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Publications explore public perceptions of child maltreatment

December 09, 2015 at 3:14 PM

Publications explore public perceptions of child maltreatment

*From the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse*

Two recent international publications have explored the public's perception of child maltreatment. The papers also suggest strategies to increase public understanding of the issue.

The article Beyond Prevalence: An Explanatory Approach to Reframing Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom (2014), published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, sought to understand whether current communication strategies around child maltreatment generated broader public understanding and support for policies and programmes which improve child outcomes in the UK.

The research analysed British public and expert understandings of child maltreatment, presenting seven gaps between the two views. The research found new communication strategies which explain critical aspects of child maltreatment such as the causes of abusive and neglectful behaviours, the effects of those behaviours on children and society, and solutions needed to effectively address child maltreatment, are needed to address the issue of child maltreatment.

The authors state, "One of the strongest and most important findings from this research is that people have very limited ability to think that abuse and neglect can be prevented. These acts are perceived to happen 'behind closed doors' and be caused by deeply individual and inevitable forces. Outside of stricter punishments and greater parental vigilance, members of the public are unable to think of prevention strategies. They realize that child maltreatment is a pervasive issue in the United Kingdom, but the overwhelming scope of the problem dissuades them from engaging meaningfully in discussions of prevention."

The research strongly recommended "communicators working to address child maltreatment refocus their attention and resources on specific aspects of public understanding that impede those efforts." The publication provides an explanatory strategy alongside cognitive tools that people can use to understand specific aspects of child maltreatment, bridge the gaps between expert and public understanding, and improve children's lives.

In 2015, the United States based Frameworks Institute published a report seeking to lay the groundwork for efforts to reframe child maltreatment and child sexual abuse in Alberta, Canada. The report "It's Hard to Wrap Your Head Around": Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Child Maltreatment and Child Sexual Abuse in Alberta (2015) analyses and compares expert and public views of child maltreatment. It also presents a set of key communication challenges for strategically reframing the issue.

The report analyses the 'cultural models' (defined as "the implicit, shared assumptions and patterns of reasoning that the public draws upon to think about child maltreatment and child sexual abuse") of child maltreatment experts and the general public. It examines the overlaps and gaps between the two views. It summarises the public view as follows:

  • "Albertans recognize how mental illness and addiction, as well as social and economic stressors, can interfere with the ability to treat children properly. But when asked to think about solutions, the public pays surprisingly little attention to these root causes. There is, thus, a significant disconnect between the public’s causal thinking and their thinking about solutions.
  • The public has robust models for thinking about the immediate emotional and behavioral effects of maltreatment, yet lacks understanding of long-term developmental impacts. Lacking a developmental perspective, the public instead understands the cycle of maltreatment as a pattern of learned behavior, and assumes that education and awareness-building are the ways to disrupt this cycle.
  • Child sexual abuse is beyond comprehension for most members of the Albertan public. People lack productive models for thinking about the causes of this phenomenon. The fact that child sexual abuse defies explanation leads to fatalism, and makes it difficult for people to think about ways of addressing this issue. The causes of child sexual abuse are understood to be not only unknowable, but irremediable."

Analysis of the two views exposed the "implications for communications, suggesting how productive patterns of thinking can be leveraged, and how misunderstandings might be transformed." The report concludes by recommending four major communication tasks for strategically reframing child maltreatment and child sexual abuse, which sets the stage for further research. Again, one of the solutions proposed is:

"Expand thinking about solutions. The Albertan public’s thinking about solutions to child maltreatment is narrow. Broadening the set of solutions that people consider requires: 1) cultivating a systemic orientation toward solutions, 2) boosting people’s sense of collective efficacy, and 3) helping them understand how solutions can address underlying causes and improve outcomes at the individual and social level."

In New Zealand, UNICEF has recentrly launched a campaign, Make My Future Fair. The campaign tells the story of children’s lives in New Zealand and aims to give people the chance to help make sure every child is healthy, educated, safe, and able to participate in society.