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Understanding child neglect

Child abuse and neglect can take different forms. The media at times reports on cases of physical and sexual abuse of children by their parents or other adults in authority. Bullying is another form of child abuse that could cause mental and emotional stress in children.

Child neglect may be less dramatic but it is equally harmful. Neglect is a failure to provide a child with the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, educational opportunities, protection or supervision.

Community members have an essential role in protecting children from abuse and neglect. Teachers, who work at the coalface of our educational system, are often the first to identify child abuse. Many go beyond reporting this abuse and try to do something about it.

The Malta Union of Teachers confirmed a report that featured in this newspapers that educators are often giving food to hungry students who turn up in class with an empty lunchbox as cases of child neglect seem to become a common occurrence in most schools. Quite apart from the fact that this situation is causing undue pressure on teachers beyond their call of duty, it reflects poorly on the value society gives to the nurturing of children.

It is a mistake to attribute this problem solely to the educational system. In fact, it is often acknowledged that 70 per cent of a child’s formation comes from informal and non-formal learning that children are exposed to in the home and their non-school environment. Something needs to be done to put child protection at the top of the national agenda that promotes the well-being of our society for now and the future.

The first step to addressing the severe problems of child abuse and neglect is training to identify evidence of such situations.

Teachers training curricula must give more importance to understanding the evolving trends in society where family values may be declining, with parents often failing to treasure the importance of providing their children with a safe and stimulating environment. The high rate of early school leaving and absenteeism are indications that child neglect is endemic in our society.

Educators need all the support they can get to deal with this problem as and when it becomes evident. Teachers, social workers and, indeed, all community members should have access to an emergency response child abuse agency to report cases of suspected abuse or neglect of children. Many countries even permit that reports are made anonymously to such an agency that then investigates and takes action to curb child abuse.

Schools need to employ more child psychologists, social workers and other professionals to assist teachers who are already overburdened with teaching commitments. We must never rely solely on the heroics of many teachers who fork out their own money to alleviate the problem of hungry students.

Our definition of what constitutes neglect should be comprehensive and based on high standards of care for children. Only in this way can we hope to give young people the chance to succeed in life in the way that every human being deserves.

As a society, we are so good at celebrating our successes but often very inept at acknowledging our weaknesses and working hard to address them.

Failure to care for students is morally unacceptable in a community.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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