Tony Waterston: A Turkish tale of children’s rights

Tony WaterstonIstanbul by train sounds a long way, but it offers a much lower carbon footprint than flying and was also a richer experience. Not quite the Orient Express, and the slow trundle through the Romanian countryside seemed interminable, but allowed plenty of reading time. And there were a few interesting encounters – which doesn’t happen when travelling by plane.

The long journey ended in Kusadasi on the Turkish coast, at the annual congress of the European Society for Social Paediatrics. This is a small but highly motivated group of paediatricians that embraces the Scandinavian north, the Mediterranean littoral, several from former eastern Europe, and also some new entrants from the US and Australia.

The meeting’s focus was on healthcare for well children. But as a result of hearing of children’s rights abuses in a number of European countries, in which paediatricians had remained silent, we carried out a survey of national involvement in children’s rights in healthcare across member countries, and the results were presented at the meeting.

What kind of abuses are being carried out? The following were described in the survey: discrimination against Roma children; street children; child abuse and neglect; children separated from their parents during hospitalisation; low age of criminal responsibility;  children abused by the criminal justice system; the effect of the occupation in Palestine on children; and inequalities in child healthcare. And all of these have implications for children’s health and wellbeing. Can paediatricians stop this kind of abuse of children’s rights? History tells us that coalitions of influential people can indeed make a difference – after all it was paediatricians who introduced parents into hospital with their children, who are leading the reforms on medicines for children, and who have spoken out strongly on the detention of asylum seeker children in the UK.

So what did the survey tell us about paediatricians across Europe? Of the 18 countries who replied to the survey, only seven reported on a national paediatric association which has adopted a statement on children’s rights (CR) and has included CR in their curriculum. Nine included CR in the training of paediatricians, rather higher than I had expected. However only three paediatric associations in the survey were able to give an example of a public statement on a child rights issue: Israel, UK, and the US. The Israeli Paediatric Association spoke out on the deportation of illegal immigrant children, the RCPCH on maltreatment of detained asylum seeker children, and the American Academy of Pediatrics on the need to protect children from alcohol advertising.

ESSOP members agreed that their associations could do more and that improving child rights training will be a first step. For some, children’s rights are still far from the day to day work of the paediatrician – while for others, they are and must remain central to our humane approach to children and families.

Certainly, children are better off now than in decades past. But our concerns are moving from health to wellbeing, and remembering that UK is at the bottom of the European league for child poverty and that our government is proposing to remove universal child benefit, we should not relax our vigilance quite yet.

Tony Waterston is a paediatrician in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, working mainly in the community with long term conditions, disability, child abuse and social and mental health concerns. His interests are in child public health, children’s rights and global child health and he leads the RCPCH teaching programme in the occupied Palestinian territories.