Reflections on the impact of language in Child Protection
I look back at a career of twenty years and remember one of the pivotal lessons I learnt which related to how we think about children’s behaviour and this in turn related to the language we use. It was the lessons learnt from the developmental approach which attempted to re-define the way the so-called medical model labelled children’s behaviour. In what seems a rather extreme example, one must describe behaviour rather than label a child. A child is not a thief and we cannot say a child steals. We must rather describe the behaviour so that we have a way of dealing with it. The result is “this child currently struggles to control his impulse to take things that do not belong to him without the express permission of those to whom they belong”. This description of a child’s behaviour may seem comical but it highlights a very important concept.
How we use language relates to how we feel about what we talk about, which in turn directs how we react towards what we are told. It appears that we have forgotten this developmental lesson when we live in a country that has laws designed to protect children’s rights while using seemingly politically correct language that on closer scrutiny undermines children’s rights. We have one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world, which has specific protection for children under Article 28. These rights are defined internationally and are upheld by a large number of new and old laws in South Africa.
We as child rights advocates have embraced and attempt to implement these laws so that we see the progressive recognition of the rights afforded to children in South Africa. However, within these same laws that are written to protect children’s rights it appears that some “politically correct” definitions, in an attempt to cater for an untenable reality for children in South Africa, are not right.
My mind is immediately drawn to the Children’s Act with its Amendments that recognises “child headed households” and goes on to say that these children MAY be in need of care and protection. Or alternatively, sets out regulations for adults who assist with their care. On closer consideration from the Forum’s experiences of being the adult who assists these children under these circumstances, we want to challenge this concept in its entirety. Instead of “child headed households”, if we used the developmental language that removes labelling, what we are left with is “children who have either been orphaned or abandoned by their parents, extended families, communities and who the State has decided it need not care for because the reality is that there are too many of these children, so let’s say they must care for themselves and making it law”. We then make ourselves feel a little less uncomfortable by setting out regulations for those who must “support” these homes. We even struggle to use the term child for this group as they have had their childhoods stolen due to a lack of state economic prioritisation for the care of children.
What we neglect to consider is the paradoxical nature of law’s language. We talk of social disintegration and threats to the fabric of society. We talk whimsically of the family being the original thread that holds our social fabric together. Yet, we create a legal construct where a child who, according to our Constitution has a right to a family, is in the same legislation had adult responsibilities forced upon them and are expected to “head households”. We hear when the media sensationalism highlights moral decline, the reverberating phrase: “where were the parents of these children?”. South Africa’s most recent international sexual shame relating to the gang rape of a 4 year old in a 17 year olds body, by other children, is a case in point. The public’s outrage was firmly levelled at the parents of both the victim and the offender. Communities were saying “Where were the adults?”. Yet, our country has constructed legislation that acknowledges the lack of adult care and by acknowledging it sanctions it, because there are not enough good adults to go around anymore. We despair about the actions of our children, yet we expect that they take full responsibility as we have allowed this in our law without adequate adults to assist.