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Can children’s rights be the scaffold for love in the care system?

Recently, Scotland has incorporated in its legislation the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This is part of an ambitious process aiming to reform the care system following a root-and-branch review led by care-experienced people. Its outcome, “The Promise,” has received cross-party support and is now entering its implementation phase.

I have been using the UNCRC in my work since 1999 when I first started to work for children in state care. In my view, its provisions passed the test of time and it is a great framework if it is not misinterpreted and if it is used correctly. And there are some great resources to avoid misinterpretation such as The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child–A Commentary edited by John Tobin. In my study analysing the care experiences of young people from Romania, the UNCRC was a useful way to understand what went wrong in the care system as they were growing up in different types of placements (residential care, foster care or adoption).

The fundamental difference between a human rights approach and psychologised one, in which children are seen through their adversity rather than through their potential, is that the former brings care to the moral domain. Such an approach places children’s dignity (and their voice) at the heart of the care system. This has a number of implications. A rights-based approach can be at odds with systems dominated by a “risk” culture that regard children as potential victims of abuse (and adults as potential perpetrators) because these tend to overprotect children and limit their participation in decisions that affect their everyday life. Research indicates that children raised in low-risk environments by overprotective parents carry a risk of developing anxiety or challenging behaviour. Risk-oriented systems tend to make care a red tape exercise for professionals and a disempowering and a potentially oppressive experience for the young people, impacting negatively on the child’s self-esteem.

“Ensuring that carers and professionals engage with children in a meaningful way is the cornerstone for a system based on ethics of care and children’s rights.”

In order to be a good parent, the state must aim and act similarly to good parents: helping children to gradually develop their autonomy even if that involves making mistakes; ensuring that they are raised in fairness, with unconditional support and respect; and nurturing their talents. Ensuring that carers and professionals engage with children in a meaningful way is the cornerstone for a system based on ethics of care and children’s rights. Listening to children will make them feel important and it will help them develop their self-trust, self-respect, and self-esteem.

The safest way to protect children against abuse is not to ban carers from hugging children they care for but to help children recognise abuse and create complaint mechanisms they trust in, where they feel confident to speak about it if necessary. Care must be an empowering experience and not a stigmatising one. Listening to children’s worries, giving them the confidence to ask questions they have on their mind and involving them in decisions about their care will create a different foundation for how they feel about growing up in care. A rights-based approach will make care experience a dignified one and a matter of justice rather than a matter of moral luck.

Care-experienced people in Scotland and in England demanded “love” in the care system. This is not only a legitimate request but also one that can be achieved. In one of his Notebooks, Albert Camus says that “the loss of love is the loss of all rights even though one had them all.” By twisting it around, treating children in care as rights holders will perhaps contribute to them feeling that they are loved, at least in the way C.S. Lewis understood love: not necessarily as an affectionate feeling but “a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

Featured image by Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay

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