COVID-19 has obliged a painful reckoning with the destructiveness of our contemporary ecological, economic and social practices. A light has been shone on the inequalities scarring our landscape as it has become increasingly apparent that while we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.
Michael Marmot and colleagues in public health have been particularly influential in highlighting the evidence that the pandemic has exposed and intensified longstanding inequalities in economic and social conditions and the contribution these have made to the high and unequal death toll from COVID-19. Their work on the social gradient, the term used to describe the phenomenon whereby people who are less advantaged socioeconomically have worse health than those who are more advantaged, has become much more accepted beyond public health as a result of the pandemic.
Going forward, something of a consensus is emerging around the need to engage with the ‘causes of the causes’ of so many of our social ills and to work together in solidarity to address the collective risks we face as interdependent human beings on a fragile planet.
In our article, ‘Post-pandemic: Moving on from ‘child protection’’, we considered what the above might mean for policy and practice. Here, a focus on risk, removal and rupture – the three Rs – has too often marked the experiences of impoverished children and families leading to systematic inequalities in children’s chances of being able to spend their childhood safely in their families of origin.
We considered the opportunities the pandemic offered for child protection to be part of a collective endeavour asking big questions about the nature of our society going forward and suggested the following might open up hopeful and helpful possibilities for dialogue, healing and care:
What do children, young people and families need – from each other, from their communities and from the local and national state – in order to flourish?
In this context, The Case for Change, recently published by the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care, makes for rather disheartening reading. It avoids asking big questions about the purpose of child protection and its relationship to wider social and economic policies and focuses instead on what might be considered symptoms and second-order issues. For example, it challenges the practice focus on investigations rather than help, and appears to see this as a choice made by practitioners and local authorities, a choice that can be unmade at will.
However, the focus on investigation emerges from specific economic, social and historical contexts and cannot be reduced to the choices and preferences of individual practitioners or agencies. Looking carefully at the immediate past, there is no escaping the role played by politicians and their policy choices in shaping the current context. Not even a decade ago, for example, the then Minister for Education Michael Gove advocated the rescuing of children from parents who were wilfully making dangerous lifestyle choices. At the same time his government was rolling out an austerity programme that was to prove catastrophic in terms of children’s wellbeing and safety and there was an explicit denial of any connection between the safety of children and their general wellbeing and that of their families.
As a result of austerity, children and their families suffered greatly at the same time as the deprived local authorities so many lived in were disproportionately impacted by spending cuts. The focus on investigations by cash-strapped local authorities makes some sense in this context as does the increased use of thresholds and complex and shifting eligibility criteria. This was, and is, deeply regrettable as we have articulated in much of our work, and has had very damaging impacts on families and the relationships with professionals.
We, therefore, share some of the concerns expressed in The Case for Change about the focus on investigations. But we reject the notion that this can be undone without a long, hard look at ourselves as a society, at the policy roads taken, as well as those not taken, by successive governments. This cannot be undone too without addressing the consequences of our failure to build respectful and thoughtful dialogue and cultural and political consensus around the needs of children, the responsibilities of their families, communities and local and national governments.
Going forward, we argue that if this careful work is not undertaken and the broadest coalition possible mobilised around the need for change, we run the risk of superficial tweaks to practice that can be undone very easily. A change of government, a well-publicised child death, a newspaper seeking to beat up a particular local authority… depressingly familiar tropes and the pendulum swings once again.
But what better time to break this awful vicious cycle than now? In the midst of all the loss, pain and suffering of COVID-19, surely ‘building back fairer’ for all our children becomes the best way we can remember, mourn and heal.
Brid Featherstone is Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield. Anna Gupta is Professor of Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London. Kate Morris is Professor of Social Work at the University of Sheffield.
Read the author’s article ‘Post-pandemic: moving on from ‘child protection’’ by Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris as part of Policy Press’ Critical and Radical Social Work journal, available free to download here.
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