CYC-Online 49 FEBRUARY 2003
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Getting political

Mark Smith

I’ve just come from teaching the second cohort of my M.Sc class. Both cohorts of students enthuse me and through their readiness to contest some of the assumptions that frame residential child care and their enduring belief in the sector, instil a hope for its future. Today we were discussing the impact of adversity on child development. At a practice level we've been conditioned by the direction social work has taken in the UK to consider adversity primarily in terms of individual acts of abuse perpetrated on a child. Alternatively when youth turn to offending we put it down to poor decision making on their part, to be remedied by a dose of cognitive realignment so that they can see the error of their ways.

Of course the abused child and the offending youth are likely to be one and the same. Both are products of an interplay of social forces that go way beyond individual cognitive distortions or the abuse of interpersonal relationships. For instance, we recently re-discovered poverty in Scotland – yet again. And guess what; poverty is on the increase and can impact not just on the material or social levels but can also affect cognitive processes. So too can policies and decisions that result in multiple disrupted care placements with their implications for children's ability to attach or connect in any meaningful way. So too can cultural belief systems that deny children and youth their childhoods and youth and which increasingly seek to respond to them along a re-emergent victim/villain, deserving/undeserving poor dichotomy. Yet abuse is surely any experience that denies or impedes a child's capacity to be all they can be and as such moves beyond the individual to a wider structural level. According to Nigel Parton, “it thus seems sensible at the present time that for the purposes of a longer term strategy the definition of child abuse should be broad and include all forms of child maltreatment at the individual, institutional and societal level.”

Parton goes on to argue that our response cannot be “more of the same”. He was writing in 1985. Yet since then we have had only more of the same as the social work role in relation to child abuse has become increasingly proceduralised and consequently de-professionalised. And we are about to get another dose it seems, as the Inquiry into the death Victoria Climbie a young girl murdered by her aunt and her partner in London is due to report. No doubt there’ll be all sorts of recommendations for more effective inter-professional working. The trouble with this is that, even were social work departments fully staffed, which they’re far from, and even with the most joined up working possible there will still be child maltreatment and in some cases deaths. And there’ll still be a whole range of less obvious or extreme but nevertheless pernicious abuses of children and youth. Maybe it’s not so much joined up working, but joined up thinking that’s needed – thinking about our views of children and youth, about our hopes for them and about what kind of relationships we want for them and with them. But that requires us to move away from the comfort zones of investigation and following procedure to engage with issues of politics and morality. And if, according to Parton, abuse is a structural problem, “we have to attack it at that level.” That takes me back to the days of my own social work training when there was at least a debate to be had about the nature of our role in relation to the State that employed us. If social work is serious about child abuse, it maybe needs to rediscover its political side.


Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2002) Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Scotland York: JRF

Parton, N. (1985) The Politics of Child Abuse Basingstoke: MacMillan

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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