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Framing the Theory of a Systems Approach to Child Protection

Although a social system is a highly dynamic construct, systems’ designs differ from context to context. Child protection systems can generally be defined as “[c]ertain formal and informal structures, functions and capacities that have been assembled to prevent and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of children” (UNICEF et al. 2013, 3). The way in which these structures, functions, and capacities and other (formal or informal) components are assembled to protect children is contextual. Emphasizing the human rights-based approach, one ques?tion is key in every context and for all involved actors: “Are children being protected in a manner consistent with their rights? If not, then the focus shifts to why not and how the existing system can be strengthened so as to fulfill those grander expectations” (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 24; emphasis authors’).

When framing the systems approach, it is crucial to outline the system’s goal as the starting point for every large child protection measure. In other words, “to understand/interpret how the parts of the system function together, whether at the level of informal community structures or at the level of multinational organizations, one has to identify the common purpose toward which the effort in the system is being placed” (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 18). Even though the CRC provides the foundation for all child protection systems from a human rights perspective, the goals of each system depends on the normative framework, including social values and laws shaped by culture, religion, and government (Ibid.).

The normative framework of child protection systems encompasses diverse components of a system with overall meaning and aims (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 21). In this sense the normative framework links every child protection system to specific social, political, cultural, and economic contexts, which include the family and community as well as externalities and emergencies. The system therefore is embedded in the broader system of social protection. Within this framework, measures basically program how child protection is able to work and where the boundaries of the system lie. The normative framework also informs accountability mechanisms in the child protection system and with this “forms the basis for making claims of duty bearers on behalf of children (i.e. enforcement)” (Ibid.).

The various components of the child protection system include diverse actors (i.e., children themselves, families, communities, states, and multilateral organizations) and specific functions, structures, and capacities that shape the functioning of the system.[1] Functions represent activities, supporting the accomplishment of the goals of the child protec?tion systems—the system’s management, governance, and enforcement. Structures are organized and connect components in the system, which means, for example, the way in which formal and informal organizations in a specific context and on a variety of levels interact and cooperate with each other. Capacities frame other material resources and infrastructure, human resources, funding, decision making, and policy procedures. The close cooperation and coordination of actors on all levels and the establishment of accountability mechanisms within the system are also elementary features (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 15-23).

The process of care reveals another central aspect of child protection systems, outlining the services and means by which rights’ violations can be effectively prevented. It also formulates how children whose rights have been violated can be identified and sustainably protected— for example, as defined and determined by the normative framework (Ibid., 15). To realize such a process, factors and guidelines of organizational cultures, as well as communication and structural elements, are fundamental. To prevent violations, promote child protection goals, and respond to multifaceted child protection needs within the diverse contexts, every system has to include a service continuum that contains several subsystems (e.g., foster care). This is especially important when it comes to the dynamics and characteristics of every social system that provide the basis for understanding the functioning of a child protection system.

Child protection systems are linked not only with other systems, indicating that systems do not exist in a vacuum, but also are embedded in the boundaries of several other systems (Mulroy 2004; Lemke and Sabelli 2008). This “nested” structure also reveals an inherent part of all systems, though in varying degrees: the sets of diverse subsystems interact with each other, ranging from the child himself or herself to the family, the local community, and the wider society. “[T]he strength of the system depends on effective interaction across various system levels,” highlighting the holistic nature of the systems in which the child protection system is embedded—that is, in the wider social protection system that interacts with, for example, the health and education system (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 11). Although systems always interact with contexts in dynamic and bidirectional ways of exchange and influence, systems function most effectively “when symmetry exists between the system’s goals, its struc?tures, functions, and capacities, and the normative context in which it operates” (Ibid., 18-21). Considering this, the key question mentioned in the first paragraph of this section becomes crucial again: Are children protected according to their rights? How do the asymmetric dynamics in the system impact the status and well-being of the child?

  • [1] Thus, this chapter cannot provide an all-encompassing outline of what child protection systemsare and how to always strengthen them. Nevertheless, the basic elements mentioned are similarthroughout.
 
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