Constitution not to blame for chronic abuse

Shock and shame are the two predominant sensations on reading through the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The report details the litany of horrors experienced by children in residential institutions, most of which were run by Catholic orders. 

Reaction to the report has rightly focused mainly on the need to ensure nothing like this happens in the future. However, there is not complete agreement on how this should be achieved.

For example, children’s charity Barnardos have used the report to suggest that the Constitution is deficient in the status it accords to children. Implicit in this suggestion is the idea that, if the Constitution explicitly referred to children’s rights, these abuses would have been less likely to occur. 

Typically, the argument that is made is that the Constitution’s protection for the family in Article 40.5 is too strong, and prevents the State intervening early to prevent abuse. If only social workers had more power to intervene, there would be fewer cases of abuse, the argument runs. 

There are a number of problems with this argument. In the case of the abuses which took place in industrial schools and other residential institutions, the privileged position of the family in our Constitution could hardly be held responsible, since many of the children in question were in such houses of horror precisely because it was relatively easy to remove them from their families. 

The argument that a children’s rights clause in the Constitution would head off abuse in a contemporary scenario is also flawed. There have been a series of abuse cases in the UK, most recently the Baby P case, in which a young child died after being subjected to 17 months of incredible cruelty and abuse by his mother’s live-in boyfriends.

But Britain does not have a written constitution. Its law does not give the family a privileged position in the same way ours does. Nor do British social attitudes defer to the family in the way we do (or used to do). Social workers have greater powers to intervene compared to social workers here. 

Nevertheless, horrific cases of child abuse occur there, even when social workers, doctors etc have full knowledge of what is happening to a particular child. In the Baby P case, for example, social workers and doctors knew about this case but never took the child permanently away from the mother.

Similarly, in the Victoria Climbie which came to public attention in 2000, an eight year old died following a year of unrelenting abuse by her great-aunt and her great-aunt’s boyfriend. In this case Victoria had been seen by dozens of nurses, social workers, police, doctors etc but again was never removed from her ‘carers’.

In such cases, “traditional family values”, or a constitutional protection for the family simply cannot be blamed. On the contrary, it has been suggested by some that UK social workers have been unwilling to take children away from poor families and from minorities (Victoria’s great-aunt was Nigerian) for reasons of political correctness. 

After yesterday’s report, the urge to “do something” serious to address the issue of child abuse is understandable. But any action which is taken ought to be on the basis of firm evidence rather than on weak suppositions. The most immediate action that can be undertaken is to ensure that the State’s child protection guidelines, Children First, are properly implemented across the country. The second and more difficult action is to strengthen the family, especially marriage, because married, biological parents are the least likely to abuse their children.