Early childhood and structural prevention of child maltreatment

by: in Law
Child maltreatment blog by Jan Willems

The subject of rights status of children is still an international legal stipulation without substantive national implementation. Statistics on violence against children remain incredibly high all over the world, including in high-income states. There exists not only a huge gap between theory and reality, however, but also between theory and opportunity, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Elisabeth Children’s Fund Project 2014-2018

‘Recent advances in the science of brain development offer us an unprecedented opportunity to solve some of society’s most challenging problems, from widening disparities in school achievement and economic productivity to costly health problems across the lifespan. Understanding how the experiences children have starting at birth, even prenatally, affect lifelong outcomes – combined with new knowledge about the core capabilities adults need to thrive as parents and in the workplace – provides a strong foundation upon which policymakers and civic leaders can design a shared and more effective agenda.’

Both the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Council of Europe have issued comments and recommendations to close the gap between theory and reality. As a matter of fact, together with the NGO The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, they have been very successful in having states adopt legal bans on hitting and humiliating children (which now exist or will soon come into effect in half of the UN membership) as a legal basis for informing and assisting adults in relation to Positive Parenting. Much more is needed, however, to close the gap between theory, reality ánd opportunity. Debate should finally get started on creating a legal basis for an empowerment system of Prepared Parenthood. In 2012, I introduced the SMECC model as a children’s rights based framework for such an integrated system (google: It takes a SMECC to raise a child or SMECC Willems). In 2014, I started a project, funded by the Elisabeth Children’s Fund, called Early Childhood and Structural Prevention of Child Maltreatment, to investigate why a system of prepared parenthood is so difficult to realize.

The first phase of this project (2014-2016) led to two main publications in 2016, analyzing violence against children as discrimination against children. It combined the fields of prejudice studies, children’s rights and the science of early childhood development. These publications were called, respectively, ‘Too Close to Home: The Denial of Prejudice and Discrimination against Children’ (a chapter in Denialism and Human Rights in the Maastricht Centre’s Human Rights Series), and ‘The Convention on the Rights of the Child at 25: Theory, Reality, Ideology, Opportunity – A TRIO Review’ (a chapter in the series Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe of the Alliance for Childhood European Network Foundation).

The second phase of the project (2016-2018) led to an elaborated version of the course manual for the University College Maastricht (UCM) Rights of the Child course for use both in undergraduate and master courses on children’s rights, called Trauma-Informed Rights of the Child; A Video- and Problem-Based Course Manual. This 88 pages manual was posted online in June 2018 for researchers/teachers on ResearchGate.net. Mid-November 2018 the final paper for the project was submitted for publication to a peer reviewed international journal. This paper analyzes developments in the subject of rights status of children by looking into ‘waves of children’s emancipation’ and the movements and pioneers that played a crucial role in these ‘waves.’ The paper combines the fields of children’s rights, neuroscience (brain development) and the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (childhood trauma, toxic stress and building resilience). It is called ‘Children as Subjects of Rights: Three Waves of Emancipation – From past and present cruelty to future creativity?’ On this year’s International Children’s Rights Day, 20 November 2018, it has also been posted online.

Fortunately, I am no longer the only scholar working in this interdisciplinary field. In June 2018 James Dwyer published his latest book Liberal Child Welfare Policy and its Destruction of Black Lives. It combines children’s rights (from a US constitutional perspective) with the science of early childhood, and a critical analysis of the root causes of the transgenerational transmission of violence against children with urgent proposals for reform. A must read for human rights lawyers, I would say – which modesty obviously prohibits me to say about the results of the Elisabeth Children’s Fund project.

  More on Law Blogs Maastricht