‘Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be – the unknown person inside each of them is our hope for the future.’
The concept of the ‘best interest of the child’ is enshrined in Art. 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but is likewise mentioned in articles 9, 18, 20, 21 and 40. Its philosophical and practical dimensions underpin most of the 42 articles that constitute the first part of this important treaty.
In Part1, the International Federation of Social Workers addresses six important aspects of a child’s life. It also comments on what might be helpful in order to uphold such ‘best interest’, and what the role and task of social workers should be. Certain categories of children, e.g. disabled children, HIV infected children, refugee children, internally displaced children, are not especially mentioned since there are important parameters for each of these groups. to be found in conventions, guidelines and other instruments of the UN System, mainly those of UNICEF, UNHCR , ILO, WHO and UNESCO.
Part II contains case examples emanating from the practice of social workers in different parts of the world.
International Federation of Social Workers
The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) links professional social workers around the globe. It represents professional social work organizations from 90 countries with more than 740 000 social workers in all parts of the world.
IFSW recognizes that social work’s common goals transcend borders and that a global voice benefits the profession, and most important, the people it serves.
Specifically, IFSW aims to
- Promote social work as a profession through cooperation and action on an international basis
- Support national associations in promoting the participation of social workers in social planning and the formulation of social policies, nationally and internationally
- Encourage and facilitate contacts between social workers in all countries
- Present the viewpoints of the profession on an international level by establishing relations with international organizations.
What Does IFSW Do?
The International Federation of Social Workers
- Sponsors biennial international symposia and conferences
- Develops and publishes policy statements to guide social work practice worldwide
- Advocates for the protection of human rights of practicing social workers
- Publishes Principles and Standards for the Ethics of Social Work
- Pairs social work organizations in economically developed and developing countries for an exchange of social work practice experience
- Provides consultation to the United Nations on issues of human development and human rights
- Conducts special projects such as the Professional Training Manuals “Human Rights and Social Work” and “Social Work and the Rights of the Child”.
The Role and Tasks of Social Workers
1. Issues to take into account
1. Best Interest of the child
The best interest would be support through infancy to adulthood. This includes access to health, education and community support, critical in developing the child’s perception of society and his/her responsibilities to the wider community.
Every child needs emotional security to help develop their maximum potential, they need to feel they belong.
However a child’s best interest has to be seen in a matrix of competing interests in a variety of different cultural and economic situations. The child will have a family of origin, who may or may not be able to provide the emotional and physical care needed by a child. Research confirms that when the biological parents can provide care this is the best base for a child’s development. When this is not possible the child may be brought up by other people. It is this situation that often leads to the question of establishing what is in the ‘child’s best interest’. Alongside ensuring the best physical and emotional care for the child research tells us that the family of origin still provides that unique identity particular to each child. This knowledge is critical for the child in terms of developing an individual identity.
2. A child’s time
Any assessment of a child’s best interest has to be considered in the time framework for the child. One year in a child’s life is proportionally greater than a similar time in an adult’s life and significantly more important in terms of growth and development.
The time frame for an adult, for example a parent who might be serving a long term of imprisonment, may give rise to conflicting views concerning the needs and rights of a child – with the issue of the child’s long term, committed and sustained care through childhood.
3. The child’s view
Helping people change something in their lives is based on establishing a working relationship with them, building on their positive attributes and supporting them through the process of change. In the case of a child, none of this can be achieved without first establishing the child’s perception of his/her situation. This can be done even with very young children with the use of drawings and story telling.
If children feel that you understand their situation, whether or not adults agree that this is in their best interest, they are more likely to work with you to achieve positive change. The tone will set the music.
Children’s views may change with age and stage of development and in response to changes in their family and environment.
4. Conflicting interest in the family
Problems in the family and a family collapse are almost always traumatic for children. In industrialised countries this may have become a very ordinary occurrence, and some studies have shown that children no longer appear to suffer unduly from family decomposition and reconstitution. Yet children may still suffer, and social workers have noted that in such cases children find support and solace from members of their extended family, their peers, members of their community and/or professionals in their journey through change in their lives.
The death of one or both parents represents a tremendous trauma, both in emotional, and also in economic terms. In the case of war, refugee situations and AIDS orphans, youngsters acting as heads of family for their siblings seem to be coping well and responsibly according to reports from various agencies and organizations. They will however still require help from their extended family if it exists, or from the community, governments and social services, if available. The best interest of the child lies in the solidarity and support of those able and willing to help them.
5. Cultural factors
Cultural factors that include language and customs are very important in children’s lives since they stem from ancestral knowledge and traditions in numerous domains. Children of migrants and asylum seekers on the other hand may often be torn between adjustment to their new surroundings and fidelity to their parents’ values and way of life.
Children who are separated from their families, through war, catastrophes, adoption have particular needs in searching for and acquiring their identity.
6. Concept of Childhood
In different States there are differences in laws and regulations that affect the how the development of children into adults is perceived, culturally and legally – for example the differences in the age of criminal responsibility, the age at which compulsory education finishes and the age at which young people can marry. Such differences affect how children and young people interact with their communities and how the best interest of a child may vary from State to State. This for example compounds issues of age assessment when young people flee from abuse in their country of origin and seek asylum in other States.
2. Social Work Contribution
The skills social workers bring to the situation are:
- social analysis – to help people understand
- social catalyst – to help people achieve change for themselves
- social action – working through social relationships to sustain change
This can be achieved on the individual level, with the family and local community or at a national/global level.
3. Communication with Children
Working with children is highly complex because the social worker has to understand how children communicate, what they are communicating through their age and stage of development and how to work with them and their families and communities. Therefore the social workers need to understand systems and process to help the young person through a journey of change.
Social workers often need to make recommendations to others about how the best interest of the child can be protected by courts, lawyers and other decision makers. It is important that they have highly developed skills in evidence based assessment and advocacy. This reinforces the need for a high level of education for the profession.
Practice examples from social workers around the world
The case examples have been taken from different parts of the world. We have tried to draw out common threads in different cultures and environments. The questions we ask at the end of each example are designed to help people to think through their analysis of each situation through a human rights perspective as they focus on defining the best interest of each child.
Health and the right to life
Hannah is 13 years old. She was diagnosed with Leukaemia when she was 8 years old. She has spent most of her life subject to medical procedures that have controlled the spread of the cancer but these treatments have resulted in a hole in the heart. Her medical advisers say that to reach adulthood she will need a heart transplant but they cannot predict that this will be successful. Hannah has said that she has had enough of invasive medical procedures and does not want the transplant. She is supported by her parents. The Doctors insist that they should proceed –in line with their medical code of ethics. Hannah is interviewed by a Child Protection Social Worker. The Court decides that the young person’ rights and views should be respected and refuse the application made by the Doctors
- How would States and Laws in each country balance the views of the young person with their age and stage of development?
- What would be the response of the municipality?
- What support would be available to the young person and family during this difficult decision making?
Cultural and Educational Dilemma
An NGO is working in a rural community in a developing country sponsored by a national government developing education services, including reading. The reading language is the official language of the capital city, but in this rural community there is an oral language which is generally used for communication. The local oral language has no written form and is used by parents and grandparents relating the history of their culture through story telling to their children. In the course of the children learning the ‘official’ language which they speak with their friends and at school, a rift grows between children and their parents and grandparents who are communicating with them in the local language. The rift grows between the three generations and affects the emotional balance within the community in which these young people are growing up
- How can State Parties and municipalities help children and young people in an increasingly globalised society without destroying their heritage?
- How can this be developed with the NGO providing the frontline service?
Pandemics and War
The disruption for children in growing up in their own families is in real jeopardy when pandemics and war result in the death of parents and lead to an early emotional trauma of loss and poverty often leaving older children as the heads of households. Research shows that sibling relationships are as important as those of child-parent relationships.
The family of a ten year old child had to leave their home country because of ethnic cleansing. The father is separated from the mother and child. The mother and child are driven into a neighbouring country and are taken to a refugee camp. The best interest of the child would be for the family to be reunited.
- What should States Parties and municipalities do to meet the development needs of each young person and enable family members including brothers and sister to retain important emotional bonds that help them grow into well-balanced adults?
- How can youngsters living apart from one of their parents or siblings be helped and supported by community and social services to assist them through their development during the critical years of adolescence?
Abused and Exploited Children
Children who are not registered at birth are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by adults.
- How do State Parties ensure each child is given a name and national identity ?
Those who seek to abuse and exploit children are often deeply disturbed and devious
- How do State Parties ensure they have a skilled and supported workforce to detect and intervene in situations to ensure that the best interest of children is safeguarded?
A 16 year old has travelled 36 hours in the back of a goods lorry with the intention of seeking asylum in a European country. Upon arrival the lorry is searched and the boy arrested. Immigration officials do not believe he is under 18 and therefore remove his right to special assistance and support.
- Are the methods used to ascertain young people’s age and personal circumstances dignified and compatible with their human rights and do they help in determining the best interest of young people?
A girl (14) in a middle east country is pregnant by her brother. In the cultural context her father is required to kill his daughter for dishonouring the family by being pregnant outside marriage; he is also required to kill his son for dishonouring his sister.
- How do interventions respect the best interest of all the children?
The International Federation of Social Workers has set out, in this brief paper, to address the complexity of determining the best interest of each child in her or his unique circumstances. We have given examples to illustrate some of the questions we would ask in trying to decide what is the best interest of children in different situations. More work is needed to develop an analysis of the process of helping families, agencies, legal systems and children themselves to examine the issues and to determine the best interest of a given child and the skills needed to do this. Yet social workers have to do this every day.
IFSW has started the next phase of this work – to develop practical examples and guidance which will help to give a practical reality to the implementation of the principles of the best interest of each child that can be applicable in different States, environments and cultures.
David N Jones
President of IFSW
Convenor, IFSW Human Rights Commission
Ellen Mouravieff Apostol
IFSW Human Rights Commission and IFSW Representative to the United Nations in Geneva