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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Child Protection Critics - valid and not valid

Critics of child protection seem to fall into one of several groupings. This matters as a way to think about what you are reading. It allows the reader to bring critical analysis to what is being said. This is true of myself, of course.

My groupings of the critics go as follows:

1. The professionals – this includes academics, public policy makers and clinical practitioners. This group tends to approach the issues quite analytically and seek changes from a more pragmatic level. However, this group also includes some broad thinkers who seek to blend the practical with practice reform. A recent example is Harry Ferguson, a British academic who was once a frontline social worker. He has recently published a book suggesting some rather fascinating changes that include workers being very aware of their own experiences and how child protection work can trigger this.

2. The appointed overseers – This group includes those who have been positioned to engage large scale overviews typically of tragedy. One of the most famous examples is the Lord Laming review of the Victoria Climbe case in England. There are others in this role such as Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the child advocate in British Columbia, who has a longer term, ongoing mandate to review and publically report on child protection issues in that Canadian province. Serious Case Reviews in the UK, child death reviews in other jurisdictions are also examples of these roles.

3. The Media is another important set of critics, although they will often approach their role with a sensationalist bent. The stories are typically about something that went wrong and seek to hold someone accountable. There is often a target to the story and the media has, at times, simply got it wrong in terms of who they were going after or what the real issues were. The best example is the reporting of the Baby P case in the UK. The media has done some very good reporting, however, that has led to some rather excellent reforms or, at least, nudged systems to better practice. Good examples are the PBS Frontline reporting of the tragic death of Logan Marr by her foster mother or the CBC Fifth Estate story on the death of Jeffrey Baldwin by his grandparents.

4. The Advocacy groups – These often have the mask of professionalism and will have names that suggest they are some sort of professional think tank. They seem most evident in the USA. Yet, they typically have strong policy biases that they are promoting. They have a sense of what they believe child welfare work should look like and filter what they report and write from that perspective. Rarely will you see material that contradicts their agenda being reported by them and, if it is, it is being attacked. Thus, even when they report academic research, they are often disingenuous with it selecting out the bits that support their policy agenda.

5. Parents who have been affected by the system. In the majority of the cases that I can find, these are parents who have lost children to the system and feel quite betrayed by it. This is not an unexpected or unwarranted emotion although it is very difficult to judge the merits of a case by their reporting. They are quite naturally and understandably biased. They do not claim any neutrality. Yet their stories are important as they provide a human face to the impacts of child protection work.

6. The children – there are occasions when children get to tell their stories of growing up in the system or of having been part of the system. These are blends of success, challenges and failures. They too are important, as they are the real life experience of some who have lived the story. In the USA there is a film circulating that tells the story of a few former foster children. It is a difficult watch at times but also quite powerful.

In looking at the vast material that is available on child protection, I have found it important to carefully consider who is writing and what is their agenda.

Another area of concern is how terminology is used. As Faller (2007) has noted, there are cases that are substantiated and many that are classified as unsubstantiated. Many critics of child protection see that as proof that child welfare is interfering in families that need not be investigated. Unsubstantiated is about there not being sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion. It is not the same as saying it did not happen. Those cases are classified as did not happen or false allegations. That group might include situations where the allegation was made maliciously or where actions were misunderstood, for example. False allegations occur but research suggests that they are small.

Child protection deserves criticism when it fails to do its job – either by failing to protect or failing to provide good case management, which can avoid apprehensions and sustain family units. But criticism also needs to be carefully assessed to determine the agenda as well as the information included or excluded.

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