Iím writing this column on the ďred-eye,Ē on the overnight flight from North Carolina to Scotland. Iíve spent the last month teaching summer school to a mixed group of Scottish and American students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro(UNCG), which has a long-standing exchange relationship with the Glasgow School of Social Work.
Scotland and North Carolina have a significant shared heritage. More Scots emigrants to the New World settled in North Carolina than in any other American state, making it something of a symbolic homeland for American Scots. This is apparent in the place names, family names and events such as the hosting of an annual Highland Games in the NC mountains.
Despite our shared heritage, the values that inform the delivery of social welfare diverge considerably. This is the third time Iíve visited UNCG and the second time Iíve taught summer school there. I wondered whether Iíd enjoy the experience as much second time round. I have. One of the reasons for this, apart from the outstanding hospitality of the UNCG faculty, is that America fascinates me. Iím intrigued by its contradictions and most of all by the differences in values between the two countries. There are a number of areas where we diverge, but a fairly fundamental one, I think, is where each country is placed on an axis of individualism versus collectivism. The religious beliefs of the early settlers to the New World and their subsequent struggles to tame the land seem to have imbued them with a rugged individualism. This persists in a focus on individual responsibility for actions. Scotland, on the other hand has a tradition of collectivism and community based responses to social problems. Morality is not absolute but contextual, taking into account the broader social circumstances of an action. This philosophical tradition is exemplified in the catchphrase of the children's hearings system (the Scottish system of juvenile justice), ďneeds not deeds.Ē
Some of these differences have become starker for me over the past month. One of the visits we undertook was to a juvenile justice facility. As someone who ran a secure unit in Scotland, this experience shocked me. Kids as young as 10 could be locked up for minor offences or even for truancy. Detention could last for 3 months before a case was even brought to trial. In American society, the emphasis is clearly on punishing kids' deeds. The regime was harsh (rise at 5.30 followed by an hourís physical exercise), and crudely behaviourist, based on a premise that if the response to misdemeanours was sufficiently unpleasant a kid would learn to desist from them. There was never a nod in the direction of children's rights. Indeed, the director of the facility told us that kids lost their rights once they walked through the establishmentís doors. He also told us that most kids responded to the regime and toed the line. Physical restraints were few.
This got me thinking about our own experience in Scotland. Physical restraint is a commonplace event in many residential establishments. It is also a political and professional hot-potato. My own practice experience was that the incidence of restraint rose alongside the increased prominence of a children's rights agenda. Now I would be a strong supporter of children's rights so long as these relate to wider human, social and cultural rights. However, a problem with the children's rights agenda in the way it has developed is that it is often ill-understood and as a consequence can be trivialized into a kids wish-list that can be used, deliberately or otherwise to disempower the adults who look after them. This leads to an increase in the use of restraint as neither kids nor adults feel safe. It is an agenda that is generally driven by bodies and individuals who donít have to dirty their hands in the direct care of kids.
An irony attaching to the children's rights agenda is that in focusing at an individual level on children's gripes it has little impact on what for me are genuine rights issues such as a political direction in Scotland away from Kilbrandon's philosophy towards a more American system of correction. More and more kids are being locked up. Others are subjected to electronic surveillance, under the guise of intensive support. But so long as rights are merely legal and civic, then all we assure kids of is a right to due process as they are placed in a secure unit or fitted with an electronic tag. The facility in America didnít infringe kidsĒ rights. It was based on legalism and procedure, which safeguarded what few rights they had. The director assured us that kids were checked over physically and any cuts and bruises were reported to the child protection authorities. It struck me that the cuts and bruises would heal long before the brutalising experience of the system they were in.
Children's rights need to move beyond legalism and proceduralism to encompass broader conceptions of social and cultural rights. The Scottish tradition might suggest that we need to look at rights as contextual rather than absolute, and to encompass the complexity of some of these matters. It is easy to take the moral high ground in support of children's rights. My fear is that such position taking will in fact have an effect opposite to what is intended and will lead to an erosion of rights. Politicians will pay lip service to children's rights so long as the focus of any breaches is on the poor care worker, whilst they go on their merry way of bringing more and more kids into an increasingly punitive correctional system. Make no mistake, the crude simplicity of the American system appeals to politicians and to the tabloid press to whom they pander. It scares me. Travel and study abroad helps put whatís going on at home into clearer focus.