A new study suggests that cultural attitudes may affect perceptions of child sex abuse, adding to the difficulties social work lecturers face in teaching students how to spot and deal with the problem. Alison Utley reports
The bizarre case of a Danish couple's baby who was snatched from the street by New York police and taken into care provides another twist in the debate about child abuse. The parents were sitting at the front-window table of a cafe just a few feet from, and in full view of, their child, whom they had left asleep in a pram.
The outcry which followed centred on whether the police response was over-zealous or appropriate. Could it be interpreted as a reaction against postmodern thinking which, at its extreme, states that no behaviour is child abuse, it is only the labelling that makes it so?
Corrine Wattam, who holds a readership at Huddersfield University, funded by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says the dilemma sums up the crisis in social work practice and theory. "Once you acknowledge that child abuse is a social construction, that it is an entirely fluid construction, you need to transform all previous teaching, practice and theory around child protection. We are recognising that the world is suddenly a different place and at the same time trying to equip social-work students to work in it and respond to need."
Research at Nottingham University highlights the difficulties social workers face in steering a course between cultural relativism, where anything goes, and cultural imperialism, where the values of a dominant culture are followed to the letter. When should social workers take a child into care? What guidelines can social-work lecturers pass on to their students for deciding what is unacceptable behaviour? More worryingly, are social workers making the wrong decisions because of the lack of a clear-cut moral framework?
Jim Christopherson, senior lecturer at Nottingham, is comparing attitudes of social-work students to child abuse in England, Sweden, Greece, Australia and Brazil. The initial findings of his study graphically illustrate a complex debate. For as Christopherson stresses, few people would dispute that sexual intercourse with a child, or deliberately burning a child with a cigarette, constitute abuse. Those are, in an intellectual sense at least, the easy cases. And at the other end of the scale it is not difficult to state what is not abuse. In the middle however is a huge grey area in which consensus is non-existent.
Christopherson's research reveals that Swedish students thought it was "fine" for a 16-year-old to have sexual intercourse with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Students from England, Australia and Brazil were less approving but still tolerant. The Greek students, however, regarded such behaviour as unacceptable. Students from all the countries except Australia rated a family of two boys, 13 and nine, and a girl of 11 swimming naked in a pool more seriously than the first scenario although the Greeks again condemned the incident.
According to Christopherson's research, homophobic attitudes are also much more pronounced in Greece and Brazil than in the other three countries. Presented with a scenario in which gay men might foster children, the Swedes lined up in the disapproval stakes with the Greeks and the Brazilians. Only the British and the Australians approved the idea.
Social-work students from all the countries except Greece were tolerant of boys getting up at 6am to deliver newspapers. But the Greek students rated this "totally unacceptable", the highest ranking. A vignette of a four-year-old who was instantly spanked when she ran into the road was regarded as unacceptable by most students in all three non-English speaking countries. The Australian students thought the chastisement just about acceptable.
"I realised I was never going to find a uniform definition of abuse," Christopherson says. "I cannot say to my students: 'here is a list of behaviours which are OK and here is a list which is not OK'."
In the field of sexual abuse the debate intensifies. Some researchers have suggested that the social taboo surrounding sexual abuse means that when people are asked to judge whether a particular behaviour is abusive they may fear that a negative answer condones sexual abuse. One US survey, for instance, found that 75 per cent of respondents thought intervention necessary if a mother often appeared nude in front of her ten-year-old son and 80 per cent thought the same if a father often slept in the same bed as his five-year-old daughter. Almost half believed intervention was needed if a mother often kissed her ten-year-old son on the lips when she left for work. Fifteen per cent even thought intervention justified when a ten-year-old was frequently hugged by a parent. Almost all said intervention was needed if a child was photographed nude. "Although European attitudes are more tolerant and many, perhaps most, parents have pictures of their children in the bath, none the less an officer from the child protection squad has said that any picture of a naked child is indecent," Christopherson says.
And the net of possible abuse may spread. A child using the correct names for genitalia and a father changing his daughter's nappy have both been advanced by social workers as grounds for suspecting sexual abuse. The danger, says Christopherson, is that if sensitivity becomes too great children may be neglected, leading their carers to say: "I'd like to give him a cuddle but I daren't because people, especially social workers, might say it is sexual abuse." The answer lies partly in encouraging more public discussion on parenting and what is desirable rather than normal. "Many parents enjoy bathing with their children, is that acceptable? The only answer lies in consensus," says Christopherson.
And of course the consensus is shifting all the time. Our grandparents, when they were children, may well have had to put up with beatings from belt or birch, depending on their social class, and not felt abused because that was the norm for their social group. The use of either today would invite legal intervention.
Christopherson also points out the significance of the various words used to describe different behaviours towards children. "Hit" or "beat" indicate disapproval of physical punishment per se while "smack" or "spank" may signify acceptance. The NSPCC has recently conducted a survey which found that the public does not consider smacking a form of abuse. Yet a significant number of children registered as "at risk" are identified because of soft tissue injuries from smacking.
"The country is muddled," says Philip Noyes, director of policy at the NSPCC. "There is a big gap between when the state intervenes and what people feel is abusive to them. If social workers are not equipped to know the difference between sociological tracts and the need to deal with abuse they are not being trained properly."