Social Worker

Written by Ivellise Velez

In honor of National Social Workers Month, this blog features a guest writer and social worker, Ivelisse Velez. She talks about her current stresses in finding employment in the social work field and some upheavals of late in her new life. Through this period Ivelisse has been reflecting on her childhood in relation to childhood and generational trauma. She has come to realize that there is an underlying issue when it comes to adversities that children face which may include Childhood Domestic Violence (CDV). She is concerned that a large portion of the population may not have a voice, simply because they are children and therefore may also lack rights.

In her own words, she wants to shed light on this lack of rights and voice that could protect children from experiencing forms of domestic violence.

Ruminations of childhood

I have felt quite stressed lately. Between moving to a new country, learning a new language, moving in with my husband, and struggling with applying to jobs in social activism in Europe that just don’t seem interested in hiring a newly qualified social worker, I’ve felt lost. Finally, I started therapy and stayed longer than a month. So…that’s good. This period has been a slow and arduous reflection of my life up until now, especially as feelings new and old appear in this time where it seems I have too much time for myself.

My journal is full of ruminations about my upbringing which I am sadly realizing carried the weight of generational trauma and a constant gauging of my parents’ emotions and triggers. I often felt like I had to prove myself with my family or else be doomed to be perceived as lazy or inadequate. I often felt like simply existing was not enough. Where did these feelings come from?

Self-concept and society’s view point on children

Perhaps it came from observing my mother, who, in addition to maintaining our household of four children, also worked full-time as a teacher. Perhaps it came from the discrimination I witnessed when my father was called a “spic,” a racial slur for a Latin American, in a Wal-Mart parking lot which showed me as a Latin American woman, I would have to work harder to be taken seriously and achieve a level of socially constructed success. Maybe, in part, I felt that I could not adequately express or shape my self-concept until late in life.

Los ninos hablan cuando gallinas mean is a phrase repeated in my Puerto Rican household which translates to, “Children speak when hens pee.” I’m chuckling to myself as I write the phrase and its translation because it’s so ridiculous. Apparently, chickens don’t technically relieve themselves through urination. Yes, please fact check my ancestors as I did. As funny as this phrase seems, it carries a sad implication about how our society tends to view children.

It implies that children are unworthy of a voice until adulthood, a denial of rights with damaging long-term effects for individuals. What happens to a society that fails to recognize the rights of 22% of its population (U.S. Census, 2023)? This post will explore the harm adults overlook when children are viewed as unworthy of certain rights that safeguard them from violence, namely, corporal punishment. 

How were you disciplined? 

In adulthood, my friends and I would play a strange game where we compared forms of physical discipline. The game would go something like this, “My grandma would tell me to go outside and pick up the biggest switch for her to hit my behind (a switch usually being a tree branch). If I didn’t get one that was big enough, she’d send me back out for a new one.” In response, someone else would say, “Oh, man, that sounds tough. I was hit with a belt.” “I was pinched.” “My mom pulled my hair.” And so on. Imagine my surprise when during a cultural integration class in Germany, I learned that spanking children is illegal. Imagine my greater surprise when I learned that nations across Europe have banned all forms of child corporal punishment.

Prioritizing Children’s needs

I did not fully comprehend the reasoning behind banning corporal punishment until studying social work in Scotland, a nation whose policies and legislation reflect the values of the United Nations Charter on Children’s Rights (UNCRC) (Scottish Government). The UNCRC contains 54 articles which outline how governments can create legislation and systems that prioritize children’s basic needs by upholding rights pertaining to: wellbeing and development; protection from violence, abuse, or neglect; access to education; relationship maintenance with their parents; and freedom to express their opinions and be listened to (Save the Children).

As a student social worker, my studies focused on how the UNCRC attempts to negate the harmful effects of neglect and abuse on child development. Our class discussed the cultural implications of physical punishment. Does the use of physical punishment such as spanking automatically make a parent unqualified to care for their child? The answer: no, and we should gather resources to support a parent who feels overwhelmed and sees no choice but to instill discipline using corporal punishment.

Did my childhood upbringing influence my moral reasoning and world view?  

Still, our duty as social workers in Scotland required us to place the best interest of the child above all else, so we were obliged to act when faced with the potential of child harm. I wondered at my own upbringing and whether my parents and my friends’ parents would have been reported to social services in a nation like Scotland.

Is any form of physical punishment that bad that it should be made illegal? How had the threat of a bottom spanking, pinch, or hair pull influenced my moral reasoning and world view? I never felt traumatized by my physical punishment.

Gabriel’s story of abuse

These reflections all came to my purview while studying risk, trust, and complexity in social work. My group and I decided to analyze the murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Gabriel Fernandez was a little boy whose abuse was reported to Child Protective Services multiple times prior to his murder at the hands of his mother and her partner in 2013.

When he reached the hospital, the nurse found multiple bruises, broken bones, cigarette burns, and bludgeons to his head which resulted in brain damage (Therolf, 2018). Gabriel’s abuse was the kind that felt unequivocal, and yet, as social workers worked with him and his family, they failed to recognize the signs of abuse that required immediate intervention.

Gabriel’s interviews

As I researched his case, different quotes struck me: At one point, Gabriel asked his teacher “Is it normal for moms to hit their kids?” Her response was “Well, yeah” and recalled that she also was spanked in her childhood. Only when Gabriel asked specifically about spankings with the “metal part” to the point of bleeding, was she alerted to speak to her supervisor. The teacher recalled hesitation when calling her county’s child-abuse hotline because “Lots of people spank their kids, after all” (quoted from The Atlantic, not a direct quote from the teacher herself).

In an interview with one of Gabriel’s case workers, she empathized with parents who hit their children, stating “I probably would have lost my kids because I spanked them good.” In case files, Gabriel’s primary case worker consistently interviewed Gabriel in front of his mother, the perpetrator of abuse. I learned that the U.S. has not ratified the UNCRC for a variety of reasons, some of those including upholding a parents’ right to discipline a child as they see fit and a fear that the UNCRC would undermine state-run education and juvenile justice systems (Congressional Research Service, 2015).

Failures of legal protections and the desensitization of violence

Reading about Gabriel’s devastating death I realized that when governmental systems fail to standardize legal protections which uphold children’s protection, the consequences can be lethal. In hindsight, the atrocities and missteps involved in Gabriel’s care seem obvious. I would offer, however, our cultural view of children’s [lack of] rights increase the risk for child harm and limit child flourishing.

In a WHO, UNICEF, and Lancet Commission report, the U.S. ranked 31 out of 36 for child wellbeing amongst OECD countries (Clark, et al., 2020). I also wonder about how the desensitization towards violence in our society and towards children experience or are exposed to reveals itself in other ways:

  • through police interventions which trigger fight or flight in citizens and police officers;
  • our nation’s views on the necessity of weapons as a right and form of protection despite gun violence being the leading cause of death for children and teens (Center for Disease Control, 2019);
  • a prison system which continues to focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation;
  • and a healthcare system which creates obstacles for families from low socio-economic communities to receive equitable care.

From an early age, our youngest and most impressionable citizens are constantly bombarded by the threat of physical and psychological violence in a way which trivializes its profound effects. 

The Effects of Physical Punishment

I was shocked by the number of studies which cite that physical punishment has “no positive outcomes” on child development. No positive outcomes. Various studies even point to corporal punishment’s link to “physical and mental ill-health, impaired cognitive and socio-emotional development, poor educational outcomes, increased aggression, and perpetuation of violence” (World Health Organization, 2021; Cuartas, et al., 2021).

Researchers have observed heightened activation in parts of the brain that involve social-cognitive processes and those which appraise fearful versus neutral faces. These altered neural responses can lead to behaviors in which children are more engaged with threat detection and emotional dysregulation (Cuartas, et al., 2021; Tomoda, et al., 2009). 

Notably, these studies could not account for parenting styles and children’s individual lives. Corporal punishment does not affect each child the same way, and resiliency factors can mitigate the negative effects of physical harm. Additionally, form (a conversation about the reason for physical punishment vs. an open-handed spanking without explanation and in the heat of the moment), severity (slap on the wrist vs. slap on the face), and duration (daily, weekly, monthly) of the corporal punishment will have different effects on a child. 

Are you judging me? 

So, Miss Flower Child Social Work Girl with no children, who are you to judge how I discipline my child? Please don’t confuse me. I’m not judging you. I promise you I’m not. Like many things in life, parenting is not black and white. There was a time when I held the opinion that children who are ill-behaved or cry too much deserve a proper smack on the butt, a reflection of the way I grew up.

We humans are products of our environment and I was raised in a very disciplined household. As I wrote in the beginning of this post, a variety of factors shaped my worldview, and I feel thankful for the values instilled in me by parents of perseverance, honesty, and love, especially in the face of adversity. I have acknowledged, though, that part of my upbringing included the threat of corporal punishment.

Perhaps more pervasively, I noticed in my adulthood how the knowledge and threat of this type of punishment leaked into other areas of my life such as difficulties in emotional regulation, manifesting in a distinct fear of failure and a compilation of feelings that I call “not good enough-ness.” As a future potential parent, I think it’s important to consider what we’re communicating to our children if physical punishment is used as a form of discipline.

What is the intention?

Are we guided by anger and frustration?

What lessons and values are we teaching children when we use violence against them?

How does the permissiveness of corporal punishment reflect our wider views on human rights?

I suppose that maybe instead of deeming people worthy of speech when the hens pee, we should recognize their rights, always. 


Center for Disease Control (2019). “A Public Health Crisis Decades in the Making: A review of 2019 CDC gun mortality data”. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024. 

Congressional Research Service (2015). “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Available at:,educate%20or%20discipline%20their%20children

Accessed 20 Feb 2024. 

Cuartas J., Weissman D.G., Sheridan M.A., Lengua L., McLaughlin K.A. (2021). Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Dev. 92(3):821-832. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13565. Epub 2021 Apr 9. PMID: 33835477; PMCID: PMC8237681.

Durrant J., Ensom R. (2012). “Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research”. CMAJ.184(12):1373-7. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.101314. Epub 2012 Feb 6. PMID: 22311946; PMCID: PMC3447048.

Save the Children. “A Summary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024.

Scottish Government (2024). Human rights. “Children’s rights”. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024. 

Therolf, G. (2018). “Why did no one save Gabriel?’ The Atlantic. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024.

Tomoda A., Suzuki H., Rabi K., Sheu Y.S., Polcari A., Teicher M.H. (2009). “Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment”. Neuroimage. 47 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):T66-71. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.03.005. Epub 2009 Mar 12. PMID: 19285558; PMCID: PMC2896871.

World Health Organization (2021). “Corporal punishment and health”. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024. 

Center for Disease Control (2019). “A Public Health Crisis Decades in the Making: A review of 2019 CDC gun mortality data”. Available at: Accessed 20 Feb 2024.