Social workers want media blackout on child protection cases reporting

An investigative piece in ERR and Eesti Ekspress last year was hailed as helping to solve a custody case. However, social workers in Estonia want a blanket ban on such reporting, citing children's interests.
An investigative piece in ERR and Eesti Ekspress last year was hailed as helping to solve a custody case. However, social workers in Estonia want a blanket ban on such reporting, citing children's interests. Source: Personal collection.

Social workers say that media coverage of specific child protection cases should be halted, due to the damage they can do to children's interests.

Social workers in close to 40 municipalities have petitioned the prime minister, the president, the justice chancellor and others to evaluate media coverage of child protection issues, ERR reports, with a TV report from September prompting the appeal.

The Kuuuurija episode broadcast by commercial media channel Kanal 2 in September claimed that child protection workers had not been effective in preventing pedophilia crimes, ERR reports, with not only parents but also a child appeared on the show. The child was promised an escape from their situation by the show's presenter, ERR says.

Annika Kapp, Head of Social Services at Viru-Nigula Rural Municipality near Rakvere, says that child protection issues cover a wide field.

"When we talk about specific cases which are very clear about a location, person or region, in 99 per cent of cases, the children are identifiable. We have experience within various municipalities that actually after these [broadcasts] the children can get bullied," Kapp said.

"Another consideration is that if this child three years old at present, and has no opportunity to speak up and make clear whether or not he or she has an opportunity, then in their teens they may not be so enamored with that, meaning we also have to bear in mind that we must harm the child' future," Kapp commented.

Livia Kask, head of Viljandi's social welfare office, shares the same opinion.

"A more common example is when a parent or parents have decided to go to the media to find a solution to their concerns. Years later, this child will say they were persecuted at that time, and feels bad about that for years to come," Kask said.

On Friday, Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Centre) announced, via a spokesperson, that a round table aimed at discussing the issues, including the safety of social workers.

"The issue is serious and requires a concerted effort by all authorities, associations and media outlets ... to ensure that children's interests are better protected in the press and on social media. I attach great importance to the matter," said Kiik, ERR reports.

Livia Kask also noted that a broader debate on this issue is needed: "To think about whether we really need to change the law or supplement some regulations, look at the practices of other countries or develop guidance materials that will also help journalists and child protection workers."

But what if the journalist sees something that suggests the official is really in the wrong

Annika Kapp's response was that individual cases might be discussed, but with great caution.

Mart Valner, an adviser to the Estonian Union for Child Welfare (Lastekaitseliit), said bans [on reporting] would not solve the problem. However, self-regulation by the media should be strengthened, he believes. 

Valner also pointed out that stories on a specific case are often one-sided, because child protection workers simply cannot speak on the matters.

"In that case it comes down to the reputation of child protection workers, which can directly lead to children being discouraged from having recourse to them, or parents being discouraged from going to a specialist, which leads to us leaving some children in trouble - the biggest concern and problem with this," Valner said.

As reported on ERR News, in 2018 ERR's online Estonian portal investigated a custody case concerning a four-year-old.

The Social Insurance Board (Sotsiaalkindlustusamet) evaluated the work of its officials following the story, finding many shortcomings in the work of child protection workers, according to ERR. 

Livia Kask felt however that in this case too, the matter could have been left to officials.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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