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  • Author or Editor: Margaret Scanlon x
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This chapter maps the emergence of child abuse as a major social issue in western countries, focusing in particular on developments in Britain, Ireland and the United States. The chapter’s starting point begins with the late 19th/early 20th century, during which time the foundations of contemporary child protection and welfare systems were laid. The second period of major change runs from the 1960s to the current day, a period in which the main focus of anxiety commenced with physical abuse (the ‘battered child syndrome’) and finally focused on the sexual abuse of children as the ‘paramount evil’ to be confronted. This period has seen a shift in emphasis from intra- to extrafamilial abuse, particularly within institutional settings. These developments will be situated in the wider context of changing conceptions of childhood and the family, and the emergence of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ that brought the issue of abuse to a mass audience and acted as a powerful catalyst for change.

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The aim of this chapter is to provide a critical perspective on the public debates surrounding the Kilkenny case, an area that has hitherto been largely overlooked in academic research. A central issue is whether the inquiry team, the media and key stakeholders attributed responsibility for ‘why action to halt the abuse was not taken earlier’ to the individual practitioners involved in the case (doctors, police, social workers) or to the system and structures within which they operated. Comparisons will be made with the UK, where a number of high profile inquiries ascribed responsibility for professional ‘failures’ to individual practitioners, who were subsequently pilloried in the media. The chapter also consider the controversy surrounding the sentencing of the abuser. While the focus of public anger in high profile child abuse scandals is often on social workers and child protection, in the Kilkenny case much of the initial outrage was targeted at the judge and the criminal justice system. Finally, the chapter will explore the ‘emblematic’ features of the case – what appeared to be the wider implications of the Kilkenny case for Irish society at that time?

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This chapter explores the role of the media in exposing clerical child abuse in Ireland, focusing in particular on how a series of television documentaries paved the way for two major inquiries (Ferns and Dublin), and the media’s subsequent coverage of the inquiry reports. The chapter looks at how the controversy surrounding the clerical child abuse inquiries embodied key features of an ‘institutional scandal’: social norms were transgressed leading to moral outrage; the actions of individuals brought the Catholic Church as a whole into disrepute; and allegations of institutional ‘cover-ups’ proved to be as damaging as the acts they sought to conceal.

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This chapter provides an analysis of the Ryan Report, which became and international story. The publication of the Ryan Report during 2009 was a seminal event in the process of disclosure and truth-telling. Its revelations are thorough and deeply shocking, identifying over 200 institutions. Most of the alleged abusers were members of the clergy. These are stark facts that underpin the powerful testimony of the survivors of these abuse regimes that went on during most of the 20th century. The Ryan Report reveals that over a 35-year period child abuse was endemic in the industrial and reformatory school system in Ireland. Its revelations have been reported around the world, exposing the failure of Ireland’s human rights record in relation to children to critical international scrutiny.

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This chapter analyses four major Irish child abuse inquiries that revolved around family violence. All four were patriarchal families with a domineering and overbearing father who abused his power relations with his children and his submissive spouse. The chapter explores the cultural context of social work intervention with these families and the role of wider state agencies. The exploration examines the influence of traditionalist values that led to a culture of disbelief, constraining social work intervention and children’s rights. The chapter also discusses the politicisation of family rights and the consequences for child protection.

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This chapter explores the meaning of child citizenship. There are two principle schools of thought regarding children’s rights: (1) a child liberationist or self-determinationist model; and (2) a child protectionist or nurturance model. It is important to note that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) incorporates elements from both models as aspects of human rights thinking in relation to children’s rights. However, the two models do represent two notably divergent ways of approaching children’s rights, contrasting active and passive citizenship.

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This chapter poses the questions: ‘Do adults and children occupy the same cognitive world of shared meanings or do adults culturally construct (and arguably) control the imaginary lives of children?’ ‘Do fairy tales contain culturally encoded messages?’ and ‘What is the meaning behind these messages?’The chapter seeks to explore how media forms culturally construct the child’s reality, often paradoxically through the agency of adult fantasy. The media’s primary cultural target is children’s imaginations. The chapter also explores the advent of the electronic media, which has arguably, given the child imaginative agency. The chapter poses two further questions: ‘Is the emergence of child agency on the internet deconstructing childhood?’ and ‘Is this a positive or negative development?’

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This chapter examines the power dynamics of child abuse through the sociological lens of ‘othering’. This chapter’s analysis is set in its historical context, tracing developments up to the present day. Parental indifference historically emerges as a key issue, reflecting a wider societal indifference to abandoned children. Media silence was the product of cultural collusion. There were ‘known-knowns’ but they were also unmentionables. Why? The answer lies in the cultural dynamics in which vulnerable groups are ‘othered’. It resulted in devastating consequences for socially deprived children. They were allowed to die with societal complicity during the 18th century. The 19th century witnessed their segregation in institutions, where children were brutalised and exploited, that offered no material change in their circumstances.

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This chapter examines the cultural politics of child abuse. The chapter takes the narrative right up to the present day. It focuses on two groups of children: (1) those from asylum-seeking backgrounds housed in direct provision accommodation and (2) the contemporary reality of children in care proceedings. What emerges from the analysis is that the issue of child abuse continues to be a disturbing reality in Irish civil society and the state remains reluctant to take responsibility for many child citizens who are born in Ireland. Their ethnicity clearly is an ongoing factor in abuse and social service failure.

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The conclusion summarises the issues arising from our ‘report on reports’ of child abuse. It takes an overview of the wider contextual implications for civil society, the state and human rights. Finally, it poses the questions: ‘How can we combat child abuse?’ and ‘What steps are required?’ The chapter does not pretend there are simple answers but it does argue that there are fundamental changes that could significantly contribute to combating child abuse.

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