This one is for the lawyers. Child protection and the appropriate legal framework to facilitate ‘best practice’ is a subject which has been vigorously contested across Anglophone societies over the last forty years. These debates reflect differing disciplinary perspectives and differing ideological influences such as the tension between the discourse of individual children’s rights on the one hand and claims to collective cultural autonomy for whānau Māori on the other. Much of this friction is generated by, and reflected in, the economic and political changes that have developed since the 1970s, when the so-called ‘Welfare State consensus’ started to unravel. Parton (2014) argues that changes to child protection practice over time are best understood as responses to changing (and contested) constructions of the preferred relationship between the state, the family and children; and more specifically the children of the poor.
As I get longer in the tooth, I am sometimes accused of repeating myself. Funnily enough this often happens with reference to things that people didn’t much like hearing the first time. For example, the message that social work is complex and contradictory is disquieting when you are looking for some clarity of identity and access to the moral high ground. Nevertheless, social work is often conflicted.
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 so-called social investment strategy being implemented by the current Government is based on a narrow individualised analysis of the causes of poor social outcomes. The intent is to spend some money on problem people now in order to reduce social costs in the future. The specific focus is on reducing the long term cost of benefits and prisons.
Like much ideologically loaded social policy there is a strong superficial appeal. Social service workers are familiar with the idea that social deficits can be inter-generationally reproduced and that the traumatic effects of violence and abuse can echo down the generations. It is a short step from this insight to accepting the idea that we need to fix these people – efficiently and effectively, once and for all.
Who hasn’t seen the brains? The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect. I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.
It is useful – I think – to reflect on the busy year that is now drawing in and to focus on the hopes and dreams that lie ahead of us. In various ways the aim of our RSW Collective has been to contribute to a re-thinking of the aims and aspirations of social work in turbulent times. Above all it is critical to recognise that social work is influenced by a broader context of economic and political relations.
Paul Henry talks with Professor Innes Asher (Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson) on the upcoming budget and how much money should be allocated towards child poverty in New Zealand. A RadioLIVE interview.