Monday, 31 January 2011

Equal protection from violence - safeguarding children

For the past two years I've been working to extend support for the aims of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance (CAU!) among professionals involved in child protection, and have done this primarily by talking to the 150 Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) in England. LSCBs are incredibly important for child protection, as they are responsible for coordinating and regulating it in each local authority.

The Alliance' aims are to:
  • secure equal protection against violence for children by removing from statute the 'reasonable punishment' defence available to parents who 'smack' their children, and
  • provide a national programme of education that will enable parents to find alternative ways of helping their children stay safe and treat others well.
The Alliance has presented the core arguments for a change in the law to LSCBs: that the current legislation runs contrary to children's right to equality before the law under article 7 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and against their right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to protection from being hurt (article 19).

I've also talked to the boards about how the 'reasonable punishment' law muddies the water for child protection. Social workers and others involved in safeguarding children often have great difficulty balancing their many responsibilities, including to keep families together, act in the best interests of children and keep communities solid. Sometimes, where corporal punishment in the home does not seem to be placing a child in immediate danger, professionals may feel that leaving the child at home is a pragmatic approach that is allowable in law. (This is one among many tough decisions they are faced with, and I remain highly supportive of the work social workers and others do in difficult circumstances.)

Trouble is that the physical and mental abuse of children often begins with smacks, and it's hard to know when the line will be, or has been, crossed. Too many children must suffer increasing levels of physical hurt on top of the degrading lack of respect that even the mildest of smacks represents. If physical punishment were against the law, parents and professionals alike would know that any level of hitting is unacceptable, and some of the decision-making would be more straightforward for those involved in child protection.

Some people worry that the introduction of a ban on smacking would criminalise ordinary families, and this was also a concern in New Zealand, where the government made it illegal to smack children in 2007. A review of the ban's impact on policing and family life after two years found that there had been no significant change in ordinary circumstances since its introduction. The New Zealand laws before the ban were similar to ours, and there is no reason why good law-making in this country would not have a similar outcome.

The tool that I have used most effectively to discuss all these matters with LSCBs is a presentation which also provides an argument for the boards' legal freedom to support the Alliance's aims.

The response from board members has been overwhelmingly in support of the Alliance's aims. At time of writing, 29 LSCBs have signed up to the Alliance's aims - that's one short of a fifth - and many more are considering their position. Some boards do not feel confident of their freedom to sign up to the Alliance - but even they consequently decide not to add their signature to the formal list of Alliance supporters, they have been at pains to express the informal support of all board members.

I would like to thank all board members for engaging so fully in discussion with me over the past couple of years.

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