Child Protection - In harm’s way

Understanding why child abuse happens, and the role of settings in protection. By Eunice Lumsden

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While abuse can and does take place outside the family, the majority of abused children, especially very young children, are abused in the privacy of their family.

There are no definite reasons why some people abuse and others do not, and abusers come from all areas of society. Moreover, different families can face similar challenges that can lead to abuse in one family but not in another. Mothers are more likely to be responsible for physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, primarily because they are usually the main caretaker. Men are usually, but not exclusively, the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and female children rather than males tend to be the victims.

There is no one clear type of abuse, abuser or reason. There is no checklist; rather, a number of factors have been identified that result in families being deemed ‘vulnerable’ and in need of support. These include marital conflict, unwanted pregnancy, mental health, drug and alcohol dependency, previous experience of abuse, unemployment, low income and poor housing. However, changes in family structure, cultural diversity, globalisation and the internet have further complicated the area of child protection. Therefore, theoretical frameworks to support an understanding of the causes of child abuse take on greater significance.

The work of the late Brian Charles Corby is also invaluable here. He identified three broad theoretical perspectives that help us comprehend why some people abuse children:

Psychological theories: those that focus on the instinctive and psychological qualities of individuals who abuse.

Social psychological theories: those that focus on the dynamics of the interaction between the abuser, child and immediate environment.

Sociological perspectives: those that emphasise social and political conditions as the most important reason for child abuse.

These theoretical perspectives facilitate greater understanding of abuse in relation to specific situations. For example, psychological theories indicate that there may be predispositions to abuse because of early deprivation or other factors such as experiencing domestic violence. Alternately, social psychological theories suggest the immediate environment can lead to maltreatment occurring; for example, because of the interplay between an unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence, unemployment and poor housing. The sociological perspective would perceive this same situation as the interplay between the State, the impact of policies and the social conditions of the family.

Another perspective that supports understanding of the reasons for abuse is how power is used. Anti-discriminatory practice acknowledges the power we all have; it is how it is used that is the important factor for abuse. Parents, or those caring for young children, are in positions of power; their role is to support, protect and teach until those children are independent. However, one of the defining features of maltreatment is when ‘at least one person, usually a parent figure…is misusing the power they have over the child’. Celia Doyle [senior lecturer in early childhood studies and social work at the University of Northampton] contends that abuse can occur not only at the micro level of the family, but also at national and international levels against particular groups or countries. She has also identified three preconditions that can lead to abuse.

First, where people abuse or misuse the power they have; second, where victims are objectified ‘either at an individual level when abusers fail to see the essential humanity of their victim, or at a societal level such as occurred during the slave trade when “slaves” were viewed as commodities’; third, when people are silent witnesses and do not recognise or appreciate the seriousness of different situations – they may also be ‘co-victims too frightened to disclose; or associates of the abuser who gain vicarious pleasure from the victim’s suffering’.


Toby and Nadine

Samantha (21) has two children by different fathers: Toby, aged three-and-a-half; and Nadine, aged two. Both attend nursery for 15 hours per week. Samantha was adopted as a young child, having suffered neglect as a baby. She has a reasonable relationship with her adoptive parents, and they continue to support her emotionally and financially.

Samantha became pregnant at 17 but did not tell anyone until she was six months pregnant, and did not appear to know who the father was. Samantha’s relationship with Nadine’s father, Simon, was volatile, and the police were called regularly because of suspected domestic violence linked to alcohol and drugs.

Simon had a history of drug dealing and, on the day the police arrested him, Samantha received a notice of eviction from her house for non-payment of rent. The next day she took both children to the nursery and admitted to hitting Toby, leaving a bruise on his face. She said he would not do what he was told and she just lashed out.


The importance of understanding why abuse happens

It is vital that those working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings understand that there are multi-faceted causes for abuse, and conclusions should not be drawn from limited information. Practitioners need to remain professional at all times, share and record concerns, and avoid informal conversations about families that may lead to judgemental comments and stereotyping abusers.

In this case study, Samantha’s earliest experiences were of neglect, which can impact on all aspects of development and across the life course. She continues to be supported by her adoptive parents. This situation does not necessarily mean that the children are being abused. Samantha is under considerable stress, a situation that may have led her to respond to Toby’s behaviour by inappropriately smacking him. Actually, at the time of writing this book, smacking a child in the UK was not against the law, although this was about to change, as is already the case in Scotland.

However, this family is vulnerable to abuse occurring because of the dynamics of the adult relationships, where power appears to be being misused, alongside alcohol- and drug-related issues and police involvement. Furthermore, there are financial issues leading to the non-payment of rent and possible eviction.

The ECEC setting has an important role to play in supporting the family and other professionals working with them. Most importantly, they are powerful advocates for infants and young children. The holistic knowledge of the child and their development provides an invaluable contribution to any multi-professional assessment being undertaken. The ECEC environment provides rich opportunities for quality play experiences that focus specifically on social and emotional as well as cognitive development, communication and fine and gross motor skills.

Finally, ECEC provides a crucial opportunity to work alongside parents or primary caregivers to enhance their understanding of their child’s development needs and the importance of the home learning environment.

  • child-protection-in-the-early-years-coverThis is an edited extract from Child Protection in the Early Years by Eunice Lumsden (Jessica Kingsley, £16.99)

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