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Children’s Right to Personal Security: the Foundation for a New Journal

  • Gary B. Melton
Essays on child protection policy

Abstract

Building on the seminal work of pediatrician Henry Kempe and his successors in developing the modern field of child protection, The Kempe Center, The Kempe Foundation, and The Haruv Institute are sponsoring the publication of a new journal: International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy, and Practice. Cross-cultural and interdisciplinary in scope and reader-friendly in style, IJCM is intended to advance the global development of a human rights perspective on the nature of childhood and the requisites for preservation and enhance children’s dignity as persons. More specifically, the articles in IJCM are designed to improve policy and practice related to the fulfillment of children’s right to personal security, including their physical safety, their sense of psychological security, and their access to resources sufficient to enable their survival and development. Because such interests are critical to protection of children’s personality (personhood), they have fundamental ethical and legal significance not only for children themselves but also for the promotion of community at all levels of society.

Keywords

child protection policy children’s rights Henry Kempe right to personal security right to personality The Haruv Institute The Kempe Center The Kempe Foundation 

More than a half-century ago in a lecture to the American Academy of Pediatrics and a related article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, University of Colorado pediatrician Henry Kempe focused public and professional attention on the problem of child maltreatment (Kempe et al. 1962). As chronicled in a book-length 50-year follow-up to the classic JAMA article (Krugman and Korbin 2013) and a biography by one of his daughters (A. Kempe 2007), Kempe did much more than “just” bringing physicians’ attention to the reality of child physical abuse, a serious moral and health problem that had been obscured from their vision by psychological blinders. Although less famously, he played a similar role in generating professional awareness and concern about child sexual abuse (C. H. Kempe 1978), and he pioneered in programs to prevent child maltreatment through use of home health visitors for families of infants (C. H. Kempe 1976).

Most importantly for the purpose of this article, Henry Kempe created new institutions (e.g., an international professional association; a then-national center for related research and clinical practice; a foundation for the center’s support) that remain influential today. Most remarkably, he led a movement that within just a few years led to child abuse reporting laws in all U.S. jurisdictions and, over time, heavily influenced child protection policy and practice in much of the world (Kalichman 1999; Mathews 2015).

Despite Kempe’s noble intentions, his solution ultimately contributed to disastrous conditions in some public child protection agencies and perhaps even diminished natural preventive assistance (Melton 2005b). Nonetheless, no one can seriously debate the premise, however, that when taken together, the various steps that Kempe himself directed and the civic action that he advocated helped to galvanize public concern for children’s safety in their homes. A generation later, this concern contributed to a dramatic decline in the frequency of physical and sexual abuse in the United States and perhaps other wealthy jurisdictions (see Finkelhor and Jones 2006; Finkelhor et al. 2016). This diminution in willful harm to children has been an important element in the concomitant increase in concern for children’s rights since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) by the U.N. General Assembly. This activity has included systematic efforts in scores of countries to prohibit all physical punishment of children (Durant and Smith 2011).1

However, Kempe’s focus on case-finding was the product of erroneous impressions based on surveys of prosecutors’ offices and hospital emergency departments that suggested that child maltreatment is a rare and simple (even if egregious) problem (see Kempe et al. 1962). Therefore, it is unsurprising that the modern child protection system has turned out not to be a panacea. For example, the systemic emphasis on a specialized child welfare agency’s investigation of reports of suspected maltreatment may detract from community efforts to strengthen family support. It may also have unintended negative effects on public confidence in the agencies themselves—e.g., diminished faith in clinicians’ alliance with their clients (see, e.g., Levine and Doueck 1995; Watson and Levine 1989)—amid “emergency” conditions that are frequent, if not chronic, throughout the formal child protection system (Gelles 2017; U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect 1990).

The Evolution of the Child Protection System

As the discussion thus far illustrates, the field of child protection has had a relatively brief and checkered history.2 On one hand, in little more than a half-century, it has provided a structure for direct expression of community concern about and support for children who are “the least of these” (cf. Melton 2010c)—those who are in the most difficult circumstances. By demanding respectful, dignified care for children who have been or at risk of being subjected to maltreatment, it has given meaning to the personhood—the humanity—of all children. Such normative change may be at the root of the decline in rates of physical and sexual abuse, and it has the potential to strengthen children’s status and well-being more generally.

In that regard, child protection is a fundamental element of assurance of children’s rights, particularly when such efforts extend to concentrated, carefully planned efforts affirmatively to protect children’s personal security. In such a program of community action, care is taken to prevent harm to children, not simply to pick up the pieces (in a metaphorical sense) after children’s personalities are damaged.3 Such efforts are especially significant when they result not only in protection of the right to personal security per se but also in vindication of other dimensions important to their survival, development, and well-being. In particular, systematic programs and policies to strengthen children’s family environment are likely also both to enhance their safety and to improve their own, their parents’, and their neighbors’ quality of life.

On the other hand, such thoughtfully designed and carefully implemented comprehensive efforts remain unusual, especially in initiatives undertaken on a large scale. Indeed, “emergency” conditions remain modal (cf. U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect 1990), and reforms rarely address systemic errors. In his recent plea for systemic change, Gelles (2017) opened his treatise by quoting the catastrophic assessment of the National Commission on Children (1991) about a quarter-century earlier:

If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child welfare system. (p. 293; quoted by Gelles 2017, p. 1)

The kicker came in the initial paragraph of newly published text:

While there have been some incremental changes in individual child welfare systems and new federal and state legislation, the current status of child welfare systems is not substantially better than it was in 1991. More than half of the [U.S.] states operate child welfare systems under a court order resulting from a class action lawsuit. The media continue to report local stories of children grievously injured or killed while under the watch of a child welfare agency….

The child welfare systems’ responses to such stories are neither bold nor particularly effective. In New York City, Rhode Island, Texas, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, as well as around the nation, response to stories like those mentioned above are calls for more workers, lower caseloads, and more funding. These are the same calls that have echoed for decades, and yet significant improvements to the child protective system still elude us. (Gelles 2017, pp. 1 & 3, citation omitted)

Indeed, Gelles (2017) later shows that exposés of egregious circumstances in the child welfare system almost always result in “rounding up the usual suspects” for public response: more money, more staff, and more training—and sometimes a new agency head, a commission, and a new agency name. In effect, child protection “reform” typically consists of “more,” not “different” and “better.” Such reliance on conventional practice typically occurs despite any empirical evidence or logical basis to support the contention that the usual solution, if present, would in fact have prevented terrible harms to children.4

Gelles (2017) believes that such thoughtlessness has multiple causes. For example, he describes perverse financial incentives embedded in the legal structures for U.S. child protection practice, whereby child welfare agencies are rewarded for failure to make decisions about children in their care. In Gelles’s judgment, however, the most problematic element of the child welfare system is the normative ambiguity and misdirection of the system.5

Child and family policy (perhaps especially child protection policy) is unlikely to be carefully planned and maybe even unlikely to be carefully studied because it is taken to be a matter about which “everybody knows” (Nelson 1984). Such valence issues address concerns of everyday life in which moral and empirical assumptions are intertwined, so that factual matters may be regarded as essentially undiscussable.

Accordingly, although scientific knowledge about child maltreatment has advanced at a rapid rate in the past generation, major gaps persist in the knowledge needed to keep children safe. Published scholarship has focused disproportionately on evidence (a) that child maltreatment exists in diverse societies and (b) that child maltreatment has bad effects on people, both as children and later as adolescents and adults. Such findings by themselves seldom result in insights about what should be done to enhance children’s safety and well-being.6

In a sense, the field persists in fulfilling Kempe’s task—germane to the situation a half-century ago but much less relevant today—of recognizing the harm experienced by children who have been wronged. To that extent, the field has lagged behind the public, which long ago recognized the existence of child maltreatment, the seriousness of its effects, and the public responsibility to take action to fulfill children’s right to personal security—to enable them to be physically safe, psychologically secure, and assured of care adequate for their survival and development.

Accordingly, we are launching a new journal—International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy, and Practice (IJCM)—with a firm grounding in children’s rights. We have a corollary commitment to generation and dissemination of empirical research and of principles and techniques of practice that will promote and protect children’s survival and development as persons who are full members of the human community. Such efforts are being sponsored by The Kempe Center and The Kempe Foundation (both based in Colorado, with offices at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus) and The Haruv Institute (based in Jerusalem, with offices at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University).

Principles to Guide a New Journal

IJCM is building on Kempe’s legacy as a scholar with a sensitive conscience, an advocate for children who are maltreated, and a leading innovator—indeed a founder—in research, programs, and policies on child maltreatment. Accordingly, as stated in the journal’s statement of Aims and Scope, we intend IJCM to be “a groundbreaking forum for presentation and analysis of innovative research, programs, and policies for and about prevention, control, and mitigation of child abuse and neglect.”

To those ends, as the Aims and Scope explains, the journal “includes descriptions and reviews of child protection programs and policies and evaluations of their effects. The journal also welcomes scholarly reports of theory-grounded empirical research on the nature of child maltreatment and its causes and correlates. Whatever their specific foci, however, articles in the journal should facilitate the fulfillment of children’s right to personal security” (emphasis added). We are interested in research, literature reviews, commentary, and program and policy descriptions that may illuminate any or all of the elements of this fundamental right: the protection of children’s physical safety, the promotion of their psychological sense of security, and the assurance of their receiving care sufficient for fulfillment of their basic needs in the settings of everyday life.

Four principles are guiding the editors of IJCM in their development of the journal. First, the journal should reflect and contribute to the global growth of a human rights perspective on the nature of childhood and the requisites for preservation and enhancement of children’s dignity as persons. Thus, the journal will illuminate the implications of the child protection system’s legal architecture (past, current, and prospective) around the world for the success (or lack of success) of societies, communities and particular settings in effectively protecting children.

Second, as reflected in IJCM’s multinational sponsorship, we believe that this inquiry is apt to be most fruitful if it is cross-cultural. Given the common starting point of many child protection systems around the world, comparative studies (examining the commonalities and differences across communities and both national and international regions) are most likely to illuminate the strengths and weakness of the various specific approaches. Of course, many studies that may be useful in this process are not themselves international. However, we expect authors to apply lessons from research across cultures both within and across particular societies in their analysis of prior findings and conceptualization of their own research.

For example, the literature on child protection, in both clinical and policy terms, is curiously least developed in relation to solutions to the problem of neglect, the phenomenon that in both frequency and intractability dominates formal systems of child protection in high-income countries. The relative weakness of both theory and research on neglect and the resulting misdirection of resources are at the core of difficulties that those systems often have in assisting families who are migrants, indigenous, or otherwise socially and economically disadvantaged. Experiences in development programs and policies in relation to child protection may thus offer important lessons for both high-income and low- to middle-income countries. IJCM is a forum in which those lessons can be articulated and applied.

Third, a journal devoted to effective child protection should be interdisciplinary. Applying such a principle, IJCM will periodically feature reviews—in effect, practice guides—on topics germane to several broad domains of child protection work: e.g., health care; mental health care; schooling and other settings of childhood (e.g., early childhood programs; youth organizations); social and economic support; law and policy.

These domains obviously correspond in rough terms to professions involved in child protection. The editors will do their best to ensure that readers, whether based primarily in scholarship, clinical practice, or community action (including volunteer leaders), see content in every issue that is directly germane to their work.

However, we expect authors to take a problem- rather than discipline-centered approach to understanding of issues in child protection (thus to be interdisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary). For example, the assurance of safe and adequate housing is an important goal in prevention of abuse and neglect. Many would reflexively see housing as a social work issue, because it is a problem of social and material support. However, analysis of the problem and development of creative solutions would be informed by an understanding of public health principles in injury prevention, economic studies of factors in housing security, behavioral-architectural and educational research and practice on enhancement of community responsibility for child care, legal and geographic studies of related land use planning, and the insights of neighborhood civic leaders, real estate professionals, and public safety officials.

Fourth, even if a journal on an important topic of social concern includes scientifically sound research and thoughtful, creative analysis, it fails in the end if the intended audiences cannot access or fully understand it. Therefore, the editors will demand reader-friendliness in the pages of IJCM. Both the breadth and depth of attention to the content will be facilitated if the following criteria are met:
  1. 1.

    The formatting and editing are sufficiently thorough that the articles are accessible to a linguistically and professionally diverse audience.

     
  2. 2.

    Research articles routinely address implications for policy and practice.

     
  3. 3.

    Literature reviews amplify these interpretations.

     
  4. 4.

    Periodic essays provoke thought about the strengths and limitations of the current child protection system and encourage the development or application of reforms.

     

In the interest of creation and dissemination of more thoughtful child protection policy, we have special interest in tightly argued, lucidly written commentary intended for educated audiences in diverse cultures. Moreover, as an indirect part of the legacy of Henry Kempe, we expect IJCM to help both to sustain Kempe’s important contributions and to facilitate reform in the contexts where his predictions may (understandably) have been faulty but his innovations have nonetheless persisted.

Conclusions: Promoting Children’s Rights through an International Journal

In that regard, my colleagues and I had discussions with leaders of various professional organizations as we planned the launch of IJCM. We were struck by a near-consensus that it is time for the development of new concepts in the field and for a re-direction to focus on steps necessary for, or at least facilitative of, fulfillment of children's right to personal security.

In particular, the timing may now be right for creation of a research- and ethics-based child protection movement that is expressed in volunteer action that has meaning for communities in the United States and elsewhere (see Metrikin-Gold 2015). At least five trends are coalescing with sufficient strength that we may be approaching a tipping point toward a neighborly child protection strategy (see U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect 1993):
  1. 1.

    As noted in the preceding section, concern with children’s rights—in particular, an integration of protection and self-determination rights in the service of dignity and the promotion of the development of children’s personalities—is a global movement (Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989; Melton 2005a; Smith 2015).

     
  2. 2.

    Concern for children’s safety is intertwined with protection of personal security of other historically disadvantaged groups, particularly women (see, e.g., Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, 2014; Runyan et al. 2018; Scott et al. 2018). The high rate of co-occurrence of child maltreatment and intimate partner violence and the disproportionate number of females subjected to abuse in both childhood and adulthood leave the door open for application of insights from the women’s movement.

     
  3. 3.

    Impressive progress has been made in community-wide prevention of child maltreatment (see, e.g., Kimbrough-Melton and Melton 2015; McDonell et al. 2015; McLeigh et al. 2015; Molnar et al. 2016a, b; Prinz et al. 2009).

     
  4. 4.

    The rise of right-wing (ethno-nationalist) populism is generating a resistance movement led by “better angels” toward greater pluralism and grassroots development (Meacham 2018).

     
  5. 5.

    Concern with the loss of social capital and the resulting high prevalence of loneliness is resulting in a strong focus on development of strategies for the promotion of neighborliness (see, e.g., Melton 2010a; Putnam 2000; Putnam and Feldstein 2003; Sasse 2018).

     

Although some of these trends are admittedly reactive to adverse social trends, they are nonetheless real. Ironically in an era of populism, the field may now be ready for a new infusion of professional leadership ready to diffuse the ideas of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1993)—innovations in neighbor-to-neighbor assistance—in civic and philanthropic organizations, communities of faith, public safety agencies, primary health care clinics, schools, child care centers, and businesses and other workplaces. The establishment of IJCM is apt to be an important tool in that regard.

It is to the credit of the Kempe family of organizations that they (a) continue to spread Henry Kempe’s moral concern for children’s personal security, (b) diffuse further his strategic ideas that have withstood empirical scrutiny, (c) reform the elements of child protection systems that have been less successful in enhancing children’s security in everyday life, and (d) generate and support the leadership needed to ensure that our children are safe, that they feel secure, and that they have access to the resources needed to meet their basic needs. Although a much younger institution (founded in 2007), The Haruv Institute shares in those values, leads in their application in Israel, and plays an active role in stimulating and diffusing a community-sensitive and rights-oriented approach to child protection around the world.

In my last lecture as an institute director at Clemson University, I explored the distinctive opportunities that university-based institutes (like scholarly journals) provide for service as intellectual institutions. Here is a portion of the conclusion to that lecture:

Change toward greater sense of community [particularly in relation to protection of children] is still possible, and it is worth the effort, even when the way is difficult, the access to tools is blocked (sometimes by academic institutions themselves), and the tide is flowing in the opposite direction. Amid the continuing societal decline in expressions of caring, we must diligently discover, understand, apply, and spread the contributions of successful people—exceptional servants—as the foundations for truly transformed, hospitable, and decent communities inclusive of those who are strangers, excluded, alienated, or in great need…. (Melton 2013, p. 9)

In the same spirit, we hope that IJCM will carefully blend normative (moral) analysis with empirical study in a way that generates a strong sense of community inclusive not only of children themselves but also of the adults who care for them. We strive to offer innovative ways of development of protective care consistent with the right to personal security for everyone.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Updated reports on progress toward prohibition and elimination of physical punishment of children can be found on the Web site of the relevant global initiative (https://endcorporalpunishment.org/).

  2. 2.

    The precursors to the modern (Kempe-inspired) child protection system lacked the ambivalence in the modern system (e.g., dual goals of treatment and punishment of parents who abuse or neglect their children; both positive and negative attitudes toward reliance on public authorities for child protection). However, such agencies often adopted policies and strategies that, viewed from the twenty-first century, were deeply flawed in both their normative (moral) foundation and their empirical assumptions. Notably, the 19th- and early-twentieth-century societies for prevention of cruelty to children (popularly known as “The Cruelty”) were charitable annexes to law enforcement, devoted to finding and punishing purportedly abusive parents (often on the basis of prejudices about cultural norms of new immigrants from Europe) and then institutionalizing the affected children (Melton 2016).

  3. 3.

    Personality is used in this context to reflect its status as a term of art in international human rights law—to reflect the distinctive personhood of every human being. Thus, the right to personality in childhood reflects each child’s distinctive characteristics as a member of the community and a recipient of its care but also her or his continuing development as a unique person entitled to human dignity and communal respect (Melton 2010b).

    Toward those ends, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) not only expressly guarantees the right to personality but also demands (a) that states parties enable each child to grow up in a family environment “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality” and (b) that educational measures, among others, enable the child to “be fully prepared to live and individual life in society.” Governments also have a responsibility to ensure that every child acquires and maintains an “identity including nationality, name, and family relations.” Most directly to the point, the Convention also includes several detailed articles describing the elements of children’s right to personal security, a key element in preserving children’s identity.

  4. 4.

    Tragically, these additional investments in long-standing but inapposite strategies for child protection often result, as the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1993) concluded, in a situation that is likely to be even less successful in preserving children’s personal security:

    Public policy has been driven by the response to the wrong question. With the focus on investigation as a prelude to court action and, ultimately, separation of maltreated children from abusive or neglecting parents, the policy debate has focused on the question, “Under what circumstances is coercive government intervention justifiable to protect children?” This question tends to elicit legalistic discussion about the definition of abuse and neglect, the standards for gathering and introducing evidence about parental behavior, and the relative strength of rights of parents and children. Remarkably little discussion occurs about the far broader question, “What can government and social and neighborhood institutions do to prevent or ameliorate harm to children?”

    …The idea that “doing something” about child maltreatment means initiating an investigation has become ingrained among professionals and the public. As a result, policymakers disturbed by the crisis in child protection commonly fail to look beyond the “solution” of hiring more CPS workers, and the professions and the public as a whole generally do not assume responsibility for action to protect children…. Other sectors of the child protection system [exclusive of social services]—elements that are necessary to address the multiple dimensions of the problem of child abuse and neglect—often have been absent from active involvement in planning and implementing a response.

    …The narrowness of the question asked and the responsibility assigned to the lack of comprehensive, conceptually coherent planning in the child protection system. This vacuum has facilitated piecemeal governmental responses to the problem of child abuse and neglect and the ever-worsening crisis in the child protection system…. (p. 11)

  5. 5.

    When one examines Gelles’s (2017) analysis more closely, it is clear that he believes that meaningful child protection requires a rights-oriented perspective: “…Let me say here, and without qualification, the most important step in child welfare system reform is that agencies and the workforce understand that the child is the most important client in the child welfare system….” (p. 77). A corollary is that the primary goals of the child welfare system—and of other elements of the child protection system—must be to preserve children’s safety and enhance their well-being.

  6. 6.

    A National Academy panel (Committee on Child Maltreatment Research 2014) acknowledged the growth of knowledge about the prevalence and effects of child maltreatment, but it also indicated the limitations of this scholarship:

    …Despite these gains in grasping the scope and scale of the problem..., much of the research evidence also underscores how much remains unknown. The causes of child abuse and neglect need to be understood with greater specificity if the problem is to be prevented and treated more effectively. (p. 2)

    The #1 recommendation of the panel was for implementation by federal and private research agencies of “a research agenda designed to advance knowledge and understanding of the causes and consequences of child abuse and neglect, as well as the identification and implementation of effective services for its treatment and prevention.” (Committee on Child Maltreatment Research 2014, p. 11).

Notes

Acknowledgments

The author is grateful to the leaders of The Kempe Center, The Kempe Foundation, and The Haruv Institute for their generous support for the development of IJCM and for their provision of the opportunity to lead in building this new resource for the field of child protection. The editorial and production staffs of Springer are also acknowledged with thanks for their expertise and efficiency in the preparation of IJCM’s initial volume.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Kempe CenterUniversity of Colorado Anschutz Medical CampusAuroraUSA

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