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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Three things child protection cannot solve

Jessie, is a 25 year old woman with two children who lives in poverty. She struggles with social support and very irregular child support payments from the father of one of her children. Child protection is involved because she periodically struggles with paying her rent, having enough food and having enough clothes for her children. She is deemed to be neglecting her children.

While the story is fictitious, pretty much anyone who has worked in child protection will recognize this story. The Canadian Incidence Study on maltreatment indicates that about 1 in very 3 substantiated cases involved neglect which is strongly linked to poverty.

Child protection cannot fix poverty which typically arises from poor educational opportunities, low wages, physical or mental health and weaknesses in the social support network. These are systemic problems which need to be addressed at a social policy level.  Governments have the power to deal with these issues but may lack the motivation as poverty is often characterized as the result of laziness.

Studies have shown that a significant number of people who live in poverty work often receiving minimum wage with limited or no benefits. They are also forced to live in neighbourhoods where rents are lower but the community infrastructure and safety may be far more concerning.

Poverty is the result of the interplay of powerful forces which the following graphic shows:

Child protection cannot fix these problems yet they are expected to address the impact of them. If we want to solve child protection cases arising from most forms of neglect, then we need to ask society to tackle poverty.

The second big issue is homelessness - often strongly connected to poverty. Indeed, the The Homeless Hub in their 2014 presentation shows that there is again a key linkage between structural factors, systems failures and individual characteristics. Let's look at those:

Child protection can influence some of these issues. They can certainly create solid, supported transitions for youth who are aging out of the care of child protection. They can support families when someone is coming out of a health or criminal justice facility. But there are limits. Child protection cannot create more affordable housing or more jobs. Yet, when things a falling apart, a child may be taken into care.

The third big issue is the intergenerational impact of failed social policies such as those in Canada where large numbers of Aboriginal children were forced into residential schools. There, they were abused and neglected while in state care. Various forms of such social policies have been implemented in other countries such as the Boarding Schools in the USA and the Swiss contract children. The survivors of such systemic abuses may take generations to repair the widespread damage across communities and peoples. Child protection can offer some supports but it is the communities that need to find solutions.

Part of the discussion is really about asking "What is that child protection should do and what is that society as whole must address?" Otherwise we are setting up for ongoing failures in child protection systems. Then, social workers become the societal janitors left to pick up on the failed social policies - and it is a job they are not suited to.

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