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Child Maltreatment: a six-country comparison of trends

By news editor, on 26 January 2012

Shivani Singh, PhD student at the UCL Centre for International Health & Development, reports on the UCL Global Health Symposium ‘Child Maltreatment: A six-country comparison of trends’, held on 18 January.

The seminar marked the beginning of a new year of fascinating lectures hosted by the UCL Institute for Global Health.

The session was well attended and featured the work of Professor Ruth Gilbert of the UCL Institute of Child Health. Joining her as panellists were June Thoburn, Emeritus Professor from the University of East Anglia, and Richard Bartholomew, who is the joint Head of the Government Social Research service and Chief Research Officer, Children, Young People and Families Directorate, Department for Education.

The focus of Professor Gilbert’s research is to understand child maltreatment across the industrialised nations of Canada, the USA, England, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.

A comparative study of this scale is a considerable undertaking; in order to ensure that all different types of maltreatment were included Professor Gilbert used three sources of data. Using hospital records, violent death reports and reports from child protection agencies, an accurate snapshot of child maltreatment rates was developed.

Professor Gilbert explained that the rationale behind studying these different countries was to understand how their individual policies are, or are not, working.

There are contextual issues that were also taken into consideration; for example, in the case of Canada, the province of Manitoba was chosen as the sample site due to the fact that there are well-kept records in cases of child maltreatment.

However, Manitoba, in contrast to some provinces, has a large aboriginal community that is uniquely disadvantaged and has a high rate of use of social services compared to other communities.

Considering such contextual issues, as well as varied approaches, Professor Gilbert was able to draw some interesting conclusions on the trajectory of child maltreatment.

While it is difficult to say that a specific policy has had a clear cause and effect reaction on child maltreatment rates, certain policies, such as taking a strong preventative approach, has shown to be effective in some instances, such as in Sweden.

Canada has a focus on out-of-home care, which has gone up, and its overall rate of child injury and death has gone down. Professor Gilbert recommended that the best route to continue within this field of research would be to study homecare and child protection policies further.

Professor June Thoburn began her remarks with appreciation for the nature of Professor Gilbert’s research, as well as its scope. Essentially, the issue she found most concerning in terms of this work was the systemic problems inherent to how child protection is approached by the state – something that varies from country to country.

In the case of Canada and the USA, the way the system is funded is a problem. For the Nordic countries, the requirements for removal from the home are very different from that of other countries and can often lead to higher rates of removal.

Richard Bartholomew echoed the comments of Professor Gilbert by asserting the need for further study in order to gain a better understanding of the long-term trend in child maltreatment. He advocated longitudinal studies that would allow for better understanding of child maltreatment and the effect of social policies into adulthood.

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