The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.
The lineage of contemporary brain-science-informed child rescue can be traced back through Freudian psychology, the eugenics movement for racial purity, and ultimately to the late nineteenth century bourgeois horror at the moral threat posed by the urban poor – the dangerous classes (Ferguson, 2004). Although the scientific rationale has mutated over time, the imperative to break inter-generational cycles of poverty by changing behaviour – re-moralising the poor – has remained the same. This thinking underpins statutory social work.
The key problem with this discourse is, of course, that a focus on the way in which impoverished parents reproduce suffering for their children conceals the fact that poverty (for some) is an inevitable function of (arguably a requirement for) the capitalist social form. Foucault (Chambon, 1999) suggests the following:
So instead of saying, ‘There is the working class and the marginal’, we would say, ‘within the overall lower class, there is a divide between those who work and those groups who are not part of the system of production’. The institution of police, the legal system, and the penal system are one of the means to deepen this partition, which is needed by capitalism (pp. 94-5).
We only need to look at the consequences of thirty years of neoliberal economics to recognise this inconvenient reality. We live in a very rich country. Poverty is simply a result of how our economic system is structured; how wealth is distributed. However, for the most part, the veils and blinkers remain very much in place. We are seeing something of a renaissance of Victorian charitable philanthropy for example. If only we could find the causes of poverty!
The knot that I would like to begin to un-pick concerns the relationship between poverty and child protection social work. There is general agreement (at least among people who know anything much about it) that child protection is tricky work. It is not a paint by numbers game. Causal relationships in the social world are complex rather than simple and linear. The relationships between poverty and parenting – and between poverty and child maltreatment – are nuanced. There is some evidence, for instance, that higher rates of child protection notification and higher tariff outcomes are connected with increased professional surveillance of families in economically deprived neighbourhoods.
Recent research work in England (Bywaters et. al., 2017), for example, identifies an inverse intervention law, whereby poorer localities within relatively affluent areas are likely to experience more intrusive child protection responses than those applied in areas of general impoverishment. There is also the fact that relatively poor localities in unequal societies are linked with social problems generally – violence, crime, employment, drugs, housing (Parton, 2014). Why would child maltreatment be any different? In the Aotearoa New Zealand context this picture is further complicated by racial inequality. For Māori there are intersections between the history of colonisation, urbanisation and institutional racism. There is also an intertwined relationship between this history and the relative economic status of Māori (DSW, 1988 – Pūao-te-Āta-tū).
So, what might all this mean for the practice of child protection? We now have a Prime Minister with a stated commitment to addressing the scourge of child poverty, do we not? It is hoped that related policy initiatives will reduce inequality and income poverty but this is a policy process that is distinct from child protection social work, isn’t it? I don’t think it is as simple as that and I do think it is about time we came to grips with this in practice. First we need to untangle our assumptions.
We know that child protection decisions need to be focused on child safety. We also know that there is a relationship between poverty and child maltreatment. However we tend to treat these two situations as distinct and separable. Poverty belongs to the realm of economic and social policy. Child protection belongs to state social work. The current orthodoxy seems to go something like this. Child protection is about protecting children from harm. Children are frequently harmed by those responsible for their care. Some children are at higher risk than others. In large part decisions must be informed by a cautious assessment of danger.
This approach leaves little apparent room for an understanding of how the experience of poverty influences the parenting of children; except perhaps as a risk factor in its own right. We hear a lot about the utility of conceptual frameworks for child protection – evidence-informed or trauma-informed understandings about the causes and consequences of child abuse. What might a poverty-informed child protection framework look like?
Here are some beginning ideas. We know that economic inequality is not only racialized, but also gendered: women, mostly brown women, parenting in poverty. We know that the strain of prolonged economic scarcity and hardship necessitates struggle and resistance (Gupta, 2017; Krumer-Nevo, 2017). We know that poverty damages health and well-being and that it massively restricts choice – food, clothing, transport, housing, travel, rest and recreation. We also know – or should know – that differing experiential realities generate differing narratives, differing wisdoms, survival strategies and resiliencies. Economically disadvantaged people are no less human, no less emotional and no less rational than the bourgeoisie. They may need some help, but they are not in need of treatment – parenting courses will not cure poverty in this generation or the next or in any generation to come.
This does not mean that non-intervention is always justified or that the children of the poor will always be safe. Child protection is challenging work. However, it does mean that social workers need to see the big picture in their micro practice and recognise the lived realities of whānau: listen, learn and treat people with respect. This is not unprofessional or unsafe – it is the essence of informed relational engagement which is, in turn, the essence of quality child protection practice. As I have said before in this blog-space, call me old fashioned if you like but child and family social work is a thinking person’s game.
Image credit: Travis
Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Daniel, B., Featherstone, B., Jones, C., . . . Webb, C. (2017). Inequalities in English child protection practice under austerity: A universal challenge? Child & Family Social Work, doi:10.1111/cfs.12383
Chambon, A. (1999). Foucault’s approach: Making the familiar visible. In A. Chambon, A. Irving, & L. Epstein (Eds.), Reading Foucault for social work (pp. 51–83). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Davidson, G., Bunting, L., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., & McCartan, C. (2017). Child welfare as justice: Why we are not addressing inequalities. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1641- 1651.
Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gillies, Edwards, & Horsley (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Chicago, IL: Policy Press.
Gupta, A., Blumhardt, H., & ADT Fourth World (2017). Poverty, exclusion and child protection practice: the contribution of the politics of recognition and respect. European Journal of Social Work. 2017. 1-3. Doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2017.1287669
Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wrestling the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of Social Work, 20 (6), 811-822.
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.
Department of Social Welfare. (1988). Pūao-te-Āta-tū (Daybreak) Report of a Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington.