Differing Approaches to Combating Child Abuse: United States vs. United Kingdom

Article excerpt

"When the UK figures are adjusted to reflect the difference in the size of the population, we find an estimated number of UK cases at 150,000 compared to the US number of 950,000. Even if we took into account operational factors related to registration criteria and the separate issue of substantiation in the UK, there is still a strong suggestion that the US is intervening and substantiating cases two to three times more than in the UK."

Child abuse has been recognized in both the United States and most of Western Europe for well over a century. Debates continue as to whether it is a preventable social problem and what the response should be. (1) Here, we will be addressing the debate by examining the political and legal issues of child abuse and by using a case illustration to compare intervention approaches in the United States to those used in the United Kingdom. We will then review comparable child abuse data in the US and UK and speculate on the factors associated with the wide variation in "reported cases" found in both countries.

CASE ILLUSTRATION

The following example is based upon an actual case in New York City:

Jean Paul is a seven-year-old boy living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with his mother, father, younger twin siblings and an older half-brother (his father's son from a previous relationship). His mother and father are both Haitian immigrants. One day, they received a call from Jean Paul's teacher; apparently, Jean Paul was late to school and had cursed the teacher when she demanded an explanation for his tardiness. For the two days following the phone call, Jean Paul was absent from school. His teacher, based on some previous negative experiences with Haitian students in her school, became concerned for Jean Paul's safety. She contacted child protective services in New York City (Administration for Children's Services, ACS) on a suspicion that Jean Paul might have been hurt by his parents in response to her phone call.

THE ACTUAL US RESPONSE

ACS responded to the report by initiating an investigation that began with a visit to the home and the questioning of the family. The ACS worker found Jean Paul at home with several bruises, which he stated were caused by the belt buckle with which his father used to hit him. Jean Paul's father, Brandon (not his real name), was arrested and charged with assault. He spent one night in jail; the family had to take out a loan to post bail. Brandon pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. He was sentenced in criminal court to mandated anger management classes, several court appearances and fines. Family court was also called into the case, and the family was given two options: Brandon could either move out of the house and participate in mandated preventive services, or all his four children would be put into protective custody (foster care).

Brandon chose the first option, and moved out of the house. Prior to his arrest, he was working full-time and attending night school. After the arrest, Brandon, faced with fines, additional rent and time needed for anger management courses, preventive service meetings and court appearances, had neither the time for college nor the tuition money. He stopped his college courses. The stress, time strains and criminal record also put Brandon at risk of losing his job. Meanwhile, Brandon was only allowed to see his children during scheduled supervised visits. Jean Paul and his siblings missed their father. Jean Paul began to have behavioral problems in school. Brandon was angry at the system for penalizing him for what he considered good parenting. According to Brandon, in his country he would have been considered neglectful if he had not "disciplined" Jean Paul. Brandon is concerned that Jean Paul has no role model at home and thinks that his father is a criminal.

A PROBABLE RESPONSE IN THE UK

A social worker from the Local Authority, the UK's child protection agency, discusses the teacher's reasons for referral and asks her to speak to the teacher designated with child protection responsibility within Jean Paul's school. …