Guide for social workers

Social work is a profession centred around people. Social workers support children, direct them to the services they may require and act as advocates.

The aim of this guide is to help social workers better understand the rights recognised for children in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and to offer advice on how to respect and implement them. The CRC covers all aspects of children's rights including care and treatment, and is therefore the basis of all social work intervention with children.

Understanding the CRC

There is no hierarchy of rights in the CRC, it must always be read as a whole. The Committee on the Rights of the Child identified some rights as guiding principles relevant to the interpretation and implementation of all other articles and rights.

Non discrimination

"Social workers are expected to provide the best possible care and assistance without (…) discrimination on the basis of both gender, age, disability, race, colour, language, religious or political beliefs, property, sexual orientation, status or social class." - International Policy on Human Rights, The International Federation of Social Workers

Social workers can ensure equal access to public services and social welfare provision in accordance with the resources of national and local governments. They have a particular responsibility to combat discrimination of any kind in their own practice and in the practice of the families and communities they are involved in.

Article 2 also prohibits "discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status."

Migrant children, for example, are often dealt with according to their migration status prior to being seen as minors. Children with disabilities don’t always have access to all services, including schools and hospitals, because buildings and roads are not adapted to suit their needs. Social workers can play a key role in sharing children’s experiences and needs in order to introduce change.

Best interest of the child

Article 3 of the CRC states that the best interest of the child should be a primary consideration in all matters that affect them. That principle is often overlooked or overshadowed by the interests of adults.

Keeping the child's best interests at the forefront is not always a simple task, many elements need to be taken into account and, most importantly, the child's opinion needs to be given due weight. Social workers therefore need to be aware that the best interest of children may not always match the best interest of those that are directly involved in their care.

The International Federation of Social Workers’ training manual on Social Work and the Rights of the Child gives a good example of a situation where children’s rights to be heard and their best interest are at stake:

Parents in a developing country are approached to have their young child adopted by an affluent couple from a developing country. They are promised the child will have food, a good home and a good education. The parents do not want to lose their child but believe this offers the best chance for a fulfilling life.

  • How could you support the child to express her or his views about the proposed adoption?
  • What other options may be available to the child and her or his parents?
  • If the child is adopted, how can family contact be maintained?
  • What must be done to ensure the child's identity and cultural roots are positively developed?

Securing that the child's best interest is as a primary consideration in all matters that concern the child is primarily the parents' responsibility. Social workers can assist parents in fulfilling their responsibility. This support can prevent separating the child from her or his parents and can ensure that the child is not deprived of her or his family environment unless it is in her or his best interest.

The right to survival and development

Article 6 guarantees the child’s fundamental right to life and to survival and development to the maximum extent possible. The concept of "survival and development" to the maximum extent possible is crucial to the implementation of all rights in the CRC.

Social workers often play a critical role in promoting change in social policy and traditional practice to better respect the fundamental rights of children to survival and development.

For example, in some societies infanticide is commonly practiced against girls because of a preference for male children.

The low status of women in societies and a traditional preference for male children have made female infanticide a significant problem in India, China and other parts of Asia. Female infanticide is based on the same forms of gender discrimination due to preference for male children. Newborn girls are killed as a result of assault, abandonment or neglect.

Read Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition by the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children.

The right to survival and development needs to be implemented with the acceptance that childhood is valuable on its own and is not simply a stage towards adulthood. Children should be valued and respected as complete human beings from the moment they are born.

The right to be heard

Article 12 gives children the right to be heard on all matters that affect them and these views need to be given due weight. Social workers should acknowledge that children are active agents of their own lives and should not underestimate their knowledge and insight into their needs. It should never be assumed that the social worker knows more about the child's life than the child.

The CRC did not set a minimum age at which adults are required to take children's views seriously; it gives all children the right to express themselves and to have their views taken seriously.

Children with disabilities for example have the right to actively participate in their community’s life. In order to do that, work should be done on social behaviour and infrastructure to give access to children with disabilities to all the community’s spaces.

Children who feel listened to have more trust in the social work system. Some children often lack trust in the system because of their previous experiences where they were not listened to or not taken seriously.

Children have many ways in which they like to express their feelings and opinions; some prefer spoken language, others prefer to write or even to draw. The environment that the social worker provides is a key element to making children feel at ease.

Children also have the right to privacy and respect for confidentiality under the CRC (article 16); it is very important here to carefully discuss with the child whether or not she or he wants others to know about the information she or he shared with the social worker. It is crucial that they are informed of all the potential consequences of speaking out.

Protection from all forms of violence and abuse

Article 19 requires that the child is protected from "all forms of physical and mental violence" while in the care of parents or others.

Social workers might be involved following allegations of violence and/or abuse against a child. They have a responsibility to take action to protect children when they suspect that they have been abused or hurt by their parents, guardians or staff in an institution the child might have been placed in. Article 19 is closely linked to the right to life and to survival and development guaranteed under article 6, and asserts children's rights to respect for their dignity and physical and personal integrity.

Social workers’ role in identifying, reporting, and referring cases of violence and abuse is crucial. Here again, the right to confidentiality and privacy is often key to protecting children from further harm and to building a relationship with the child based on trust.

Law reform is needed in most countries to ban corporal punishment and other forms of violence and abuse against children in all settings, including at home; social workers can participate or even lead public campaigns for legal reform. Visit the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children website to find out more on legal reform needed in your country.

The administration of juvenile justice

Social workers are often involved in the process and outcomes of juvenile justice systems. They should therefore ensure that the special guarantees of a child friendly justice system are implemented.

Children need to be met with a child friendly justice system that minimises the challenges they face in each aspect of a legal proceeding, one which provides them with free legal representation and ensures the rights and guarantees of a fair trial adapted to their needs.

Article 37(b) of the CRC states that "the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time". Social workers have a key role to play in ensuring that children are kept out of the criminal justice system and that they are met with systems which renounce retribution and focus exclusively on children's rehabilitation, with the necessary attention to public safety and security. Read CRIN's paper on states lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

Any use of pre-trial detention should be not only exceptional, but a measure of last resort. Furthermore, social workers should make sure that children who are detained must be brought before a court without delay.

Drug use

Children are routinely criminalised for drug use. If caught using drugs, and apprehended by police, they may be sent to mandatory treatment or rehabilitation facilities where, in the worst cases, they may be subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, or to youth detention centres or jails. They may be kicked out of schools and educational institutions. In many countries, children are detained in the same prison wards as adults, for example in Jamaica and Bangladesh. Read CRIN's paper on Children rights and drug use.

Children should not be criminalised for drug use. Social workers should press for the use of drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue and for the focus to be on the prevention of harm related to drug use. Social workers should provide children who use drugs with appropriate information and refer them to the appropriate drug dependence treatment and harm reduction services. When these services do not exist, it is important that social workers participate in campaigning for their establishment.

In 2012, the Committee on the Rights of the Child urged Albania to "address the incidence of drug, and also tobacco and alcohol use among children by, inter alia, providing children with accurate and objective information about substance use, including tobacco use and develop specialized and youth-friendly drug-dependence treatment and harm reduction services”.

Detention for mental illness

Children who are held in mental health institutions are victims of many human rights abuses such as forced sterilisation and abortion, denial of essential pain relief, and the use of involuntary detention as "treatment".

"Health care settings should be places where human rights are realised. Yet, too often, they are places where human rights are severely abused, sometimes amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment."

Children with mental health problems should not be systematically held in institutions. Social workers can ensure that where detention in the civil setting is used, it is done with the consent of the child or, where the child lacks capacity to decide on his or her treatment, in the best interests of the child.

Social workers often have access to mental health institutions where they can assess the treatments children receive and how they cope with the institution. If they doubt that any violation of children’s right is occurring, social workers can urge the authorities to initiate investigations with respect to the treatment children receive in mental health institutions. It is very important that all appropriate measures are taken so children receive the best possible quality care.

Advocating for children’s rights

Social work is not only about direct work with the individual. It is also about change: in the individual, family, community as well as in policies, laws and social attitudes.

As illustrated earlier, social workers can play a great role in campaigning for children's rights. They are in a unique position where they get familiar with children's needs as well as all the gaps in policies and legislation that stand in the way of children’s rights. Social workers are in daily contact with children and all the social norms, policies and laws that dictate adults’ behaviour towards children. They therefore develop a greater understanding of the impact these norms have on children's lives and behaviours.

They can reach out to local organisations to join their campaigns or even lead their own campaigns encouraging NGOs, community leaders, parents and children to join them.

The list of issues described earlier is only an example. Many other matters of concern may arise during the social worker’s visits to the children, such as specific examples of harmful practices based on tradition, children in situation of armed conflict, refugee children or even children living in the street.

What can NGOs do?

Often NGOs have to play the role of social workers because of insufficient budget allocation for social work and lack of training of social workers. Therefore, NGOs should lobby for more budget allocation for the recruitment and training of social workers.

While drafting this short guide, we have noticed the lack of manuals on the role of social workers in the realisation of children's rights. NGOs should develop a more detailed guide for social workers.

NGOs can work closely with social workers to exchange experiences and knowledge, and campaign together for social change and legal reform.

They should encourage the setting up of monitoring systems to ensure real and accessible remedies by a social worker in the event of a violation of children's rights.