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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Child Welfare Master Narrative – Is it for real?

Fraidin (2010) has recently published a review that looks at confidentiality laws and the master narrative of child welfare. He argues that the master narrative of child welfare is about abusive parents who are meting out untold harm on children who must be protected. He states, “In short, the master narrative of child welfare depicts foster care as a haven for “child victims” savagely brutalized by “deviant” “monstrous” parents.” (pp2-3). He correctly points out that the vast majority of children in foster care in the USA (and likely the Western world) are there for neglect as opposed to abuse.

He suggests that policy ought not to be built around this master narrative as it is essentially incorrect – most children in child protection systems are not in need of protection from physically abusive parents or guardians. He is equally correct in pointing out that foster care is not always a better alternative and that there have been children harmed by foster parents.

Regrettably, Fraidin does not see that he too is engaging in a master narrative approach by focusing on foster care as generally unsafe and harmful. This is a story line that is often picked up by critics of child protection. This master narrative suggests that foster care system is largely one where children are harmed and that children will be better off with their biological parents. He cites research by Doyle (2007) which looked at a large cohort of children in foster care (excluding abused children) who, fared poorer in a number of important measures versus those left in biological homes. This research has been replicated elsewhere. The point is valid.

However, other researchers have shown that there are policies that can be adopted which better support educational attainment and subsequent employment and social well being. If adopted, these policies might well alter Doyle’s conclusions (see for example, Dworsky & Courtney, 2010). In other words, if we better support the transition to adulthood then more foster children are likely to be successful. We certainly see that children within families are in need of such support. So is the problem one of foster care per se or one of better managing the needs of the children in care?

Fraidin, in his article, cites cases where children would have likely have seen greater success if appropriate supports were in place or followed through.
He then wanders into another master narrative of the child protection critique which is that family preservation is the golden idol against which all child protection efforts should be judged. The question might better be posed – are we bringing the right kids into care? This requires us to assess whether we are using child protection for the purposes intended or, is society using child protection because it does not wish to address the real underlying issues. These include:

• The willingness to address widespread poverty which underlies so much of the neglect cases. If we are not willing as a society to alter the economic paradigms, then children end up in care because poverty creates the social landscape that leads to child protection interventions. It is quite true that children are neglected as parents struggle to get enough food on the table or a roof over the heads of children.

• Health care access is a major concern in many countries including the United States. Much improvement could be made in that area that would reduce the demands on child protection systems. Parents who can be healthier because they have the care needed will do a better job with caring for their children.

• Aboriginal families across North America are still struggling to recover healthy parenting capacity. Multi generation losses in this area occurred because of residential schools. Getting effective supports will reduce neglect and demand for child protection services.

• Early intervention services reduce the need for child protection. They support parents as they enter the role. They help them adapt to the needs of their children and to relate with them in ways that allow the parent to be good enough (See for example the very powerful study by Allen, 2011).

Fraidin also raises the issues of how the media covers tragic stories where children die who are being or have been monitored by child protection. The public is obviously upset and major tragedies that receive widespread coverage can lead to increased apprehension rates. His criticism of this is valid. But he fails to see the real point which is that we are asking child protection to be too many things. The issues noted above need to be addressed (and funded) if we want to create a world where child protection can focus on the cases that really matter. Is society will to pay for these prevention services? So far, the answer is, not really.
What Fraidin does not address is how those tragedies can be useful in increasing the debates about:

• The willingness to fund effective intervention, poverty reduction and health care programs;

• The need to decide what child protection is there to do – which cases should they be focusing on?

• The need to consider how, as a society, we are defining neglect. Are we using definitions that are much too broad (thus capturing too many families)? And are we doing so because the other programs that should be working are not there or are underfunded?

• Are we willing to talk about tax payer dollars being made available at times when economies are struggling and increasing neglect caseloads?

On p, 12, Fraidin refers to the child protection master story also bringing in government malfunction when children die. But government is malfunctioning and children are suffering because of it. This is a management issue but it is even more an issue of how resources are being allocated to which problems.

As someone who has spent many years working with child protection cases, I find that Fraidin’s global criticism of the master narrative creating belief systems that impact lawyers, judges and social workers to be biased against parents, refusing to consider their perspective or their wants and hopes. He offers no critical research to support this. If we rely on anecdotal stories then I can equally point to very caring lawyers, judges and social workers who seek to find ways to support families and sustain the family unit. Indeed, I see clinicians and researchers struggling very hard at finding ways to effectively intervene with the problems that clinically disrupt families. What judges, lawyers and social workers cannot do is change the societal commitments to funding these very interventions that can positively impact families caught up in neglect.

I am pleased that Fraidin has raised the debate yet I am also significantly disappointed that he has framed it.

Allen, G. (2011). Early intervention: The next steps. An Independent report to Her Majesty’s Government. London.

Dworsky, A. & Courtney, M.E. (2010). Does Extending Foster Care beyond Age 18 Promote Postsecondary Educational Attainment? Issue Brief. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Downloaded 2011/02/05 at

Fraidin, M.I. (2010). Stories told and untold: Confidentiality laws and the master narrative of child welfare. Georgetown Law Review, 63, p.1-60.

1 comment:

  1. This comment was received via e-mail:

    Thank you for your thoughtful critique of my paper. I am very appreciative that you took the time to read and review the article.

    I write to express wholehearted agreement that it would be unproductive to replace the mainstream master narrative of deviant and monstrous parents with an equally inaccurate meta-narrative of foster homes rife with abuse and horrors.

    My goal with this piece was to begin balancing the conversation by airing stories other than the trite ones of unspeakable horrors inflicted by uncontrollable birth parents. I thought it important to convey the message that removal from a birth family and placement into foster care is costly to children. I attempted to make that point via data and stories. I also argued that stories of the harm experienced by children as a result of removal are suppressed by the secrecy laws that blanket Family Courts in so many U.S. states.

    In sum, I believe strongly that birth parents have been demonized, and that as a result, many children are taken from families and languish in foster care unnecessarily. I believe that we are in agreement, however, that demonization of foster parents would be unsupportable, and would be an unproductive approach to protecting children and families and remedying the many ills that beset our child welfare systems.

    Thank you again for engaging so deeply with the arguments set forth in my paper. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

    Matthew I. Fraidin
    Georgetown University Law Center