Thursday, 19 June 2014

The perils of imagination

There is quite a lot which I like about Re-imagining Child Protection by Brid Featherstone, Sue White and Kate Morris [1]. There is also quite a lot that makes me feel uncomfortable.

What I liked

I liked the emphasis on ‘talk about ethics’, even if I had some reservations about the Cook’s Tour of philosophy that formed much of Chapter 3. Featherstone et al are absolutely right to remind us of the centrality of ethics to child protection by endorsing the contention of Dingwall et al  [2], that “… child protection raises moral and political issues which have no one right technical solution”. Indeed anyone engaged in the protection of children is faced daily with daunting moral and ethical dilemmas that cannot be ignored and that intractably resist resolution. It is absolutely right to revile glib technical ‘solutions’. There are no quick fixes. Angst and uncertainty go with the territory.

I also liked the emphasis on ‘research mindedness’ and ‘learning culture’. Featherstone et al are right to caution against the idea that research is the preserve of a small elite and condemn the fallacy that child protection professionals can be simply ‘informed’ by potted summaries of research. They are right to stress that practitioners should undertake research within their own practice to examine and understand what they are trying to do, what they are actually doing and what they have achieved.

And, of course, I also liked the authors’ emphasis on developing a just reporting culture and recognising the importance of understanding human factors in developing a safety culture. I only wish they had developed these ideas much further in Chapter 5.

It goes without saying that I very much agreed with their disdain for bureaucratisation of practice, target setting and poorly designed IT systems which try to enforce compliance with an arbitrary rule book.

What I didn’t like so much

I felt uncomfortable with one of the central arguments of the book. The authors state and re-state it in several ways but basically it seems to be based on a dichotomy (in my view a false one) between ‘authoritarian demonisation’ on the one hand and ‘support to families to care safely and flourish’ on the other. Another formulation (p. 152) contrasts what they see as an undesirable individualistic child-focused orientation with a desirable one of supporting and developing ‘the strengths within families and communities’.

Politically progressive as this approach may seem, it is difficult to square it with the reality of practice. It is frequently the worker who is a committed supporter of an oppressed family who is the first to realise that a child within that family is suffering abuse and neglect. Ideological perspectives do not prepare the worker for what happens next. A child cannot be left to suffer, no matter how much hope and potential there is for change. Inevitably at some point the family’s champion becomes the child’s defender and the rhetoric of family and welfare support gives way to the language of protection and rescue. Like the Necker Cube illusion, suddenly the complete perspective changes.

People who work with troubled families and their children can (perhaps I should say ‘should’) never be politically comfortable. Those of us who like to think we believe in empowerment and welfare and justice may feel naturally in sympathy with talk of support for oppressed families and communities. But whatever we believe, we should never lose sight of the horror of an individual abused child’s suffering at the hands of her/his carers. We will always need to accept that sometimes doing the right thing involves doing things that we would much rather not do.

My other area of discomfort with this book concerns the title and its implications. Re-imagining child protection sounds like a breath of fresh air, but no matter how well-versed in practice and theory the authors of this book are, and no matter how erudite and articulate, they are just in the final analysis three people with an idea. The history of child protection policy seems to be littered with big ideas that ultimately result in little or no change. And the hope that somehow a seismic paradigm shift will occur simply as a result of a good written argument is at best naïve.

The truth of the matter is that we need to start changing child protection from the perspective of where we are now, not where we would like to be. Real change will not come about from the imaginings of academics and visionaries. It will only come about from creating a solid basis for learning to take place among those who actually do the work and feedback from those that receive the service. That is learning that currently does not take place; learning about how to provide safer services, learning more about the needs of children and their families; learning more about how to deploy resources to raise quality.

Where that learning will take us, if it comes about, none of us knows.


[1] Featherstone, B. White, S and Morris, K. Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards humane social work with families. Policy Press, Bristol, 2014

[2] Dingwall, R., Eekelaar, J and Murray, T. The protection of children: State intervention and family life. Blackwell, Oxford, 1983