I just read an interesting article by Lorne Zelyck, “Matthew 18,1-14 and the Exposure and Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman World,”Biblica 98.1 (2017): 37-54.
Normally the “little ones” are taken to refer to new disciples, who should not be lead astray by mature believers. However, Zelyck argues that:
The context of Matt 18,1-14 suggests that Jesus si concerned about the welfare of children (paidion), and he presents eschatological warnings of divine retribution against anyone who scandalizes “one of these little ones”. The parallels between Matt 18,6-10, Matt 5,27-30, and b. Nid. 13b suggests that the skandalizo in Matt 18,6 may be the sexual abuse of children, while an interpretation of the Tobspruch statement in Matt 18,6 … and the parallels between Matt 18,10 and Apoc. Pet. 8 suggests that the skandalizo may be the exposure of children. These two atrocities committed against children in the Roman world are universally condemned by Jewish and later Christian authors, who claim that the children who do survive exposure are often picked up and sexually exploited. Jesus’ warnings in Matt 18,6-9 are hyperbolic and severe: it is better to die or excise the source of the scandal than experience eschatological punishment as its penalty, which is unavoidable since God mindful and will seek out the perpetrator to ensure the safety of the children (cf. Matt 18,10-14). Despite the emphasis on the negative actions to be avoided, the positive action is clear: the disciples are exhorted to extend hospitality to these vulnerable children and provide for their needs (cf. Matt 18,5).