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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Needs and rights

Nick Axford

It is evident from the preceding discussion that the concepts of need and rights, while overlapping, both bring uniquely valuable perspectives to the analysis of children's services. They act as different lenses through which to view child well-being and, by implication, hint at somewhat different solutions to 'ill-being'. There is also a suggestion that the concepts may point to different groups of children whose situations demand some kind of intervention. Is this the case, or do they stop at portraying the same individuals in different hues?

Certainly being in need is often associated with having one's rights violated, and vice versa. This is largely because rights may be regarded as an entitlement to have one's needs met. Consequently, assuming that an individual does have such a claim, and if that claim has been breached by the action or negligence of a third party, unmet need can be an indicator of a violated right. Equally, the violation of a need-based right will, generally, result in unmet need. Moreover, respect for rights is broadly conducive to need-satisfaction (Plant, 1991), just as meeting need is to some extent a prerequisite for the exercise of various rights. For example, it is difficult for a person to exercise freedom of speech if they are living in squalor or debilitated by illness.

That said, there are several ways in which a person can be in need without their rights being violated. The content of their entitlements may be very limited or even non-existent; historically welfare entitlements have proven insufficient to guarantee adequate housing, health, economic security, and so forth (Campbell, 1983). The untrammeled enjoyment of rights to liberty may expose individuals, to harm; for example, allowing children the freedom to play outdoors unsupervised could be construed as increasing the risk of them getting hurt, so sacrificing their need for health and a non-hazardous environment (Phillips, 1996). Further, in a litigious climate efforts to respond to rights-claims potentially give rise to reactive responses that overlook or perpetuate need; for instance, social workers may place children in care unnecessarily for fear of being sued if the child is subsequently abused at home (Hirst, 1999). Lastly, of course, need arises for reasons besides the action or negligence of third parties, including illness and accidents.

From the opposite angle it is apparent that the violation of rights does not automatically render an individual 'in need'. Sometimes drastic action is regarded as a means to an end. In the case T.& V. vs United Kingdom [European Court of Human Rights 1999], for example, two boys convicted of murder in an adult court were deemed to have had their rights to a fair trial breached (Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights), yet having been placed in secure accommodation with a reasonable standard of education there is reason to think that their needs were met (Little, 2002). Needs may also be met in a manner that, in the minds of some, leaves structural discrimination intact, for example providing disabled children with special facilities that segregate them from the wider community rather than making mainstream transport or education more accessible (Pinney, 2005; Rabiee et al., 2005). Contextual factors, notably the family environment and wider community, are also important because they may moderate the developmental effects of child maltreatment, thereby accounting for some of the heterogeneity in the outcomes associated with abuse and neglect (Zielinski and Bradshaw, 2006; Berry, 2007); the extent to which children who get hit experience impaired health or development depends on its frequency and whether it occurs in a low-warmth/high-criticism environment (DoH, 1995). Thus, it can be contended that one-off actions or incidents in which duty-holders default may constitute rights violations without causing unmet need.

As indicated earlier, there is little empirical research on the relationship between need and rights, so it is difficult to corroborate such observations. However, one study did measure the proportion of children in a community who were in need and/or whose rights were violated, and concluded that the relationship between need and rights is less close than is commonly assumed (Axford, 2007 and 2008). If this is true, what does it mean for service provision?


Axford, N. (2007). Children in need and children who's rights are violated: are they the same and does it matter? Article submitted for publication.

Axford, N. (2008). Exploring concepts of child well-being: Implications for children's services. Bristol. Policy Press.

Berry, V. (2007). The differential impact of inter-parental conflict and parent-child conflict on children's development outcomes. Unpublished Ph.D thesis. University of Bath.

Campbell, T. (1983). The left and rights. London. Routledge.

DoH (Department of Health). (1995). Child protection: messages from research. London. HMSO.

Hirst, J. (1999). Reading the human rights act. Community Care, 2, 8. pp. 20-22.

Little, M. (2002). The law concerning children with social and psychological problems. In Rutter, M. and Taylor, E. (Eds.). Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Fourth Edition. Oxford. Blackwell. pp. 1175-1187.

Philips, M. (1996). All must have prizes. London. Little Brown and Co.

Pinney, A. (2005). Disabled Children in Residential Placements. London. Department for Education and Skills.

Plant, R. (1991). Modern political thought. Oxford. Blackwell.

Rabiee, P., Sloper, P. and Beresford, B. (2005). Desired outcomes for children and young people with complex health needs and children who do not use speech for communication. Health and Social Care in the Community, 13, 5. pp. 478-487.

Zielinski, D.S. and Bradshaw, C.P. (2006). Ecological influences on the sequelae of child maltreatment: a review of the literature. Child Maltreatment, 11, 1. pp.49-62.

Axford, N. (2008). Meeting needs or protecting rights: Which way for children's services? International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 11, 1. pp. 54-55.

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