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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Child models - should we be concerned?

There is much controversy these days about the 9 year old Russian girl who has become a modelling sensation. Kristina Pimenova is cute and adorable in a way that makes it obvious why the fashion world wants to take hold of her. She only models children's clothes although the images have a sexualized tone to them by portraying her in ways that are not typical of a 9 year old.

On the one hand, it is quite possible to defend that the selling of children's clothes in our highly materialistic world should be done in a way that draws attention. Defenders might state that she has been kept at 9 years old in her imagery and clothing, although the imagery issue might be open for debate. Yet, there can be little doubt from the pictures that this is a little girl.

There are many stories of childhood actors and stars as well as childhood models from the past. Perhaps it might be suggested that this child is being presented tastefully and in a much better way than has been done with others.  But this child is also the daughter of a big name retired Russian soccer star and a successful Russian model. This child is also being taken abroad for fashion work.

Her Facebook page is full of imagery that makes it clear again - this is a little girl. Perhaps it is the power of being the daughter of people who know how to manage image that has kept the child about her.

A year ago, we were reminded that childhood models are not always so protected. The State of New York passed legislation to protect child models who have been denied basic protections.

Despite the fact that most models begin their career around the age of 13, often sacrificing their education, health and financial security to pursue a career in an unregulated industry, Diane Savino acknowledged that 'model rights have long been trivialized and dismissed.''By making this legislation the law in New York, we have brought an end to the rampant exploitation and sexual abuse of child models by giving child models the critical protections they’ve been denied for too long.'

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However, my involvement in child protection sees this as not only a human rights issue that children be protected from exploitation, but also that we recognize how much this steals childhood away from these models. We need to be concerned why this is occurring. How much of this is really about the parents trying to re-live their own lost hopes (we see this in more than modelling - think hockey, football, soccer, music and so on).

What makes this a greater concern is that these images are also attractive to sexual predators. The commercialization of children creates photos that draw this population. While Kristina's parents may well have the savvy to protect their daughter from that, thousands of other parents who want their little girls and boys to be successful in modelling may not have that skill. It is the commercialization of childhood fashion images that can add to the demand.

A 2013 report from the California Child Welfare Council noted

Every day of the year, thousands of America’s children are coerced into performing sex for hire. Some of these children are brutally beaten and raped into submission. Others are literally stolen off the streets, then isolated, drugged, and starved until they become “willing” participants.
Some children are alternately wooed and punished, eventually forming trauma bonds with their exploiters, similar to cases of domestic or intimate partner violence. Still others are living on the streets with no way to survive, except by exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter. The people who sexually exploit children have built increasingly sophisticated criminal enterprises around the sale of vulnerable young boys and girls. This is a multi-billion dollar commercial industry that preys on children as young as ten, and it is happening to tens of thousands of American children in or near our own neighbourhoods (p.5)
When we turn childhood into a period of commercialization, we tilt the balance away from the innocence of childhood. Kristina's parents should be congratulated for ensuring the images have stayed child like, but should they be there at all? What should the line be like and does commercialization support exploitation? I suggest yes because the more we create the demand, the more we fuel the dreams of desperate parents who want their child to be on the front cover.

If you think I may be taking this too far, consider that Women's Daily gave Kristina the title of the most beautiful girl in the world. But as a CBC story shows, this has become mutated into the most beautiful woman in the world - imagine a 9 year described as a woman!

I hope that there can be a lot of discussion on this important issue because exploitation of children has long term consequences well into adulthood.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Soaring rates of childhood poverty should wake up child protection policy makers

Reports out of the United States this week speak about soaring rates of children living in poverty, too often accompanied with homelessness. The National Centre on Family Homelessness states that there are 2.5 million children who were homeless for at least part of the year in 2013.

Neglect, one of the most common issues that child protection faces, is driven in very many respects, by poverty. The reasons are many, but include:

  • inadequate shelter places children at risk of illness;
  • many families are forced to find space in high crime, high risk areas;
  • parents may be forced to leave children with inadequate caregivers while they try to hold on to marginal wage jobs;
  • homelessness makes it hard to get kids to school;
  • there is a lot of stress on parents trying to manage homelessness increasing risks of various forms of maltreatment;
  • children may be recruited into petty crimes like shoplifting as a way to try to get food and other necessities;
  • children lose connections to friends and community programs as families wander from place to place;
  • parents find it hard to meet the emotional needs of their children.
It would not be hard to add to this list. When child protection becomes involved, parents are seen as neglecting children. However, this is not the kind of neglect that typically is related to a parent's lack of desire to do the right thing for their child. Rather, it is the reality of living without resources.

Taking children into foster care may be the limited solution available in many cases but it is a poor solution. It adds unnecessary pressure to the child protection system in the form of increased case loads and heavier demands on placements.

The National Centre on Family Homelessness points out that there are solutions. These can include increasing access to low cost housing; subsidized day care so parents can work; feeding programs; improving educational opportunities for parents. There can also be family oriented shelter programs (such as the Inn from the Cold program in Calgary, Alberta). 

The long terms costs of homelessness are seen in the children not being able to get an education and themselves entering the cycle of poverty. Homelessness adds to that cycle and the cost to society is long term. Chronic homelessness can be tackled. The City of Medicine Hat in souther Alberta has reported that they are on the brink of accomplishing this. But it took targeted efforts.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Three things child protection cannot solve

Jessie, is a 25 year old woman with two children who lives in poverty. She struggles with social support and very irregular child support payments from the father of one of her children. Child protection is involved because she periodically struggles with paying her rent, having enough food and having enough clothes for her children. She is deemed to be neglecting her children.

While the story is fictitious, pretty much anyone who has worked in child protection will recognize this story. The Canadian Incidence Study on maltreatment indicates that about 1 in very 3 substantiated cases involved neglect which is strongly linked to poverty.

Child protection cannot fix poverty which typically arises from poor educational opportunities, low wages, physical or mental health and weaknesses in the social support network. These are systemic problems which need to be addressed at a social policy level.  Governments have the power to deal with these issues but may lack the motivation as poverty is often characterized as the result of laziness.

Studies have shown that a significant number of people who live in poverty work often receiving minimum wage with limited or no benefits. They are also forced to live in neighbourhoods where rents are lower but the community infrastructure and safety may be far more concerning.

Poverty is the result of the interplay of powerful forces which the following graphic shows:

Child protection cannot fix these problems yet they are expected to address the impact of them. If we want to solve child protection cases arising from most forms of neglect, then we need to ask society to tackle poverty.

The second big issue is homelessness - often strongly connected to poverty. Indeed, the The Homeless Hub in their 2014 presentation shows that there is again a key linkage between structural factors, systems failures and individual characteristics. Let's look at those:

Child protection can influence some of these issues. They can certainly create solid, supported transitions for youth who are aging out of the care of child protection. They can support families when someone is coming out of a health or criminal justice facility. But there are limits. Child protection cannot create more affordable housing or more jobs. Yet, when things a falling apart, a child may be taken into care.

The third big issue is the intergenerational impact of failed social policies such as those in Canada where large numbers of Aboriginal children were forced into residential schools. There, they were abused and neglected while in state care. Various forms of such social policies have been implemented in other countries such as the Boarding Schools in the USA and the Swiss contract children. The survivors of such systemic abuses may take generations to repair the widespread damage across communities and peoples. Child protection can offer some supports but it is the communities that need to find solutions.

Part of the discussion is really about asking "What is that child protection should do and what is that society as whole must address?" Otherwise we are setting up for ongoing failures in child protection systems. Then, social workers become the societal janitors left to pick up on the failed social policies - and it is a job they are not suited to.