The Development of Child Protection Law and Policy: Children, Risk and Modernities

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How has child protection law been shaped by the transition to late modernity? How has our attitude to risk impacted our approach to child protection law? And what more is still to be done?

  • 19 May 2020
  • 5 min read
Kieran Walsh, Senior Lecturer in Family and Child Law, explores such issues in his newly-published book The Development of Child Protection Law and Policy – Children, Risk and Modernities, which provides an extensive analysis of the evolution of child protection law over the course of 130 years.

The book, part of Palgrave’s series Studies in Citizenship, Human Rights and the Law, examines how child protection law has been shaped by the transition to late modernity and how it navigates the ever-changing concept of risk.

Kieran’s interest in this topic began when there was debate in Ireland around introducing a “soft information vetting” system. Similar to the DBS scheme in the UK, a person looking to work in certain jobs needs to be background checked, and while many states check for convictions (“hard information” systems), soft information looks for indications that a person poses a certain level of risk (for example, referrals about a person to a child protection agency or police investigations that do not result in a conviction). The idea being that as it can be so difficult to convict for certain offences, if you want an effective vetting system, you need to look at a wider range of information.

From there, Kieran started to think about the role that risk plays in child protection, and how understandings of risk have changed over time, together with our understanding of childhood itself.

As time went on, I came to realise that if I wanted to understand the role of risk in child protection law, I had to understand how risk was thought about in policy making and sociological thought more generally. As a result, the book became a combination of historical research into children and risk, and an investigation into how the law tries to embody current approaches to risk.

Kieran Walsh, Senior Lecturer in Family and Child Law

The Development of Child Protection Law and Policy specifically focuses on the Republic of Ireland, which has seen radical social changes over the last 30 years. Changes to the public’s perception of issues such as religion and gender equality have been momentous. Ireland is now a much less traditional, much more globalised society than it was 30 years ago.

Kieran said: “One of the things that I noticed was that many of the major developments in child protection tracked the wider social changes. Some people have linked the two, but what I started to see was that the shifts were so great that it was possible to describe this as a shift to what some sociologists term late modernity – a phrase which implies globalisation, the decline of tradition, the emergence of new political groups and strategies, and a new focus on individual choice. There was also a change in how risk was thought about; we stopped trying to eliminate risks, and instead focused on managing and minimising them.”

There remains much to be done. Although many countries have made significant improvements and changes to child protection from a legal point of view, laws will only be effective if they have the political, social, systematic and financial support behind them.

Child protection work has often been neglected on many levels, and there is routinely a lack of investment both financially and in the political and social systems and procedures, despite the fact that this short-sighted outlook may well prove to be more costly in the long term.

Early intervention with a struggling family is likely to produce major cost savings down the line, but short-termism dominates our thinking. Child protection and child welfare more generally is a public health issue and needs to be resourced as one.

Kieran Walsh, Senior Lecturer in Family and Child Law

Kieran’s work is interdisciplinary, and he has been conscious to try to ensure that there is something of value in it for legal academics, as well as those involved in social work and even historians.

Kieran said: “I would hope that anyone involved in these areas will come away with a deeper appreciation of process behind legal change and how research in other fields can incorporate legal research.”

The Development of Child Protection Law and Policy - Children, Risk and Modernities was published by Routledge in April 2020.

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