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Portrayals of Child Abuse Scandals in the Media in Australia and England: Impacts on Practice, Policy, and Systems: Most media coverage distorts the public understandings of the nature of child maltreatment

Portrayals of child abuse scandals in the media in Australia and England: Impacts on
practice, policy and systems
Bob Lonnea
Nigel Partonb
a School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria
Park Road, Kelvin Grove, Queensland, Australia, 4059
b School of Human and Health Sciences. University of Huddersfield, HD1 3DH, UK
Corresponding author address: a School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland
University of Technology, Victoria Park Road Kelvin Grove, Queensland, Australia, 4059.
Email address:
Portrayals of child abuse scandals in the media in Australia and England: Impacts on
practice, policy and systems
This Directions paper argues that the media has played a key role in placing the issue of
child maltreatment and the problems associated with child protection high on public and
political agendas over the last fifty years, and that in many respects its influence has grown
further in more recent years. However, we will also argue that this influence is far from
unambiguous. For while the media has been crucial in bringing the problems into the open it
often does so in particular ways. In being so concerned about scandals and tragedies in a
variety of institutionalized and community settings, it has portrayed the nature of child
maltreatment in ways which deflect attention from many of its core characteristics and
causes. In addition, not only does the media have the power to help transform the private into
the public, it also has the power - at the same time – to undermine trust, reputation and
legitimacy of the professionals working in the field. These are key issues for all those
working in the broad child protection field and has been a key tension in public policy in both
Australia and England for many years, and something we give central attention to in this
The central focus of this Directions paper is to provide a critical analysis of how the
Australian and English media portray child abuse scandals and the impact this has had on
practice, policy and systems. We first explore the interests of diverse stakeholders and then
discuss issues that arise from media coverage that focuses upon individuals caught up in
scandals, while largely ignoring the underpinning structural factors that contribute to neglect
and emotional abuse. The many similarities in the coverage in these countries are illustrated.
We examine how media portrayals might better inform the public and stakeholders about the
complex forces and pressures upon families and communities, and thereby build momentum
for public health approaches to early intervention and prevention that address structural
factors such as poverty, disadvantage, discrimination and racism. While there is now a whole
variety of different media, and newspapers have seen a steady decline in sales, our primary
focus here is newspapers for newspapers continue to play the primary role in setting the news
agenda and framing social issues. (Greer & McLaughlin, 2011)
Key stakeholders – fraught relationships?
The broad or mainstream community have a clear stake in media reporting of child abuse
scandals. Gilbert, Parton and Skivenes have shown that around the globe there are a variety
of cultural and other communities, such as Indigenous peoples and people of colour, who
experience over representation in child protection systems and, hence, have a stake in media
coverage. Within competitive market environments, media organizations shape their coverage
to target specific audience preferences and needs as well as the broad community.
Further, there is a variety of stakeholders in the sector, particularly institutional ones such
as the police, legal system, health, education and protective authorities. These agencies are
typically sensitive, sometimes highly so, about their public image and reputation, and they
may go to great lengths to manage information and media in the public domain. They are also
active in ensuring that their organizational priorities, interests and imperatives are addressed
within the political and policy making environment where media are influential.
Governments and politicians, particularly aspiring ones, are major stakeholders who actively
engage in public debates about child abuse and neglect, and they can be highly influential as
child abuse scandals and tragedies unfold.
Closely associated with these players are professional bodies, researchers, academics and
campaigners, many of whom act from different moral, philosophical and political
perspectives and motivations. ‘Claims makers’ can be highly controversial and actively
sought out by journalists who are seeking stories that are topical and contain spirited
viewpoints. These sorts of stakeholders can be highly active in getting support for public
inquiries and are often portrayed as experts, even when their knowledge may be quite specific
and limited.
It is regrettable that the voices of children and parents frequently go unheard in media
coverage of child abuse and neglect, often because of the ethical issues and confidentiality
requirements. If they are heard, maltreated children have usually either reached adulthood or
have left care, and their experiences may not be timely to the matters at issue in the coverage,
unless it concerns historical or institutional abuse. For parents who are deemed responsible
for harm, the coverage typically portrays them pejoratively as ‘bad’, ‘mad’, or ‘evil’. They
are often pilloried and their overall silence and marginalization reinforces public
misunderstandings, and aids punitive intervention policy frameworks.
Finally, there are the journalists and media themselves who have stakes, commercial and
otherwise, in how stories are constructed and framed. At times they undertake lengthy
campaigns to highlight particular issues and failures, and can be instrumental in building
momentum for public inquiries into scandals. Journalists, editors and media proprietors are
not necessarily dispassionate and impartial bystanders to the reporting of child maltreatment,
and at times can be active partisans in the uncovering of scandals, and the naming and
shaming of those deemed to be responsible. As Moeller has argued “in today’s competitive
news environment, children are perceived to be one of the few sure fire ways to attract
eyeballs – online, in print and on television” (p. 37); and few issues generate as much high
profile, emotionally-charged news coverage and public outcry as the abuse of children.
Nonetheless, amongst the diversity of stakeholders and their interests is a general
agreement that children should be protected from harm, and that system and service failures
need to be redressed. However, the points of disagreement and tension should not be
underestimated as these factors impact upon both professional and lay relationships. There
are dynamic and multi-level interplays between stakeholders. Their roles, responsibilities,
agendas and motivations differ and may be complimentary or opposed. Rivalries, jealousies,
synergetic alliances, competitive relationships, and boundary and role disputes abound. And
all these things influence the nature of media portrayals of child abuse scandals in Australia
and England, and elsewhere.
How has Australian media portrayed scandals?
Australian media, particularly print media, has a longstanding interest and involvement in
child abuse and neglect and has played key roles in bringing scandals and system failures to
the public’s and politician’s attention. For example, the death in 1982 of Paul Montcalm aged
10 as the result of a fire, and the charging of his mentally ill mother with murder, led to both
media criticisms and the Lawrence review of the response by officers of the New South
Wales Department of Youth and Community Services. Ever since Melbourne’s Herald Sun
led a public campaign in 1990 following the brutal death at the hands of his step father of
Daniel Valerio, aged two, the media have been active advocates for system reforms by
highlighting the impacts on children resulting from maltreatment, and failures by those
responsible for ensuring their safety and wellbeing.
Moreover, the media have been at the forefront of campaigns to highlight major historical
system failures and abuses including the Stolen Generation that involved the wholesale
removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and
communities, and their placement in institutions, often faith-based, and with white families.
Lonne and Thomson noted that Queensland’s 2003-04 Crime and Misconduct Commission
Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Foster Care resulted from months of leaks and stories in the
Courier Mail.
Much of the reform of Australian child protection and child welfare systems has come
about as a result of official inquiries formed following child deaths, system failures and
scandals. Since 1997 there have been 42 federal and state government inquiries (Lonne,
2013). Increases in the numbers of both notifications of suspected harm and children in care
have typically occurred during and following inquiries, despite them consistently identifying
problematic issues such as poor practice concerning staff supervision and training, risk
assessments, engagement with clients, and interagency collaboration. As Lonne and Thomson
recognized, the end result of inquiries has often been “reduced public confidence, lower staff
morale, recruitment problems, increasingly reactive statutory interventions and an emphasis
on proceduralizm, compliance and managerial risk management” (pp. 87-88). However, of
note is that the recent Victorian and Queensland inquiries into systemic failure did not result
from child deaths, and their recommendations have accordingly been aimed at reconfiguring
the protective structures, approaches and practice rather than merely legislation and
procedures (Cummins, Scott & Scales, 2012; Queensland Child Protection Commission of
Inquiry, 2013).
In nearly all these inquiries, the media have been a chief catalyst and primary advocate for
public disclosure of system failures and holding to account those deemed responsible,
particularly governments. Rarely have authorities initiated their own major systemic
investigations without the press playing an instrumental part in garnering public and political
support for it, with some notable exceptions being Ombudsmen who are independent
investigative authorities who report to parliaments rather than to governments.
Further, the Australian coverage of these scandals has been differentiated not just by the
type of media and journalism, for example the extent of sensationalizing stories, but by the
focus of criticism and public shaming. There have been four main targets of media coverage:
state authorities, particularly child protection agencies; people who abused or neglected
children, especially pedophiles, but also their parents ; institutions and care providers looking
after children; and Aboriginal peoples and communities.
Some recent examples of negative portrayals of state authorities, such as the New South
Wales Department of Community Services (DoCS), are headlines such as ‘Failure of child
safety systems’ (Australian 19/02/08), ‘DoCS deserted murdered children’ (Daily Telegraph
28/06/08), ‘Removal of kids abuse by officials’ (Australian 21/01/09),‘DoCs in dock for
neglect’ (Australian 26/6/09) and ‘Children at risk failed by state’ (Courier Mail 2/12/09).
The death of ‘Ebony’ aged 10 years on 3 November 2007 as a result of profound malnutrition
led within three days to an Ombudsman’s investigation of the particular circumstances of her
death, and within a month to the Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into child protection
system failures. The print media expressed outrage and horror at Ebony’s death and were
primary agitators for these inquiries. Her parents were both given lengthy jail sentences. The
Ombudsman’s report criticised a range of agencies including DoCS, Education, Ageing,
Disability and Home Care, Housing and Police for not working together. Sydney’s Daily
Telegraph headline of 6 October 2009 was ‘Ebony starved in red-tape bungle’.
Of interest is that coverage of Australian scandals rarely identifies and focuses on
individuals working in systems, except when citing their evidence to courts or inquiries,
although positions such as school principal are sometimes noted. Instead, the focus is on
systemic practice and policy failure by the institutions providing care or otherwise
responsible for preventing maltreatment. It is notable that television broadcast media do not
tend to cover system failure, except when investigative journalists or current affairs radio
uncover scandals.
However, public emotions and opprobrium are certainly stirred up by media portrayals of
abusive parents and pedophiles, such as ‘No more chances – Clean up your act, slack parents
told’ (Courier Mail 25/02/08), ‘inside the mind of a monster’ (Courier Mail 10/05/08), ‘Evil
dad used own kids as sex objects’ (Herald Sun 03/06/08), ‘Children no one cared about killed
by father – years of horrific abuse’ (Adelaide Advertiser 28/06/08), and ‘Toddler torture
verdict – two guilty of murder’ (Courier Mail 19/11/08). Online crimes are often treated
similarly, for example, ‘online abusers blackmail children’ (The Australian 30/06/08),
‘Pedophile ring grows – Third woman faces charges’ (Courier Mail 14/10/99) and ‘Pedophile
ordered to leave pool’ (Courier Mail 30/11/09). These portrayals use emotive and judgmental
language to tap into public fear and anxiety about child abuse and its pervasiveness. Horrific
stories attract audience attention and tap into a well of public abhorrence about the
maltreatment of children. The broadcast media frequently cover these sorts of stories, often
featuring experts, family members and friends who attest to the risks for children and the
impacts upon them from abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse rarely feature.
Australian media coverage of institutional scandals often involves faith-based and other
entities that work with children including churches, schools, foster agencies and recreational
groups. It is often focused on the Catholic Church with stories addressing both local and
overseas events including those in Ireland, the USA and the Philippines. Headlines are nearly
always pejorative in their orientation, such as ‘Marist brother on child sex charges’
(Australian 18/01/08), ‘An abuse of faith’ (Australian 22/05/09), ‘Church let abusers go’
(Australian 12/06/09), and ‘church adviser questions value of abuse inquiries’ (Sydney
Morning Herald 26/04/13). Interestingly, they often feature the voices of victims and their
families, albeit as adults rather than when they are still children. All major media types
address this area and thrive on inquiry revelations, particularly those involving alleged abuse
of power and cover ups. After years of media attention and agitation on these scandals, on 12
November 2012 the Australian Government announced a Royal Commission into
Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with hearings already given sensational
coverage and prominence across the media.
Similarly, stories of Australian Indigenous peoples and communities and abuse are
frequent and critical, often portraying them as dysfunctional and dangerous, and linking the
story to issues of welfare dependency and social neglect. For example, headlines have
included ‘Child abuse rife in Aboriginal communities’ (ABC PM 15/06/07), ‘Focus on
Aboriginal leaders’ role in abuse’ (Australian 22/06/09), and ‘Sex abuse of Aboriginal
children shown to be just as bad as ever’ (Sydney Morning Herald 01/02/13). Coverage is
typically across all media types, and is often associated with inquiries but, importantly, is
mostly generalized across this racial group, or Indigenous communities as a whole, rather
than about individuals. There is often a pervading sense of hopelessness and helplessness in
the portrayal of Aboriginal communities, with their exclusion from the economic mainstream
peripherally noted along with housing, health and educational disadvantage, and criminal
How has English media portrayed scandals?
Up until 2008 media portrayal of child abuse in England had been closely interrelated with
a whole series of public inquiries into cases where it was felt there had been failures on the
part of the protective services – particularly local authority children’s social workers. The
first modern high profile inquiry was that into the death of Maria Colwell. Maria, aged
seven, died at the hands of her father on 7 January 1973; however there was no national
media coverage of the case until after the announcement of the public inquiry into her death
in May of that year. In fact, national media took very little interest in the case until the public
inquiry opened. For example, The Times newspaper had taken little interest in the case but
between 10 October, when the inquiry opened, and 7 December, when it closed, the case
attracted 320 paragraphs of coverage, most of which was concerned with reporting a blow-
by-blow account of the inquiry. There was reporting or comment on the case on 43 days
during the period. The publication of the inquiry report the following year also attracted huge
media coverage (Secretary of State, 1974; Parton, 1985).
Maria had been in the care of the local authority in East Sussex in the south of England
and at the time of her death was subject to a supervision order. Although the authorities had
received numerous calls expressing concerns about her treatment, and the home was visited
by a number of professionals, she died a tragic and brutal death. The public inquiry was to
prove a key watershed in the publicity given to the problem of what, at the time, was more
commonly called ‘the battered child syndrome’ and the ‘non accidental injury to children
(NAI)’, and the failures of the child protective services themselves (Parton, 1985). The local
authority social worker involved with the case came in for huge media criticism and
subsequently changed her name.
Corby and colleagues found that between the publication of the Colwell Inquiry report in
1974 and 1985 there were 29 further inquiries into deaths as a result of abuse, with
considerable similarity between the findings. Most identified a lack of interdisciplinary
communication; a lack of experienced front-line workers; inadequate supervision; and too
little focus on the needs of the child as distinct from those of the parents. Up until 1987 all
public inquiries had been concerned with the deaths of children at the hands of their parents
or immediate carers, and the child protection professionals were portrayed as having failed to
protect the children from serious harm and death – they had done too little too late.
However, the ‘Cleveland affair’ story which broke in June 1987 was very different. This
time, during a period of a few weeks, 121 children were kept in Middlesbrough General
Hospital, in the local authority of Cleveland in the north east of England, against the wishes
of their parents on statutory 28 day ‘place of safety orders’ on suspicions of sexual abuse. The
campaigning of the two local Members of Parliament together with local and national media
was crucial in bringing ‘the affair’ to public and political attention. A number of techniques
for diagnosing and identifying child sexual abuse - particularly the use of the anal dilatation
test, the use of anatomically correct dolls and ‘disclosure’ work - were all subject to
considerable critical comment. A public inquiry was established on 9 July 1987, took
evidence between 11 August 1987 and 29 January 1988, and was published in June 1988
(Secretary of State, 1988). The inquiry was to prove the major political drive for the passage
of the 1989 Children Act which continues to provide the primary legislative framework for
child welfare and protection work in England (Parton, 1991).
Not only was this the first scandal and public inquiry concerning sexual abuse, it was also
the first where it was concerns about over-intervention as opposed to under-intervention that
were central, and involved the actions of paediatricians and other doctors, as well as social
workers. As a result, two apparently contradictory images of child protection professionals
and services were evident in media portrayals at the time. They were characterized as both
‘fools and wimps’, and thereby failing to intervene authoritatively to protect children, but
also as ‘villain and bully’, intervening in a heavy-handed way and taking children into care
unnecessarily (Franklin & Parton, 1991). Such media images have continued ever since and,
in many respects, have become ever more highly charged.
This was particularly evident in relation to the brutal death of Victoria Climbié in February
2000 in the north London borough of Haringey. Victoria was born in Abidjan in Ivory Coast
in November 1991 and arrived in London, via Paris, with her aunt Marie Therese Kouao in
April 1999. In the following ten months she was known to four local authority social services
departments, three housing authorities, two police child protection teams, two hospitals, and a
family centre. Yet, when she died on 25 February 2000, the pathologist found the cause of
death to be hypothermia, which had arisen in the context of malnourishment, a damp
environment and restricted movement. He also found 128 separate injuries on her body as a
result of being beaten by a range of sharp and blunt instruments. The aunt and her boyfriend
were convicted of her murder on 12 January 2001. The court case received huge media
coverage and the government established a major public inquiry chaired by Lord Laming.
This inquiry report was published on 28 January 2003 (Laming, 2003) and, according to
Parton, was used by the government as the springboard for a fundamental re-organization of
local authority children’s services, driven through by the passage of the 2004 Children Act. A
central rationale for the changes was to ensure that no such tragedies happened again, and
that there would no longer be a need for such high profile public inquiries.
However, just at the point when all the major changes were supposed to be in place,
another major scandal hit the headlines. On 11 November 2008 two men were convicted of
causing or allowing the death of a 17-month old child on 3 August 2007. The child was
known at this point simply as ‘Baby P’ as his identity and that of his mother and her
boyfriend had to be protected for legal reasons. The baby’s mother had already pleaded guilty
to the charge. During the trial the court heard that ‘Baby P’ was used as ‘a punch bag’ and
that his mother had deceived and manipulated professionals with lies and, on one occasion,
had smeared him with chocolate to hide his bruises.
There had been over 60 contacts with a variety of health, social care and police
professionals and he was pronounced dead just 48 hours after a hospital doctor had failed to
identify what subsequently proved to be a broken spine. What was seen as particularly
shocking was that he had been the subject of a child protection plan with the London borough
of Haringey – the same borough which had been at the centre of the failures with the Victoria
Climbié case.
Immediately the media response was very critical of the services and professionals
involved. The depth of anger expressed was much stronger and more prolonged than anything
seen before, including the reaction to the deaths of Maria Colwell and Victoria Climbié. But
this time the reaction was in response to the end of the court case, and no public inquiry was
established. Very quickly the issue of child protection was politicized and scandalized to a
new level of intensity that continued from November 2008 into mid-2010. This was fuelled
by a series of other cases from different parts of the country where it was deemed that
professionals – particularly social workers – had failed in their responsibilities to the children
involved and the wider community. It had an immediate impact on day-to-day policy and
practice. The numbers of referrals to child protection agencies increased and the number of
children admitted into care and subjected to statutory interventions increased considerably.
For example, the number of applications to courts for care proceedings by local authorities
increased nationally from 6,488 in 2008/09 to 11,055 in 2012/13. The case was to prove a key
watershed in the politics of child protection in England.
The role of The Sun, a tabloid Murdoch News International-owned newspaper, was
central. On 15 November 2008 the newspaper launched its Beautiful Baby P: Campaign for
Justice which included a petition to demand the sacking of four Haringey staff, including the
Director of Children’s Services, plus the paediatrician who examined him two days before his
death. The newspaper also demanded that ‘Baby P’s killers be locked away so long that they
will never see the light of day again’ (p.6). Gordon Brown’s Labour government was
immediately on the defensive, with falling political polls and bleak economic news. The Sun
had supported the winning party in every general election since 1992 and its support was seen
as crucial.
Two weeks after launching its campaign The Sun delivered a petition to the Prime Minister
containing 1.5 million signatures, claiming it was the biggest and most successful such
campaign ever. In addition, a large number of Facebook groups, comprising 1.6 million
members, were set up in memory of ‘Baby P’ and seeking justice for his killers. This weight
of expressed opinion put considerable political pressure upon Ed Balls, the Minister
responsible for children’s services; he needed to be seen to be acting with authority and tried
to take control of the situation. In December he used the powers vested in him to direct
Haringey to remove the Director of Children’s Services and later that month she was sacked
by the council without compensation and with immediate effect (she subsequently won her
case for unfair dismissal by the Council).
In April 2009 Haringey also dismissed four other employees connected to the ‘Baby P’
case – the Deputy Director of Children’s Services, the Head of Children in Need and
Safeguarding Services, the Team Manager, and the Social Worker. In addition, the
paediatrician was suspended from the medical register, and the family doctor who saw ‘Baby
P’ at least 15 times, and was the first to raise the alarm about the abuse, was also suspended
from the medical register. The sackings sent shock waves through all children’s services and
engendered considerable anxiety and insecurity across all local authorities.
David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, made considerable political mileage out of
the case. He not only attacked the failures in relation to the protection of children from severe
abuse, but used the case, and the others that quickly followed in its wake, as clear examples
of the failures of the Labour government more generally, particularly in relation to its social
policies for children and families (Warner, 2013a; 2013b). Parton has recently argued that
child abuse scandals had become something of a proxy for a whole variety of debates about a
range of political issues concerned with the efficacy of health and welfare professionals, and
arguments about the nature and direction of social policy provision and the state of society
more generally, and the media played a central role in this.
Following the case of Maria Colwell the media played the key role in portraying a
widespread image of ‘blame and failure’ which was seen to characterize child protection
services and systems. This intensified considerably from the November 2008 onwards and
the role of The Sun newspaper was pivotal in this. While similar developments could be seen
in Australia, the emotional intensity generated, and the pressures placed on professional staff
in England, is somewhat exceptional to the point where suspending and sacking the senior
managers and practitioners involved in such cases has become a key feature of the work.
Comparing Australia and England
Australia and England, which share many social, cultural and political characteristics,
show similar trends in reporting, including disclosing tragedies and uncovering systemic
failures to the gaze of the public. However, there are differences in focus and tone. As we
have seen, England has taken a much more hostile attitude toward social workers, and
increasingly their managers, than to other health professionals or police. This can be career
destroying, or worse, for the individuals involved. By comparison, the Australian media
embraces public advocacy roles but is relatively tame, generally maintaining a focus upon
systems rather than individuals. Scandals, institutional abuse and system failures receive
considerable attention, especially when there are investigative journalists involved,
significant political agendas being pursued, and an accountability agenda is shaped as
shaming and blaming those involved. While this article compares Australia and England,
Chenot, and Niner and colleagues have identified similar patterns elsewhere.
Nonetheless, there are other explanations for the differences evident in media reporting,
although the precise reasons are difficult to determine. While News Corporation newspapers
are dominant in both countries there is far less competition from rivals in Australia, and it is
arguable that as the Leveson Inquiry heard, there are significant competitive pressures on
English publications to bend the rules and sensationalize matters in order to successfully
compete for readers (Leveson Inquiry, 2012). Tapping into emotive issues like child abuse
scandals does sell papers within the competitive English environment. Further, political
divisions in England have historically been more divisive than is found in Australia, and this
may contribute to media portrayals being more socially conservative, critical and blaming.
On the other hand, a broadly-based Australian value of a ‘fair go’, particularly for the
underdog, is another pressure that restricts how far media criticisms can go when criticising
individuals who undertake public service. It is likely that newspapers could expect a public
and political backlash if they resorted to the kinds of public vilification they have used in
Media portrayals and their impacts
In both these countries, the media plays an important but bifurcated role in the coverage of
child maltreatment, the positive side being raised public awareness, ongoing program reform,
and increased resources for child protection agencies. Yet, there are also negative impacts
upon these systems. Hence, it is important to ask the question – how does highly critical
media coverage influence practice, policy and systems? This is complex given the many
stakeholders and their interests, and their multifaceted relationships. Thus, what some may
see as a benefit, others may perceive as a negative impact.
Misrepresentations and Distortions
The coverage of child maltreatment is characterized by the omission of many details, with
nuance and depth in understanding often being washed away. Studies of media
representations of child abuse have demonstrated that the focus is more often an over
representation of criminal matters, particularly relating to child sexual abuse, and of stories
containing the ‘bizarre and unusual’(Cheit, 2003; Cheit, Shavit, & Reiss-Davis, 2010; Hove,
Paek, Isaacson, & Cole, 2013; Saint-Jacques, Villeneuve, Turcotte, Drapeau, & Ivers, 2011).
Abusers, especially pedophiles, are typically top of the list for public identification, thereby
tapping into public fear and anxiety about ubiquitous risk of harm to children. The voice of
parents and children is typically absent in these portrayals, and the detail and complexity of
practice and policy reform agendas can also be bypassed.
A further consideration in media reporting concerns the confidentiality inherent in child
protection agencies and juvenile courts, which often means that information is usually only
accessible to media when police are involved and, hence, leads to an over focus on criminal
matters, particularly sexual and physical abuse. This is distinctly at odds with the bulk of
substantiated maltreatment to children which entails neglect and emotional harm. So the end
result is a public that is largely misinformed about the prevalence and impacts of the major
types of maltreatment. Furthermore, this veil of secrecy around neglect, in particular, often
means child protection workers’ roles and family support practices remain misunderstood,
thereby leaving them open to media and public censure.
The Prevalence of Child Maltreatment
These representational distortions by coverage can be compounded by media discussion of
child maltreatment that takes place primarily through the lens of scandal and, hence, the
public are often largely disconnected from any wider appreciation about what harms children,
how their welfare might be improved, and how such issues are related to wider social and
economic forces and structures. Such an appreciation would begin by focussing upon what
we know about the prevalence of child maltreatment and what some of the prime causes
might be.
An authoritative review of research on the prevalence of child maltreatment in ‘high-
income countries’ in The Lancet (Gilbert et al, 2009) concluded that every year between 4-16
per cent of children were physically abused and one in ten were neglected or psychologically
abused. During childhood between 5-10 per cent of girls and up to 5 per cent of boys were
exposed to penetrative sexual abuse and up to three times that number were exposed to some
form of sexual abuse. The review also concluded that the numbers of cases of substantiated
child maltreatment known to official agencies only accounted for a tenth of this total. In
addition, exposure to multiple types and repeated episodes of maltreatment was also
associated with increased risks of severe maltreatment and psychological consequences.
Child maltreatment was found to substantially contribute to child mortality and morbidity,
and had long-standing effects on mental health, drug and alcohol misuse, risky sexual
behaviour, obesity and criminal behaviour, which persisted into adulthood. The review
suggested that neglect was at least as damaging as physical or sexual abuse.
Such findings have been subsequently confirmed in the most comprehensive research on
the prevalence of child maltreatment ever carried out in the UK (Radford et al, 2011). The
research also demonstrated that child maltreatment did not only arise because of the acts and
behavior of parents. Sexual abuse, in particular, was perpetrated in a wide range of
relationships and in a variety of different contexts, but was usually perpetrated by males who
were known to the child. A high proportion of both physical assault and sexually-harmful
behaviour was being carried out by peers and siblings. The study underlined the important
link between child maltreatment and certain social divisions, particularly in relation to gender
and social class.
Both these studies explicitly locate their work in a public health approach to child
maltreatment. They were clearly sceptical of the ability of individualized forensic child
protection systems on their own to seriously address the widespread social problem of child
maltreatment. Such an approach also recognizes that the cultural and political context in
which current policy debates takes place, fuelled and often driven by the media, make it very
difficult to address the major complexities and challenges involved.
Consequences of blaming orientations
In our view, vitriolic media portrayals aimed at blaming staff also serve to reinforce a
dominant institutional narrative that can be characterized as “We are good people who are in
the frontline of a terrible social problem, and the nasty press are shameful”. In doing so, it
hinders the sort of institutional critical reflection necessary to facilitate ongoing practice,
policy and system reforms. Furthermore, such coverage helps to maintain an institutional
reliance upon confidentiality laws and defensiveness to protect staff from threatening
exposure of practice and system failures.
Perhaps more importantly, the media gaze upon individual failures and organizational
performance, when seen alongside an overall focus upon maltreatment crimes, also leads to a
lack of attention upon social and structural factors which are known to contribute to the much
more prevalent issues of neglect and emotional abuse. The fear and anxiety that is engendered
for child protection workers and related health, education and police staff promotes risk-
averse practice and a slavish adherence to policies and procedures, often ignoring the specific
familial and community circumstances that exist. Good practice subsequently becomes “I
have followed the rules”, rather than “I have done the proper thing in this particular
Protective systems are fundamentally human and relational, and the impact of these sorts
of punitive and blaming portrayals upon staff attitudes and behaviour should not be
underestimated. Even though very few actual staff ‘casualties’ result from this sort of media-
driven public vilification, other staff watch and listen, take note of the punitive process, and
act accordingly. In a further twist, staff and agencies can become even more sensitive to
public criticisms, and evermore likely not to release information into the public domain.
Fearing public reactions makes these systems less likely to embrace principles of
transparency in public administration, thereby making it more necessary for external agents,
the media included, to see them as hiding something and therefore needing public exposure
and inquiries to “uncover the truth”.
Further, punishing and blaming errant parents, rather than helping them, is an approach
often supported within media portrayals of abuse and neglect incidents. Perhaps the most
significant impacts have been to change the role of everyday community members to be
informers of risky behaviours rather than providers of social support and guidance to stressed
parents and vulnerable children. The demonizing of parents as bad and dangerous has served
to increase the alienation of already marginalized groups, particularly those in Indigenous and
other socially-excluded communities. Stereotypes, racial and otherwise, abound in media
coverage and help to perpetuate social and legal interventions that target particular groups
who are seen as troublesome or errant. In this light, we should not be surprised that particular
groups are over represented in our protective systems.
Politicization of child abuse
The increasing politicization of child abuse and neglect has gone hand in hand with system
failure controversies. As civic-minded politicians and others have rightly campaigned for
system reforms, often allied with journalists and media organizations, there has been an
increasing realization that the scandals are not neatly contained within traditional Left-Right
political deliberations. Rather, they represent administrative and other failures of the
underlying processes within forensically-oriented systems, which rely upon investigation as
the service rather than more public-health approaches that utilize early and preventive
interventions. Hence, it is much easier for those in opposition to argue for change than it is
for those in government. Many more politicians have made a name for themselves as system
critics than have system defenders.
Increased resourcing
There are often clear pay offs for protective agencies, particularly in resource terms,
following media attention on system failures. Public administration entails competitive
relationships between various government entities for increased resources to meet growing
service delivery demands. Media calls for system overhaul increase the resource competition
between public services and foster rivalries and distrust. Inquiries into, and media portrayals
of, service delivery failures almost inevitably result in organizational reconfigurations,
program overhauls and bigger departmental budgets. Negative media portrayals do involve
pain, especially for staff ‘casualties’, morale and confidence, but this is usually followed by
gain, at least in resources, if not public reputation.
Inquiry-driven reform
It is clear that media focus on scandals and system failures is often responded to by
political decisions to hold inquiries to ‘get to the bottom of the matter’ and recommend
reforms. In the past, inquiries have often led to net widening of intake systems that have
sought to reduce organizational risk. Media attention about severe child abuse has been
associated with increased notifications of suspected abuse to authorities and to greater
numbers of children placed in care, which Chenot has called ‘foster care panic’.
Unfortunately, this has often led to protective systems being overwhelmed by service
demands. It has also contributed to the shifting of organizational risk by agencies that are
wary of the public opprobrium and attendant impacts on staff. Hence, a range of strategies
have evolved including command and control management approaches, scientizing systems
through the use of risk assessment tools, increased reliance upon proceduralizm and legalizm,
and a resultant de-emphasis of the importance of relationally-based practice as a cornerstone
to facilitating necessary change in parental behaviours and familial relationships.
Yet, the initiation of inquiries has important benefits other than the uncovering of unjust
and harmful organizational practices. Like many publicly administered agencies, child
protection authorities understandably find it difficult to advocate publicly for fundamental
system reform. Rather, it is often a perceived loss in public confidence about child protection
agencies that drives media to campaign for inquiries in the hope that reform will improve
performance and lead to better protective outcomes.
In the absence of child deaths and scandals in both Australia and England, there has
nonetheless been an increasing use of major inquiries to identify systemic failures and
recommend changes to policy, practice and systems, for example, the recent Munro review in
England and the Victorian and Queensland inquiries in Australia. While there is media
coverage of newsworthy aspects of these reviews, this is without the focus upon individual
staff and is much less vitriolic and accusatory in orientation. Consequently, there may be a
revival in public confidence in the system as well as support for the ongoing protection of
children and, hence, there are tangible benefits for many stakeholders.
Public health approaches
We have already highlighted the positive benefits of media attention stemming from
educating the public about the nature of maltreatment. However, current media coverage does
not often see the promotion of public health approaches as newsworthy, particularly when
compared to scandals. Further, public health approaches embrace early intervention and
prevention strategies that focus on the social determinants of maltreatment, and they aim to
provide supports and aid necessary to help struggling families and avoid the situation
deteriorating to a point where statutory intervention is required.
However, the public is rarely informed by the media about these approaches and services,
except where they fail to identify and prevent severe abuse. In view of the dominance, at least
in official figures, of neglect and emotional harm, rendering aid to address the negative
impacts of low incomes, social marginalization and exclusion has direct benefits for the
capacity of families to cope with poverty, inadequate housing, and social and structural
factors that affect their health and wellbeing. Yet, these programs struggle for public and
government support when compared to statutory interventions because, in our view, the
media largely ignore them preferring instead to focus on more sensational incidents,
particularly where someone can be found to be at fault. In this sense, the media coverage
clearly hinders necessary reform. Perhaps there is an inherent difficulty in providing a
convincing argument about the public benefit from investment in programs for the poor and
most marginalized?
In this Directions paper we have argued that the media has a critically important role to
play in ensuring that the problem of child maltreatment comes into the public domain. It has
been at the forefront of a profound realization by society of the size and impact of the
problem and has been a steadfast advocate for the right of the state to intervene into the
privacy of family life in order to protect children and render needed assistance. The media
has directly led to the public being informed about maltreatment and being prepared to do
something about it. However, as Krugman suggests, the Western world no longer needs
enlightenment of child abuse as an issue but, rather, a focus on whether or not programs are
Perhaps most importantly, investigative journalism has exposed the iatrogenic impacts of
our historical and contemporary approaches to addressing the social problem of child abuse
and neglect, albeit through sensationalized coverage of scandals and inquiries. We need to
recognize the positive and negative impacts upon practice, policy and systems, including the
provision of significantly higher resources to expand services and address problems. It is
important to ask where we would be without an active investigatory media that exposes
system failures.
However, there are also counterproductive aspects to contemporary media coverage,
which is driven by a highly competitive environment that demands journalists and media
entities deliver news in a timely fashion, and in ways that are succinct and appealing to a
broad diversity of audiences, if not always accurately. The media tends to over focus on
criminal matters, notably sexual and physical abuse rather than neglect and emotional
maltreatment. Such coverage distorts the public understandings of the nature of child
maltreatment. This is compounded by a lack of voice for parents and children, and a
simultaneous pejorative narrative that portrays parents as dangerous and requiring
punishment. In addition, the focus on individuals helps to hide the social and structural
determinants of maltreatment, such as poverty and social exclusion, and allows public health
approaches to be largely ignored, or at least downplayed for their roles in helping struggling
families and preventing harm. This hinders reform.
It seems clear that sensationalized coverage has contributed to increasing politicization of
child abuse, often expressed through calls for inquiries, which in turn have contributed to our
systems becoming risk averse and punitive in their orientation. Inquiry-led reform has
entailed considerable pain for those deemed responsible for system failures and tragedies.
The highly negative English coverage, for example, has often focused on blaming individual
staff, thereby affecting staff morale and reinforcing organizational narratives that hinder
reflection and transparency. While the coverage in Australia has been far less vilifying, it has
nonetheless contributed to organizational problems including recruitment and retention, and
organizational sensitivity to criticism.
Reforming our systems to make sure they provide help to families in need and also ensure
children are protected from maltreatment are social policy imperatives. The media will
always remain pivotal to these goals, albeit in ways that can also misinform the public
through focusing on the criminal matters of sexual and physical abuse, and largely ignoring
neglect and emotional maltreatment and their underlying causes. We need to recognize and
respond to the multiple roles the media plays, but also seriously question how our protective
systems relate with the media. Rather than merely fearing the media and resisting
transparency, agencies would do better to reflect on their own approaches and embrace the
positive benefits that flow from media scrutiny, thereby rebuilding public confidence in their
performance. In particular, proactive engagement of media to examine the compelling human
interest stories entailed within public health approaches is needed, along with increased
transparency and exposure of the ways in which families are helped and their health and
wellbeing promoted.
Key Words: Child abuse and neglect; inquiries; media coverage; media portrayals; scandals;
system reform
Suggestions for Further Reading
Cheit, R. E. (2003). What hysteria? A systematic study of newspaper coverage of accused
child molesters. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27(6), 607-623.
Cheit, R. E., Shavit, Y., & Reiss-Davis, Z. (2010). Magazine coverage of child sexual abuse.
1992–2004. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 19(1), 99-117.
Chenot, D. (2011). The vicious cycle: Recurrent interactions among the media, politicians,
the public, and child welfare services organizations. Journal of Public Child Welfare,
5(2-3), 167-184.
Corby, B., Doig, A. & Roberts, V. (1998). Inquiries into child abuse. Journal of Social
Welfare and Family Law, 20(4), 377-95.
Cummins, P., Scott, D. & Scales, B. (2012). Report of the protecting Victoria’s vulnerable
children Inquiry. Melbourne: Department of Premier and Cabinet. Retrieved 24 June
2012, from http://
Franklin, B. & Parton, N. (eds.) (1991). Social work, the media and public relations. London:
Gilbert, N., Parton, N., & Skivenes, M. (2011). Child protection systems: International trends
and orientations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Gilbert, R., Kemp, A., Thoburn, J., Sidebotham, P., Radford, L., Glaser, D. & Macmillan,
H.L. (2009). Recognising and responding to child maltreatment. The Lancet,
373(9658), 167-180.
Greer, C. & McLaughlin, E. (2011). “Trial by media’’: Policing the 24-7 mediasphere and the
‘’politics of outrage’’. Theoretical Criminology, 15(1), 23-46
Hove, T., Paek, H.J., Isaacson, T., & Cole, R. T. (2013). Newspaper portrayals of child abuse:
Frequency of coverage and frames of the issue. Mass Communication and Society,
16(1), 89-108.
Krugman, R. D. (1996). The media and public awareness of child abuse and neglect: It's time
for a change. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20(4), 259-260.
Laming Report (2003). The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Lord Laming
(Cmnd . 5730). London: Stationery Office.
Leveson Inquiry (2012) The report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. London:
The Stationery Office.
Lonne, B. & Thomson, J. (2005). Critical review of Queensland’s CMC Inquiry into Abuse of
Children in Foster Care: Social work’s contribution to reform. Australian Social
Work, 58(1), 86-99.
Lonne, B. (2013). Reshaping our protective systems: Issues and options. Communities,
Children and Families Australia, 7(1), 9-20..
Moeller, S.D. (2002). A hierachy of innocence: The media’s use of children in telling
international news. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 7 (1), 35-56
Niner, S., Ahmad, Y., & Cuthbert, D. (2013). The ‘social tsunami’: Media coverage of child
abuse in Malaysia’s English-language newspapers in 2010. Media, Culture & Society,
35(4), 435-453.
Parton, N. (1985). The politics of child abuse. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Parton, N. (1991). Governing the family: child care, child protection and the state.
Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan
Parton, N. (2006). Safeguarding childhood: Early Intervention and Surveillance in a Late
Modern Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Parton (2014 forthcoming). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and
future directions. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry (2013). Taking responsibility: A road
map for Queensland Child Protecton. Brisbane: State of Queensland. Retrieved from
PCI-FINAL-REPORT-web-version.pdf (Accessed 20 June 2013).
Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C. Howat, N. & Collishaw, S. (2011).
Child abuse and neglect in the UK today.London: NSPCC.
Saint-Jacques, M.C., Villeneuve, P., Turcotte, D., Drapeau, S., & Ivers, H. (2011). The role of
media in reporting child abuse. Journal of Social Service Research, 38(3), 292-304.
Secretary of State for Social Services (1974). Report of the inquiry into the care and
supervision provided in relation to Maria Colwell. London: HMSO
Secretary of State for Social Services (1988). Report of the inquiry into child abuse in
Cleveland (Cmnd 412). London: HMSO
Warner, J. (2013a). Social work, class politics and risk in the moral panic over Baby P.
Health, Risk and Society, on line 1st March,
Warner, J. (2013b). ’’Heads must roll’’? Emotional politics, the press and the death of Baby
P’; British Journal of Social Work, Advance Access published 4 March, doi:
... The teacher reportedly taught the complainant at a St Catherine-based primary school, and coerced her to engage in sexual activities with him on more than one occasion Iyengar (1990Iyengar ( , 1996 and the studies that followed highlighted another important aspect of newspaper reporting. Episodic, or event-focused representation is known to ignore societal factors of offending and assigning the responsibility for the crime exclusively to the offender, an 'individual whose actions are divorced from any social causes' (Wilczynski and Sinclair 1999, p. 276), overlooking the broader social context (Lonne and Parton 2014;Davies et al. 2015). Even though generic representation has the potential to address social factors of child abuse (and, in some cases, papers do look into the causes of abuse and the measures needed to protect children), it is not always the case; generalized statements about child abuse prevail; they are often used for rhetorical purposes, reframing the issues of child abuse within the contexts of business and political interests. ...
... Their voices had not been heard in the stories that we analysed' (Birnie and McKee 2009, p. 107). These findings are consistent with research of newspaper coverage in Australia (Lonne and Parton 2014;Lonne and Gillespie 2014), England and Wales (Davies et al. 2015) and Britain (Ndangam 2003) as illustrated by Kitzinger (2015). 'She [the abused child] is described as a "silent sufferer of victimization" but rarely allowed to speak about her own actions as opposed to the acts committed against her. ...
... The previous sections showed the prevailing lack of empathetic treatment of victims of abuse in newspaper reporting; their voices are not being heard, and their side of the story remains largely untold. However, at the other end of the spectrum of newspaper coverage is sensationalist representation of child abuse (Lonne and Parton 2014) where news outlets report abhorrent stories of child abuse due to their potential to attract readership (Cheit et al. 2010;Hove et al. 2013;Popović 2018). Research into newsworthiness, drawing on Galtung and Ruge's research, was further developed by Cheit (2003). ...
... The teacher reportedly taught the complainant at a St Catherine-based primary school, and coerced her to engage in sexual activities with him on more than one occasion Iyengar (1990Iyengar ( , 1996 and the studies that followed highlighted another important aspect of newspaper reporting. Episodic, or event-focused representation is known to ignore societal factors of offending and assigning the responsibility for the crime exclusively to the offender, an 'individual whose actions are divorced from any social causes' (Wilczynski and Sinclair 1999, p. 276), overlooking the broader social context (Lonne and Parton 2014;Davies et al. 2015). Even though generic representation has the potential to address social factors of child abuse (and, in some cases, papers do look into the causes of abuse and the measures needed to protect children), it is not always the case; generalized statements about child abuse prevail; they are often used for rhetorical purposes, reframing the issues of child abuse within the contexts of business and political interests. ...
... Their voices had not been heard in the stories that we analysed' (Birnie and McKee 2009, p. 107). These findings are consistent with research of newspaper coverage in Australia (Lonne and Parton 2014;Lonne and Gillespie 2014), England and Wales (Davies et al. 2015) and Britain (Ndangam 2003) as illustrated by Kitzinger (2015). 'She [the abused child] is described as a "silent sufferer of victimization" but rarely allowed to speak about her own actions as opposed to the acts committed against her. ...
... The previous sections showed the prevailing lack of empathetic treatment of victims of abuse in newspaper reporting; their voices are not being heard, and their side of the story remains largely untold. However, at the other end of the spectrum of newspaper coverage is sensationalist representation of child abuse (Lonne and Parton 2014) where news outlets report abhorrent stories of child abuse due to their potential to attract readership (Cheit et al. 2010;Hove et al. 2013;Popović 2018). Research into newsworthiness, drawing on Galtung and Ruge's research, was further developed by Cheit (2003). ...
News media shape public opinion on social issues such as child sexual abuse (CSA), using particular language to foreground, marginalize or legitimize certain viewpoints. Given the prevalence of CSA and the impact of violence against children in Jamaica, there is a need to examine the representation of children and their experience of violence in the news media, which remain the main source of information about such abuse for much of the population. The study aims to analyze accounts of CSA in Jamaican newspapers in order to show how different representations impact public understanding of CSA. This study offers a new perspective around child abuse by using an eight-million word corpus from articles over a three-year period (2018- 2020). The study argues that media reports often fail to conceptualise and represent accurately children who have experienced abuse. Representations of children are generic, their experiences often reduced to statistical summaries. Corpus analysis uncovered the use of terms which normalize sexual abuse. From the reader’s perspective, there was little emotional connection to the child or the child’s experience. The newspapers rarely report first-hand survivors’ experience of abuse, depriving these children of a voice. Instead, a marked preference is given to institutional voices. An issue of concern is a tendency to sensationalism with disproportionate attention given to cases involving celebrities. By exposing these problems, the authors hope that news media in Jamaica can play a more positive role in heightening awareness around child abuse and allowing the voices of victims/ survivors to be heard.
... Some concerned Australian scholars lamented the influence of FM societies on media, considering it an organized "backlash" to silence victims, however they noted that heavily biased reporting on the debates over recovered memories was less common in Australia than America (Sinclair, 1995). Australian reporting was also less focused on attacking individual workers compared to media coverage overseas, and was more likely to focus on systemic problems (Lonne & Parton, 2014;Mendes, 2000). ...
... Australia, a considerably smaller nation, had a less diversified, competitive press than the UK and America and lacked the UK tabloid culture. The smaller media market reduced the pressure on the media to polarize and sensationalize issues to "sell news" (Lonne & Parton, 2014), resulting in less sensationalized and extreme reporting. Secondly Australia's cultural pride in "protecting the underdog" may have moderated attacks on individuals undertaking social work and child protection roles. ...
... Secondly Australia's cultural pride in "protecting the underdog" may have moderated attacks on individuals undertaking social work and child protection roles. Instead, the media focused on systemic failures, and if individuals were criticized, they tended to be politicians and department heads (Lonne & Parton, 2014). However, similar to America and the UK, there was a noted socially conservative agenda when reporting familial abuse, with the institution of family seen as needing protection. ...
The Australian history of the false memory (FM) movement has similarities to that of the UK and America, but also important differences that are rarely described in the literature. This article, through an examination of cross-discipline professional literature, media reports, and the personal observations of the second author, describes the history of the FM Movement in Australia and outlines similarities and differences between Australia, the UK and America. All three countries experienced the establishment of false memory syndrome (FMS) societies and a backlash against those reporting or treating child sexual abuse (CSA). However, in Australia the backlash was notably smaller and led to a different trajectory for those reporting CSA, particularly institutional abuse. The authors propose that this is due to differences in the media and legal systems; the later timing of the backlash in Australia; and a more muted reporting of satanic ritual abuse (SRA), which avoided the extreme disbelief and backlash that occurred in other countries.
... That is, investigating and identifying symptoms of physical abuse and CSA, and recommending interventions after the symptoms have been substantiated. It is therefore not surprising that researchers characterize the statutory child protection system as investigative and procedure driven Lonne & Parton, 2014;Parton, 2014). However, increasingly, the prevalent forms of child maltreatment have shifted from the original issues of CSA and physical abuse to subtypes such as emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect and exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV). ...
... The strict application of child assessment frameworks may disregard the unique situations of families and structural predisposing factors of maltreatment. Secondly, the use of assessment frameworks to investigate and substantiate symptoms of maltreatment makes the approach unfit to recognize maltreatment subtypes, such as neglect, that are subtle in nature and with debilitating effects (Lonne & Parton, 2014;Price-Robertson et al., 2014). Furthermore, the application of stringent measures, including the removal of children from their birth parents (primary carers) to out-of-home care, may influence parents to perceive the child protection agency as settings for punishing parents, instead of as agencies supporting parents (Herrenkohl et al., 2020). ...
... Scandals, tragedies, formal inquiries and sensationalised media scrutiny draw attention to failings. Such negative attention influences policy (Lonne & Parton, 2014). This situation is coupled with a loss of public and political faith in the ability of child welfare systems to meet the social goals of preventing child abuse and neglect, and providing timely, accessible support to vulnerable children and young people and struggling families Lonne et al., 2021;Parton, 2020). ...
... This situation is coupled with a loss of public and political faith in the ability of child welfare systems to meet the social goals of preventing child abuse and neglect, and providing timely, accessible support to vulnerable children and young people and struggling families Lonne et al., 2021;Parton, 2020). Statutory departments are continually changing on many fronts including organisational structure, legislation and policy (Lonne & Parton, 2014). They are also constantly evolving in professional practice to accommodate the concepts of risk management and increased legalism and proceduralism . ...
Technical Report
Full-text available
This report presents findings from an exploratory study that examined broad-ranging, publicly available data to investigate emerging trends, issues and needs in the child welfare workforce and the educational profile of this workforce. The research project itself stemmed from an awareness of the multifaceted changes required for implementing a public health approach to child protection in Australian jurisdictions alongside the escalating demands for new policies, practices and approaches to address the untenable number of children and young people, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, in Australia’s statutory care system (AIHW, 2021a). The results from our study are sobering. They demonstrate the significant hurdles that need to be overcome before change can happen. That change encompasses a well-prepared, educated and supported child welfare workforce that can effectively deliver the preventative strategies and support programs necessary to reduce the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in Australia. The public health framework outlined in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (hereafter National Framework) (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009) presented a long-term plan based on public health principles, to improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children and young people. The National Framework highlighted the significance of developing primary universal services, and secondary services with early intervention capacity aimed at child safety and wellbeing. It also highlighted prevention strategies to support families and communities. These services could reduce the over-reliance on existing tertiary tier interventions offered to children, young people and their families experiencing adversity, disadvantage and lacking in skills to promote safety and wellbeing of their children. The National Framework plan provides an exemplary model for framing work that ensures the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in the context of a whole-of-community and government responsibility. The plan positions tertiary tier protective intervention as an important but last resort. This analysis uses data that correlates to the period 2009-2020, but we acknowledge that actions to be agreed under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-2031 might go part of the way to address some of these issues. People working with a focus on child safety and wellbeing deal with some of the most complex issues within the community service sector. Embedded within this complex landscape are the highly sensitive and emotional worlds of families, their cultures and their communities. These contexts all influence very personal approaches and abilities of families concerning the care and wellbeing of their children and young people. Many of the decisions that workers need to make involving vulnerable children, young people and their families can comprise extremely complex situations involving multiple stakeholders. The decisions can be ethically fraught and emotionally challenging, demanding a high level of knowledge and skill. To support workers in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children and young people, all organisations that offer services to vulnerable children and families, directly or indirectly, need to be able to attract, recruit and sustain a reliable and appropriately qualified and skilled workforce. Such a workforce needs broad-ranging community support networks, formal and informal, with capacity to introduce efficacious prevention strategies and interventions. Staff already engaged in tertiary tier formal child protection interventions also need skills development to ensure children’s personal security, safety and wellbeing. An effective system of evidence-based supports for families and earlier interventions requires an integration of programs and services across the primary, secondary and tertiary tiers
... In this regard, the mainstream media have always helped raise public awareness about child sexual abuse (Döring & Walter, 2020). Lonne and Parton (2014) stated that the media play a very important role in highlighting child maltreatment cases, eventually leading to a high level of awareness. It is always important to consider certain ethical guidelines while reporting an incident (Ali et al., 2020;UNICEF, 2018b). ...
Child sexual abuse is serious in any developing country confronting children’s sexual exploitation. Certain factors are liable for fostering child sexual abuse, and the media can play a significant role in eradicating this issue. This research scrutinized the portrayals of child sexual abuse in three Urdu-Pakistani newspapers by analyzing the role of the newspapers concerning the burgeoning prevalence of child sexual abuse based on seven categories proposed by UNICEF. The data were generated in 2019 using a purposive sampling technique and analyzed using content analysis. The results revealed that the newspapers analyzed followed different ethical guidelines in reporting child sexual abuse, indicating that news reports contained details of helplines for victims. Statistically, the study found a strong and significant relationship between child sexual abuse cases and newspapers’ reporting, recommending scrutinizing other aspects of child sexual abuse, especially pornography, to ensure a safer future for children in Pakistan.
... Yet, public health approaches to the prevention of child abuse and neglect rely upon the public having implicit faith in the agencies that operationalize the early intervention programs and the preventive strategies, including the information and messaging used. The key risk here is that there has long been considerable public, media, and political concern about child welfare agencies-particularly concerning scandals and tragedies (Lonne & Parton, 2014), not to mention the ethics of practice, particularly the use of state authority and power over relatively powerless citizens (Braithwaite, 2021;Lonne et al., 2016;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;Roberts, 2022). When most people hear the term "child welfare," they immediately think of child protection workers, and this involves such authority. ...
Full-text available
Critics are raising serious questions about who is “served” by statutory child protection systems if they utilize an intervention model based on reporting, investigation, and removal. Public health approaches present an innovative alternative, but how to get the right support and interventions to the right people at the right time remains challenging. The power of predictive analytics and big data is seductive, yet the risks of bolting on such tools to existing statutory services may serve only to reify or increase inequity and exclusion if they are used to target “vulnerable” children and families for interventions. The use of such new techniques within the framework of statutory child protection services may be like putting new wine into old wineskins. In keeping with a public health approach, the focus, in keeping with a public health approach, should be on the use of population-based data to deliver interventions of variable intensity, aimed at reducing the exposure of the population to risk factors for each of the forms of child abuse and neglect. The use of integrated systems of administrative data with associated sophisticated predictive analytics offers a panoptic view of the causes, complex interactions, consequences, and complications of child maltreatment and our responses to deal with it. Data linkage and predictive analytics have an important and useful role to play in public health approaches to child maltreatment and service delivery but require us to be mindful of amplifying increasing existing inequalities and not making matters worse for those we are trying to assist.
... In this research article, the researcher finds out that if we neglect the children at an early age, then our children will be involved in unethical activities like promiscuity, prostitution, etc. finding of this research maintains the association between childhood victimisation and prostitution. Lonne, B. and Parton, N. (2014). in the research article name "Portrayals of child abuse scandals in the media in Australia and England: Impacts on practice, policy and systems." ...
This study investigates the impact of media coverage on public perception of one of Pakistan's most heinous murder cases. Zanib, the victim, was a kid who was raped and then murdered; the case was widely publicised and covered extensively during the offender's trial. Until he was executed by hanging. This study aims to examine the influence of extremely sensitive coverage on people. The goal was to assess the influence of such information on parents, raise awareness about media accountability, and identify positive and bad elements. Respondent data was gathered using a survey method. Simple random sampling was applied and the N was 50. A questionnaire with thirty items was created. The findings indicate that media raises public awareness and, most of the time, has a favourable impact on the public. It was also discovered that parents are sometimes worried when reading the related information.
While sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church is a topic of growing importance, and the subject of much work to understand its construction as a public problem, little research has attempted to analyse the press coverage of this phenomenon. This article focuses on French press coverage of sexual violence committed by Catholic Church members between 2016 and 2020, a period of intense coverage, and aims to grasp its causes and solutions as reported in the daily national press. Based on content analysis using an inductive framing grid that lists the causes and solutions reported by four major national daily newspapers, the study results reveal a tendency to highlight systemic causes, particularly the role played by the silence of the Church in the perpetuation of violence, while reporting extensively on individual cases. This reflects both the strong movement of recognition of the victims, as well as their driving role in the newspapers’ exposure of the phenomenon.
Values are numerous, interrelated and hard to discern in professional practice. This article reports on key findings from research into locating professional values within health social work practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. The research explores how 15 health social workers experience and negotiate value demands when working with newborn infants. A staged methodology underpinned by constructivist grounded theory was utilised to generate theoretical knowledge through two phases of semi-structured individual interviews. The research firmly located health social workers practice in the middle ground of a complex, tension-ridden practice environment with health social workers courageously striving to balance competing requirements. Within a health model influenced by neoliberal policy, key tensions related to challenges faced due to professionals oversimplifying social circumstances in risk-laden situations. This resulted in issues of judgements, bias and racism being a central concern for the participants’ social work practice. Despite these tensions, the place of social justice as a primary organising value was affirmed by the research. A stronger focus on the profession’s values would strengthen the collective voice of health social workers and their identity, in order to better address the systemic drivers of health inequities.
Full-text available
Since the early 1990s, Malaysian society has displayed a deepening concern over steady increases in reported cases of child abuse in the country. For many Malaysians, knowledge of this issue comes from the mainstream media. This research analyses media coverage of child abuse in two mainstream English-language daily newspapers throughout 2010. The analysis focuses on how this issue is presented and ‘framed’ in the media. Through the use of simple episodic framing and a distorted focus on extreme cases of child abuse, media coverage internationally obscures the reality of child abuse as it occurs within the context of contemporary social, cultural, religious or political systems. This hinders any genuine understanding of the problem, leading to flawed solutions. We find these international patterns largely replicated in Malaysia. Furthermore, gendered socialization processes in Malaysia make women and mothers principally responsible for family life and there is a tendency to blame and punish mothers for child abuse even when they are not the perpetrators. Internationally, child welfare experts and academics have advised the media to focus reporting on the underlying causes of abuse so that the issue can be better understood and addressed and this advice is pertinent for Malaysia today.
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The shift in warfare and in geopolitics since the Cold War has made it difficult for Americans to identify the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in international affairs. The "Evil Empire" is no longer reflexively the Soviet Union or its proxies, for example. Without a clear sense of who needs protection, the media and other political actors have tried to identify who is innocent. In many cases, children have been portrayed as the only "pure" victims. For many conflicts and crises, children, seen generically, have filled up the American empathy vacuum - that void that used to be taken up by the Natan Sharanskys, the Alexander Solzhenitsyns, the Jacobo Timmermans, the Nelson Mandelas:men, typically, who stood for the values of democracy, equality, and freedom. Now, often, conflicts are depicted in the media less as political confrontations than as brutal and ideologically senseless battles, and how better to communicate that than to show a damaged child?
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The vicious cycle is a sequence of events that recurs to varying degrees throughout the United States. The cycle includes interactions among the media, politicians, the public, and child welfare services organizations in response to grievous incidents of child maltreatment. These interactions have a profound impact on child welfare services organizations and those who work in them. The cycle and the influence it has on child welfare services organizations are explored with a focus on the climates and cultures in those organizations, the cycle's impact on the child welfare services workforce, and the services they provide. Proposed solutions for managing the effects of the cycle on child welfare services organizations are also considered.
'...the most comprehensive account to date of the discovery and identification of child abuse and its consolidation in Britain as a social problem ...informative and compelling important study not only of child abuse but also of the sociology of a social problem.' The Times Higher Education Supplement
This book builds upon and advances the comparative analysis of child protection systems that was conducted in the mid-1990s and presented in the ground-breaking book Combatting Child Abuse: International Perspectives and Trends (Gilbert, 1997). Chapters provide a detailed analysis of how the systems have changed during the period with a particular focus upon: What are the criteria which define child maltreatment?. Who is responsible for reporting suspected cases of maltreatment?. What are the processes for enquiring into the reports?. How are the allegations of maltreatment substantiated, and what is the state's response? Each chapter also considers two broader and key questions:. What have been the major issues and trends since during the period?. What have been the significant changes in the wider political and social contexts and how have these influenced child welfare and child protection? It becomes clear that all the countries have witnessed considerable change and the Conclusion summarizes the main themes. While there are important similarities in the changes experienced there are also important differences. In the process the chapters identify important developments in the two alternative orientations to the problem identified in Combatting Child Abuse - the child protection and family service orientations and the emergence of a new and significant orientation a child-focused orientation.
In the light of the setting up of a Tribunal of Inquiry to investigate abuse of children in homes in North Wales, this article considers key issues about the general choice of types of inquiries and their use to look into the circumstances of cases of child abuse. The article presents data from a survey of published inquiry reports into child abuse from 1945 to the present day. In all, seventy reports are identified and sixty-one of these are examined in detail. Focus is placed on a range of issues relating to the use of inquiries, including the process by which inquiries are established, the way in which they are conducted and their outcomes and effects. In particular the article considers how the forms and concerns of inquiries have changed over time. The article concludes with a consideration about how concerns about abuse of children in state care or monitored by the state can be more effectively inquired into.
This paper profiles Queensland's recent Crime and Misconduct Commission Inquiry into the abuse of children in foster care. The authors welcome the outcome as an opportunity to highlight the problems encountered by child protection jurisdictions in Australia and internationally, and they applaud some of the Inquiry's findings. However, the paper argues that the path to reform is hampered by insufficient accountability by government and management, and an inadequate challenge to the ideologies underpinning contemporary child protection policy and practice. The authors conclude with a call to value and assert social work's contribution to child protection systems so as to vastly improve outcomes for children and families. Yes Yes
Professionals in child health, primary care, mental health, schools, social services, and law-enforcement services all contribute to the recognition of and response to child maltreatment. In all sectors, children suspected of being maltreated are under-reported to child-protection agencies. Lack of awareness of the signs of child maltreatment and processes for reporting to child-protection agencies, and a perception that reporting might do more harm than good, are among the reasons for not reporting. Strategies to improve recognition, mainly used in paediatric practice, include training, use of questionnaires for asking children and parents about maltreatment, and evidence-based guidelines for who should be assessed by child-protection specialists. Internationally, studies suggest that policies emphasising substantiation of maltreatment without concomitant attention to welfare needs lead to less service provision for maltreated children than do those in systems for which child maltreatment is part of a broad child and family welfare response.
Safeguarding childhood: Early intervention and surveillance in a late modern society. Bas-ingstoke
  • N Parton
Parton, N. (2006). Safeguarding childhood: Early intervention and surveillance in a late modern society. Bas-ingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.