How cultural relativism undermines child protection

The Irish Times today reports on a conference that took place at the weekend of the Women Lawyers Association. The issue under examination was child protection. 

What grabbed the headline was confirmation by Mary O’Rourke, chairwoman of the Oireachtas Committee on the Children’s Amendment to the Constitution, that our political class is initially to go down the legislative route with regard to children’s rights and allow for the sharing of ‘soft information’ concerning alleged child abusers.

She has not yet ruled out a more general constitutional referendum. (Incidentally, everyone who has so far appeared before Mary O’Rourke’s committee has a left-of-centre view of children’s rights. This view tends to be more trustful of the State than of the family and wants to enhance its powers). 

However, what really caught the eye in report was a paragraph towards the end which read: “Mary Hough, director of Sligo Education Centre, warned against allowing ‘cultural relativism’ diluting child protection standards among professionals. 

“Cultural sensitivity should not be equated with cultural relativism, she said, and sensitivity to cultural differences should not be used to justify lower standards of care and inaction among professionals.” 

Now, this is an extremely interesting observation. Children’s rights campaigners commonly complain about the Constitution and the way in which traditional attitudes allegedly prevent them intervening in families where children need protection. 

However, we never hear these same campaigners complaining that cultural relativism might be a problem. But it is, of course. Cultural relativism might, for example, make social workers reluctant to intervene as they should in immigrant families, or in Traveller families. 

In Australia, social workers are often extremely reluctant to remove Aboriginal children from their families on the grounds that Aborigines have different cultural standards than the rest of society, and also because Aborigines were so badly treated in the past. 

It would be extremely interesting to hear more about this but don’t hold your breath because cultural relativism is fashionable whereas moral traditionalism is anything but. Therefore, expect far more stories about the later than the former. 

An aside: I wonder if cultural relativism had anything to do with the inadequate response by the authorities to the Roscommon incest case?