still easy for the more affluent to distance themselves from such initiatives. We have to move to a position where the general public is better educated about the links between poverty, associated social problems and child maltreatment.
With ‘Getting it right for every child’ (GIRFEC), we have a framework that has the potential to deliver exactly the kind of holistic support that’s needed. It is an optimistic model premised on the idea of the people of Scotland accepting collective responsibility for the well-being of every child. It is informed by parents’ views that it is difficult to know GIRFEC has stumbled because it assumes that parents can be signposted to resources – an unfounded assumption at a time of cuts.
We need greater empathy for the plight of those who are feeling the rough end of social inequalities and a greater willingness to share our resources fairly. We need to ensure greater buy-in to the message that it is, indeed, everyone’s job to make sure that children are alright.
This article describes one of 25 ‘calls’ by charity Children in Scotland to improve the lives of children and young people. Professor Brigid Daniel is a social worker, author, founder of the Scottish Centre for Wellbeing and Child Protection, a member of Children in Scotland’s board, and dean of the School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh