Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Child protection system matters for public opinion on state interventions

NEW ARTICLE: Dr. Hege Stein Helland (UiB), PhD-candidate Siri Hansen Pedersen (UiB) and Professor Marit Skivenes (UiB) examine people’s perspectives on child protection interventions for children in vulnerable situations.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to protect children in cases of child neglect (See Article 19). Yet, there are various views on when of how this responsibility should be actualized?

In a recently published article in the Journal of Public Child Welfare,[1] Helland, Pedersen and Skivenes address this normative question by comparing public opinion in California (USA), England, Finland and Norway, asking peoples what they think about governmental intervention in cases of neglect.

Most agree to state responsibility in cases of neglect

Representative population samples from California, England, Finland, and Norway were asked to consider a hypothetical situation of child neglect.

About half agreed that the presented scenario was indeed a case of child neglect, but an overwhelming majority supported the idea that the government should provide services to the children and the family. A clear majority also thought that without help, the children would be less likely to function as working adults later in life.

– One characteristic for neglect is that it is difficult to determine when it is a concern, but not a reason for intervention, and when it is so problematic that intervention is necessary, says Helland.

Difference in perspectives between countries

Looking at differences between the countries, the authors examine to what extent institutional context (i.e. child protection system) shed light on some of the differences between populations.  

– Our expectation was that Norway and Finland, which represent child-rights oriented child protection systems, would show higher levels of agreement compared to child maltreatment protection systems, such as those in California and England, which focus on interventions when there is a risk of serious harm to the child, states Skivenes.

While these institutional effects are found in the data, there are notable differences between countries with the same child protection system. Norwegian and Finnish respondents departed on important dimensions, such as neglect and intrusive interventions, indicating that the institutional contexts of their child protection systems do not come through in the same way.

– One systematic difference that may shed light on these differences could be that the Finnish system is strongly anchored in voluntary interventions, argues Skivenes.

Higher education is a consistent predictor of agreement

The most consistent result from the analysis is that higher educated respondents tend to agree more on the statements on neglect, the necessity of intervention and potential consequences for the children in their adult life in the absence of governmental measures.

– One reason for this might be that higher education displays a socializing effect on democratic and egalitarian values, as well as increasing the support for equality, social rights, and the welfare state, explains Pedersen.

Although there are study limitations, the study highlights that the citizens’ perspectives and attitudes are important for understanding the norms and values underpinning government institutions in societies.

The article is available open access by clicking the link below.

[1] Helland, H. S., Pedersen, S. H. & Skivenes, M. (2022) Comparing population view’s on state responsibility for children in vulnerable situations – the role of institutional context and socio-demographic characteristics. Journal of Public Child Welfare. Ahead-of-print, 1-22.

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