As their new book, Protecting Children: A Social Model, publishes this week, Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Susan White look at how child protection practice must adapt to reflect our changing world.
And so it goes on: the roll call of more children coming into care, more children living in poverty, more families using food banks and more families living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation.
It is painfully apparent that the settlement between the state and its citizens, forged post-war, has been undermined profoundly, if not broken, over the last decades.
Increasingly, expectations of decent work, secure and affordable homes and enough to eat can no longer be guaranteed by a state that is experienced as both intrusive and neglectful, especially by those living in poverty, with a subsequent loss of trust and widespread feelings of alienation and disconnection.
The policies and practices that have been developed to protect children must be understood and located within this wider canvas. While the state and its resources allegedly shrink, its gaze is harder and its tongue sharper. As part of an increasingly residual role, the system has become narrowly focused on an atomised child, severed from family, relationships and economic and social circumstances: a precarious object of ‘prevention’, or rescue. As its categories and definitions have gradually grown, the gap between child protection services and family support, or ordinary help has, somewhat paradoxically, widened.
Indeed, the child protection mandate struggles to move beyond holding individuals (usually mothers) responsible for managing children’s protection, thus, in effect, privatising what are often public troubles and outsourcing their management to those often most harmed by such troubles. When they almost inevitably struggle to cope, state responses incline towards removal and the rupture of connections and networks with ethical and human rights considerations becoming casualties of a risk averse climate and narrow and reductive understandings of children’s outcomes.
Austerity has made things very much worse as successive governments, since 2010, have pummelled the poorest areas of our country and the poorest families relentlessly. But it is vital we recognise the roots of our current malaise go way back and are intimately connected to a long-standing tendency to see child protection as something apart, the province of uniquely troubled families and thus disconnected from the wider contexts in which all families seek to survive and thrive.
The following deep-rooted assumptions are core to the child protection story:
- The harms children and young people need protecting from are normally located within individual families and are caused by actions of omission or commission by parents and/or other adult caretakers;
- These actions/inactions are due to factors ranging from poor attachment patterns, dysfunctional family patterns, parenting capacity, faulty learning styles to poor/dangerous lifestyle choices;
- The assessment of risk and parenting capacity is ‘core business’ and interventions are focused on effecting change in family functioning.
In our new book Protecting Children: A Social Model we argue for a new story to support more hopeful and socially just policies and practices. This would oblige rooting the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish and locating such understandings within the scholarship on inequality and poverty. Crucially, it means developing a range of strategies and practices to deal with the social determinants of many of the harms experienced within families such as domestic abuse, mental health difficulties and addiction issues; all pervasive features of highly unequal societies such as ours.
Social work practice needs to be re-thought obliging the re-visiting of the old and engagement with the new. When there is widespread misery and deprivation, how can the individually focused home visit continue too often to be the only game in town? Collective strategies must be considered in a project that promotes community work, locality based approaches and peer support and is founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice.
Building on the ideas in the best-selling Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards Humane Social Work with Families, and drawing from a wide range of social theorists and disciplines, we identify policies and practices to argue for a social model of protecting children that is animated by the need to:
- Understand and tackle root causes;
- Rethink the role of the state;
- Develop relationship(s) based practice and co-production; and
- Embed a dialogic approach to ethics and human rights in policy and practice
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