Why good has emerged from evil of child abuse

Learning from the deaths of children, caused by abuse and neglect, has saved lives in Northern Ireland, says John Devaney

The death of a child is a personal tragedy for the family and a loss to the wider community. In some cases, a child’s death will be anticipated due to a life-limiting condition. In other instances, a child may become suddenly ill through an underlying health condition or acquired infection.

In other circumstances, a child may die as a result of a purposely inflicted injury (by themselves or another), or as a consequence of a lack of care or supervision.

When the death of a child results from abuse or neglect, the sense of both grief mixed with outrage is more palpable.

Thankfully, while society is rightly concerned with the reasons for any child’s death, deaths in childhood — for whatever reason — are an increasingly rare event in Northern Ireland.

In 1980, 3% of all deaths were of children aged from 0 to 15 years, while in 2010 this had reduced to 1%. Over this period, the number of children dying as infants had decreased by 62%.

In spite of the best efforts of those working within the child-protection system, child deaths as a result of abuse and neglect remain a serious problem.

Yet — in spite of media coverage and the public perception about such tragedies — research being undertaken at Queen’s University indicates that violent child-deaths have decreased dramatically over the past 40 years throughout the UK, including Northern Ireland.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, parents have an increased understanding of how to care for very young children. Through increased health promotion, parents — and in particular fathers — have been reminded that shaking a baby or infant, either through rough play or anger, can have disastrous consequences.

Secondly, health professionals have regular contact with families in the first years of a child’s life, and are increasingly alert to parents who are experiencing difficulties

Finally, when children are brought to the attention of social services due, to concerns for the child’s welfare, research from Queen’s University indicates that families typically receive the help they require and children’s overall well-being improves in the majority of cases.

As a consequence of these factors, children are alive today who might not have been so fortunate 10 or 15 years ago. However, as a society we still need to be careful about assuming that every parent wants the best for their child.

There must also be a greater recognition amongst politicians and the general public that child deaths from abuse and neglect are not entirely avoidable.

While it is tempting to use child deaths as a proxy for the effectiveness of the child protection system, caution must be used in doing so.

The death of a child as a consequence of abuse or neglect is an extremely rare event.

Therefore, when a child does die, and there is a belief that abuse or neglect may have contributed to this, there is arguably a moral and legal responsibility to try to understand more about the circumstances which might lead to this.

This week, 700 researchers and policy-makers from 28 countries are gathering at Queen’s University for the eighth congress of the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

There are children alive today because of what we have learned in the past and what we have done as a result of that learning.

We need to continue this process of reflection for the children in future generations.

Dr John Devaney is a lecturer at the school of sociology, social policy and social work, Queen’s University, Belfast