More rooms – more elephants! There are numerous references in the posts on this site to poverty, inequality and social justice in relation to child protection. These relationships are complex. The urban poor are, for example, subject to a higher level of professional surveillance than the residents of our gated and ‘leafy’ suburbs. However it is clear that the incidence and prevalence of child abuse is higher in relatively impoverished communities (Pelton, 2015). This should not come as any great surprise – the rates of crime, imprisonment, educational under-achievement and poor health outcomes are also higher. Why wouldn’t they be? The more important question in the current climate is “what does this mean for the ‘every-day’ practice of child protection social work?”
It is also often said (or thought) that it is relatively easy to talk of factors like poverty, inequality or institutional racism in the context of child protection from the safe distance of academic positions. Further, the argument goes, when children are abused and / or neglected their safety and well-being need to be secured by the child protection system and a macro analysis of economic oppression and inequality won’t help you do this – will it now?!
I understand this criticism but there are two things I’d like to suggest. First it is important for social work academics to use their privileged positions in ways that serve the interests of social workers and the people they serve. Secondly, I recognise the difficulty of balancing an understanding of big picture causation with the demands of statutory social work – after all I did it for twenty years of my working life. This argument – that it is all very well to complain from the side-lines about political issues, but ‘our kids’ need to be protected now – is a powerful way of brushing aside concerns about current practice and the future developments which the government has in the pipeline. The fact is that there are better alternatives which need to be articulated.
Social work (yes, child abuse requires a multi-disciplinary focus, but social work should remain the primary lens Ms Tolley) is a ‘relational’ practice. The quality of the engagement and assessment process influences the quality of outcomes for children and families. Adults who may have abused or neglected their children need to be listened to, trust needs to be developed, their experience understood and solutions built (Featherstone, White & Morris, 2014). We need to be straight with whanau and with ourselves. Some situations are very dangerous for children – as social workers we need to understand this and to be appropriately cautious. However we also need to recognise and respect the lived realities of multi-stressed whanau if we are to practice both effectively and humanely. This process of connection, reflection and careful child and family centred decision making requires time, teamwork and meaningful supervision that is both supportive and challenging (Morrison, 2007). This is where training and practice development needs to be directed. Assessing and measuring actuarial risk is less important.
Understanding and ‘treating’ trauma is also probably less important and the key question here is “whose trauma are we concerned with?” Are we, for example, only concerned with addressing the individualised emotional consequences of abuse? The current government defines ‘the problem’ (Hibbs, 2005) as the downstream fiscal costs which are seen to flow from individualised trauma, particularly in relation to imprisonment and ‘benefit dependence’. An underclass is conceptualised as reproducing itself through the inter-generational transmission of untreated trauma (Productivity Commission, 2015; Expert Panel Final Report, 2016) and social agencies can address this by muscular intervention, followed by safety and love from ‘middle’ New Zealand. In my opinion a wider and less politically contaminated perspective would serve us better. We are, after all, dealing with young (often Māori , often women) adults with few resources and facing many challenges associated with parenting in poverty. Policy makers might do well to try this some time.
Let’s think a little bit about what would really make for better practice in child protection before we catch the modern train about to leave the neoliberal station.
We should be concerned with a focus on the trauma associated with the historical experience of whanau, hapu and iwi, and with the intergenerational cost of poverty and systemic economic exploitation (Parton, 2014; Walsh-Tapiata, 2008). Causation is social, historical and economic in this analysis – it is important to be mindful that fixing individuals won’t fix systemic inequality. This is not to say that individuals should not be helped but it is to say that we need a more nuanced practice focus than individual detection, blame and rescue. Such an approach will, in all likelihood, further traumatize marginalised whanau. We also need a more thoughtful and insightful politics than the simplistic analysis being offered by the current regime.
You can call me ‘un-modernised’ if you like. Families where abuse and neglect are present are capable of change with adequate motivation, good open communication and the necessary resourcing. Trauma can be healed and relationships restored with patient and committed social work. Practice with high needs whanau is skilled and challenging work – that is why it is worth doing. This is the ‘core-business’ of child protection social work at the ‘front end’ of practice in my experience. This demanding and important work needs to be understood, appreciated and supported. Children in care need to be better cared for. This has been apparent for three decades and change is welcome in this area. However practice at the front end of child protection has also been grossly under-resourced and damaged by a managerial focus on efficiency and risk-averse compliance.
Finally, when children cannot be returned to parental care (and this should never be easily written off) whanau alternatives need to be resourced at a level equal to (or higher) than foster care or other safe and loving (and potentially destructive) permanent out of family options.
I would welcome any thoughts, discussion or critique of this post. We are at a crucial point in the development of social work and child protection practice. Tell us what you think.
Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-Imagining Child Protection – Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of ‘problem’. Te Komako VIII, Social Work Review, 17(2), 32-37.
Morrison, T. (2007). Emotional intelligence, emotion and social work: Context, characteristics, complications and contribution. British Journal of Social Work, 37(2), 245–263.
New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015). More Effective Social Services. Wellington, New Zealand.
Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse and Neglect, 41, 30 – 39.
Walsh – Tapiata, W. (2008). The past, the present and the future: The New Zealand indigenous experience of social work. In M. Gray, J. Coates and M. Yellow Bird (Eds.), Indigenous social work around the world: Towards culturally relevant education and practice (pp. 107- 116). Burlington VT: Ashgate.
Image Credit |yuki_alm_misa