Ethical Issues in Child Protection
Clinical Ethics 2007 December; 2(4): 208-212
The management of child protection concerns arouses strong emotions and controversies and creates ethical tensions for all concerned. This paper provides a rational analysis of some of the issues involved and suggests responses to them. The ethical and legal duties of health-care professionals are to act in the best interests of the child by safeguarding children and reporting concerns. But this may involve conflicts with parents and produce reluctance of professionals to become involved, especially in controversial types of abuse. Mandatory reporting of concerns might overcome such reluctance, but may be ineffective in the face of diagnostic uncertainties. Assembly of a stronger diagnostic evidence base would seem ethically justified, but organization of the necessary case controlled studies might be problematic. Even with a comprehensive evidence base, individual diagnoses of abuse will always involve value judgements that should be underpinned by effective training and assessment of core competencies of professionals. These manoeuvres are unlikely to prevent both justified and vexatious complaints, often in relation to breaches in professional duties or concerning professional misconduct. The tendency to blame experts may have contributed to a reluctance of other professionals to become involved, despite proposals for reforms in the expert witness and court systems. Current approaches to child protection may neither promote greater understanding nor be in the best interests of children. A revised social contract for the effective protection of children could include: a duty of care that adequately addresses the primacy of the child's welfare; the acquisition of a sound evidence base; professional transparency and accountability (but with protection from malicious and vexatious complaints); and a shift emphasis towards a more inquisitorial system that embraced the principles of truth and reconciliation.
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