Children with vulnerabilities need our attention

Studies have shown that various forms of violence are more common among vulnerable children and adolescents than among their peers. Children in these groups experience more bullying, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and emotional or physical violence. Children with vulnerabilities are e.g. children with disabilities, children belonging to ethnic or cultural minorities, children in out-of-home placement and LGBTIQ children. Particularly vulnerable groups are unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors and undocumented minors.

Children may also be in vulnerable positions for multiple reasons, for example a child with a disability belonging to an ethnic minority. However, we need to remember that children with vulnerabilities are a diverse group that consists of individuals with unique characteristics. They should also be seen as active and independent agents with equal rights to a good and safe life and living conditions.

Children with disabilities refers to minors with long-term physical, intellectual, mental or sensory impairments which may prevent their full and effective participation in society on an equal footing with others. Studies show that children with disabilities have a higher risk of exposure to violence in the home than other children. Also, identification and reporting of such acts to the authorities involve special challenges for children and adolescents with disabilities. In addition, children and adolescents with disabilities also face discrimination and bullying more frequently than their peers.

Children belonging to ethnic or cultural minorities and migrant children are very diverse groups. Not all children belonging to these minorities are vulnerable as individuals, but minority status can entail a risk for vulnerability. Barriers to access to appropriate support due to legal status are factors that make children and adolescents more vulnerable. This is why all children and adolescents, irrespective of residence status, should be primarily seen as children who hold the rights of children. Studies show that adolescents with foreign origin are more likely to experience bullying as well as physical, mental and sexual violence.

Violence can take many forms in the context of out-of-home placements and its perpetrators can be found within or outside the facility. There is still a lack of data on the extent of violence experienced by children in out-of-home welfare placements. Nevertheless, it is important to prevent and identify violence in substitute care. Even a single child who faces violence in even a single substitute care facility is contrary to the purpose of child welfare substitute care and the right of the child.

Studies have shown that LBGTIQ children experience more violence and sexual harassment than their peers. They also experience mental and physical abuse by their parents or caregivers more often than their peers. Discriminatory attitudes may prevent children and adolescents from disclosing their experiences.

Professionals working with children need to be aware of the vulnerabilities that children may have when it comes to experiences of violence and abuse. Also, teaching children about their rights enables them to speak out about their experiences of violence. All children – irrespective of their background or characteristics – should be provided with safety skills and sexuality education. This will help them to protect themselves and ask for help.

Written by Ulla Korpilahti & Hanna Kettunen, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare