Across the English-speaking world social work in child protection has taken an authoritarian turn. Child protection social work will never foster social revolution, but it does not have to be the soul-less practice that it has developed into. The rationale for child welfare intervention in family life and the appropriate form of such intervention is contested (Fox-Harding, 1997; Grey & Webb, 2013). We have a choice about the shape of future practice and to make an informed choice we need to examine the wider political and economic context of current practice. Our child protection paradigm does not exist in a vacuum. It is tangled with the failed political ideology of neoliberalism – and it needs to be untangled!
The attraction of risk science in contemporary child welfare is related to the problem of persistent poverty in capitalist societies – specifically the problem posed by the children of the poor. Child protection is often explained and understood in terms of children’s rights to live free of abuse and neglect. The elephant in this particular room is that most of the children who come to the attention of child protection systems in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand come from impoverished families. A renaissance of interest in child welfare inequality Is reflected in recent social work research which has highlighted an incontrovertible correlation between poverty and child maltreatment (Pelton, 2015; Davidson et. al, 2017). Poverty is enmeshed with place, race, class and gender.
Social workers know this, but the system doesn’t allow them to put this knowledge to use effectively in their practice. Rather the child protection system focuses on the harm caused by the deficiencies of individual parents. This fits perfectly with a neoliberal view of causation and responsibility. It also chimes with the Victorian idea that the poor are a danger to themselves and are different to ‘us’ – ‘they’ create more poverty through their ignorance and immorality. In the Aotearoa New Zealand context, a discourse of personal and family responsibility for the reproduction of trauma has become associated with both poverty reproduction and child maltreatment (Expert Panel, 2015).
The complexity of state social work needs to be accepted and engaged with – new scientific understandings and tools can’t really simplify everything and make the moral challenges go away. In fact, this approach tends to conceal more than it reveals. Part of the complexity I am talking about is related to the way that social workers are positioned as mediators at the interface between the regulatory state and the semi-autonomous realm assigned to family life in liberal society (Warner, 2015). Dominelli (2004) describes the insight and advocacy that social work is capable of as follows:
Social workers engage clients in exchanging knowledge about their life experiences so that their voices can be heard, and their stories can expose the inadequacy of official constructions of their lives. By supporting the creation of counter discourses social workers assist those outside their circles to understand the world from client perspectives. (p. 38)
This critical voice and the public role which social work potentially generates has been severely diminished in recent times (Cree, 2014). It has been completely silenced in mainstream child protection practice. In this blog post I am going to consider why this is the case and what might need to be different. While international social work organizations have embraced a commitment to the pursuit of social justice (Global Agenda, 2014), child protection practice is increasingly focused on protecting the children of the poor rather than addressing the social conditions which foster unsafe environments in increasingly unequal societies (Parton, 2014). What is going on here?
The key to understanding this hypocrisy lies in examining how neoliberal ideas have colonised our view of the social world. Perhaps it is unhelpful to just criticise neoliberalism without saying a little more about it. It is an aggressive form of capitalism that says that large multi-national corporations should be permitted to scour the world for cheap labour, materials and markets to generate profit and growth. Globalisation in this sense has nothing to do with progress or democracy. In some important ways it is a return to the radical, creative and destructive expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century. The main difference is that modern neoliberals (new liberals) understand that capitalism needs a bit of help to really thrive. Governments have a role in de-regulating markets, de-regulating the environment, allowing free flows of capital and disempowering trade unions.
A form of social security contract between the state and its citizens that came to be called the Welfare State grew out of the Depression of the 1930s and World War 2. Social work became an important part of this arrangement. The rise of a new phase of capitalism associated with neoliberalism has eroded this sense of shared community since the early 1980s. It has also re-shaped social work. Neoliberalism has delivered profit and growth, but it has created glaring inequality for those swept aside in the gale of creative destruction that has been generated. Poverty and inequality reminiscent of the nineteenth century has come back to haunt us.
This is what capitalism does: it hurts powerless people (Garrett, 2013). Everything becomes a marketable commodity – even our human selves. We are responsible for making ourselves and our children market-ready. The insecurity that goes with this way of organising society has generated a volatile political climate: the rise of right wing populism in Europe and most notably the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Trump’s appeal is an odd mix of liberalism, nationalism and racism – it is all about American business, and by extension of course – all about Donald.
Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) build a powerful case for understanding contemporary policy as something of a perfect storm. The coming together of a social investment policy framework, brain science and corporate interest has generated and justified an unprecedented growth in early intervention programmes targeted at impoverished mothers. The racist, classed and sexist implications of this approach have gone largely unexamined:
Left aside in the seemingly common sense and straightforward scenario of early intervention to save young brains is the unequal gendered, classed and raced environment in which parents and children live out their lives. (pp. 131-2)
This construction diverts attention from the macro-economic causes of social deprivation and obscures the connection between social outcomes for children and the multiple stresses associated with parenting in poverty. State-sponsored processes of surveillance and behaviour management interventions take the place of a politics of social rights and economic redistribution: poverty in this analysis isn’t caused by systemic inequality – it is caused by the dangerous poor and their hapless parenting. Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley argue that a resurgence of child-rescue-driven practice in what might be described as late-neoliberal times amounts to the state being mobilised on behalf of the market to ‘secure the production of clear thinking, flexible, self-directed brains able to withstand the pressures of a global competitive system’ (p.38). This is the neoliberal take on social justice if you like.
Now, I think we need to put this incredibly regressive ideologically-constructed bullshit in its place. This does not mean that we should ignore risk, or that parenting support is pointless. But we need to reject the idiotic idea that children are socially mobile individual products that need to be made market ready. Children are enmeshed in the variably adequate shelter of their family constellations, cultural histories and community relationships. Social work is about understanding social context – we know that people are essentially social subjects rather than rational, context free, economic actors. And we need to ask ourselves whose interests we are currently serving? Child protection social work needs to reject its assigned role of disciplining the poor in the name of child well-being.
In the Aotearoa New Zealand setting, the children who come to the attention of the statutory child protection system are drawn disproportionately from the brown proletariat – often young families, young Maori and / or Pacific families who are often engaged in resisting their circumstances – struggling to live adequately and to parent in poverty. This is a socio-historical-economic reality rather than the result of imprudent choices made by individuals in need of correction (Hyslop, 2017). Child protection practitioners see the way that public issues translate into private troubles. We need to reconnect this insight with our practice. Focusing on what a whanau needs to thrive is often a more productive approach than calculating the risk that parents pose to their children (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris, & Warner, 2016).
Child protection can do more than the dirty work of neoliberal social hygiene. We are over-organised and paralysed by the all-consuming focus on nothing but individual risk and our anxiety about the consequences of getting this wrong. We need to trust our practice skills. We need to better understand how the big picture of social power and resources pans out in the lives of citizen service users, including the effects of isolation, racism, prejudice, stigma and shame. We can do this by building trust rather than creating fear; by getting close to the lives of people rather than assessing their danger from a distance. This respectful engagement allows insight into the way in which pressures associated with poverty impact upon communication, choices, relationships, resistance and the possibilities for change (Krumer-Nevo, 2017). We need to listen and speak our truth – not somebody else’s clinical language.
The credibility of the neoliberal project is beginning to unravel, although I fear it will have a long and dangerous tail. I am hoping to provoke people to think about where child and family social work should stand. Do we want to be part of the solution to poverty and inequality or are we happy to be part of the problem?
Image credit: MrHayata
Cree, V. (2013). New practices of empowerment, in Grey, M.& Webb, S.A. (Eds.). The new politics of social work. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan.
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.
Dominelli, L. (2004). Social work: Theory and practice for a changing profession. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Expert Panel – Modernising child, youth and family (2015) – Final Report. Wellington, NZ :NZ Govt.
Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K., & Warner, J. (2016). Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: Towards a social model of child protection. Families Relationships and Societies. ISSN 20467443
Fox-Harding, L. (1997). Perspectives in child care policy, London, UK: Longman
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Grey, M., & Webb, S.A. (Eds.). (2013) The new politics of social work. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave MacMillan.
Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1800 – 1817.
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, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement, Child Abuse & Neglect, 41, 30-39.
Warner, J. (2004). The emotional politics of social Work in child protection. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.