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62 MARCH 2004
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Genealogy of child protection

Mark Smith

I left off last month indicating that I would attempt what Foucault terms a genealogy of child protection to locate it in historical, political and cultural context. Here we go for a quick scan of the terrain.

Historically, we didn't care much for children. We introduced legislation protecting domestic pets long before we got round to considering anything similar for children. It was really only with the economic upturn and improvements in public health in the 1960s that we began to express much concern about kids. As problems of malnutrition receded paediatricians turned their attentions to 'the battered baby.' It can be argued pretty convincingly, that paediatricians, charities and Non Governmental Organisations seeking new roles claimed and made their own the whole notion of child protection.

Several high profile cases in the '70s and '80s began to identify a lack of focus on the needs of the child as opposed to the rights of parents in family situations. One such case, in which a young girl, Jasmine Beckford, died, was picked up by the then UK home secretary and used as a cause celebre to shift public services away from a universalist mode of delivery to one which targeted problem families. There were undeniable financial as well as ideological aspects to this move, located as it was within the political and economic neo-liberalism that has dominated western government over the past couple of decades. Child protection became defined as individualistic and pathological, rather than social and contextual. A striking recent example of this was provided here in recent months. Barnados, one of the largest children's charities, ran a television ad depicting some pretty graphic images of young children, one showing a cockroach crawling out of the kid's ear. The aim of the ad was to highlight the impact of poverty on families. It was quickly withdrawn following complaints that it offended public decency. We obviously don't want to be reminded that poverty does indeed offend public decency. We much prefer it when Barnados and other charities target 'baddies' such as internet paedophiles, because we can convince ourselves that they're not like us. Besides it gives us someone to blame without having to acknowledge the social space in which child abuse occurs.

In line with the modernity project, we have, over the past couple of decades sought to clothe child protection with some scientific rigour. We afford it an esoteric status in work with children and families. Almost all statutory post qualifying training for children and families social workers here has been in child protection. It becomes the primary lens though which social workers consider cases. Yet I begin to wonder whether all this specialist training amounts to much more than smoke and mirrors. As a practitioner, colleagues regularly deferred to me in cases where they thought there might be a 'child protection' issue, because I had done 'the course.' I now look back and question what I did in the name of child protection. I'm certainly not sure that the response I felt pushed into or the procedures I had to follow were always in the best interests of the child.

Scientism hasn't worked in relation to child protection. There have been some spectacular own goals scored in its name. In Cleveland in the north of England in 1987, dozens of children were taken from their parents on the basis of medical evidence that was subsequently discredited. The spectre of satanic ritual abuse emerged in Orkney and in Broxtowe and then receded again on the basis that there was no evidence for it. (The Broxtowe case is particularly interesting in that the report into it commissioned by the local council was suppressed, because its conclusions were so damning. It can however be accessed through an internet search).

The moral panics and hysteria induced by cases such as those above can be likened to mediaeval witchhunts. There is a level of irony attached to the fact that modernity, which sought to put behind it belief in witches and other superstitions, may in fact be contributing to a similar social phenomenon in relation to our attitudes towards children. And it's all because we don't really know what to do with them. We construct kids in all sorts of ambiguous ways, as victims or villains. On the one hand we want to protect them from harm. On the other we want to lock them up and punish them. We're afraid of their youthful vigour and challenge. We're terrified of their sexuality. So we try and control them, either through the guise of protection or containment. We call them young people because that defines them in relation to our adult worlds rather than affording them any agency in their own. And when all this doesn't work we regulate some more. The trouble is we think we can deal with kids through systems and procedures. What we do less and less of, professionally, is to get alongside them and become co-constructors in their growth and learning and their search for meaning.

I've indicated before in this series of contributions that I believe child protection to be in crisis. I was encouraged on a recent course I attended, to discover that many colleagues agree. They identify the promise to protect as contributing towards an untenable pressure upon those still working in the field, a pressure manifest in cultures of fear and blame. In relation to social work, the dominance of the child protection agenda has contributed to a de-professionalisation of the discipline and a privileging of managerial philosophies. Professional judgement is subsumed beneath the need to follow procedures; doing things right rather than doing the right thing. We need to move on from this. Next month, I'll conclude this series with some ideas as to how we might do so.

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