The pictures in our heads: Part one

As this collection of child welfare reforms gathers momentum, what pictures are forming in people’s heads about the causes and solutions to child abuse?

When considering advocacy movements in response to social problems, ‘Frameworks’ president Susan Nall Bales notes that all issues have two sides: a social analysis and a communications analysis. Without attention to the latter, advocates and experts are likely to miss opportunities for change because they are not paying enough attention to the ‘pictures in people’s heads’ that develop in relation to a topic unless alternative explanatory frameworks are offered. As this collection of child welfare reforms gathers momentum, what pictures are forming in people’s heads about the causes and solutions to child abuse? Who is authoring them, and are they fit for purpose? That is, are they based on best evidence, ethical principles, and experience? As state policies increasingly conflate political ideology with the causes of child abuse and ideas about how to respond to it, they suggest certain ‘pictures for our heads’ that need constant examination. Let’s hold a few of them up to the light a bit and see what we can see.

Constructing (in the ordinary, not academic sense) state responses to child abuse can never be free of political ideology, as all child protection systems contain implicit messages about the correct relationship of the state to families, thus defining the ‘correct’ system is always partly political. However, the interface between state politics and the child welfare apparatus design should be mediated as much as possible by those who have the twin expertise development promoters of experience in the field and deep understanding of the national and international research in relation to child abuse definitions, causes, and solutions. This mediating buffer should be present to restrict extreme political ideologues from either the right or the left from trammelling unhindered across the child welfare landscape. In the case of Aotearoa/NZ, it seems we are travelling in this catastrophic direction apace.

For example, the current reforms embodied in the Vulnerable Children’s Act, the Children’s Action Plan and the CYF review propose many ‘pictures for our head’. From the CYF review, the ‘pictures’ of the problem and its solutions are inferred from the terms of reference. With no alternatives, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking that CYF is a backwards organisation (otherwise why would it need modernisation?), that it does not promote attention to children’s needs (otherwise why more attention to being ‘child focussed’?), that it is wasteful with public monies and NGOs could do it better (otherwise why does it need to be more efficient and outsource services?), and that it pays no heed to good outcomes for children (otherwise why the focus on better results?). Without understanding the political ‘unspeak’ going on, the pictures in people’s heads developed from these terms are quite erroneous. For example, use of the term ‘modernisation’, borrowed from the UK reforms, tends to mean a preference for audit driven, technical systems based on economic logics that use an investment approach, rather than creating change based on current research and an up to date understanding of the needs of children or families. In turn, ‘investment’ means not so much spending in order to ensure good long term outcomes for citizen’s health and wellbeing, but spending only if there is a cost saving to be made in the future by doing so. Likewise, the plea to be ‘child focussed’ seems, as others have pointed out, to be used to infer a moral dichotomy with ‘family focussed’ (and by extension, families themselves) as bad, and child focussed as good. This dichotomy assumes the needs and interests of children exist entirely separately from the needs of their families and their relationships within them, and positions parents as instrumental only, that is, their value is only in connection to their role as parents. The language of efficiency, better results and focussing on ‘core business’ (as if CYF have so far been dabbling improperly in actual support for families rather than just the removal decision) actually means reducing the role of the state to a residual model, and contracting out of state services so NGOs can attempt to deliver the same service with less money. Many NGOs do fantastic work, and in some cases, may do a better job of some tasks, but they can only do work they are properly resourced to do. This is unlikely in a systems reform that aims to be ‘cost neutral’, and in an environment where already NGO contracts have not included CPI adjustments since 2008, meaning NGOs are already trying to meet the outcomes of their existing contracts on an ever-decreasing budget. In such a context, employing well qualified and registered social workers becomes increasingly difficult, and more reliance on volunteers is likely. Recent criticisms of social work education and practice is at odds with this likely draining of resources from the NGO sector, who it seems will be increasingly responsible for families with complex needs and issues. This is not more efficient, just cheaper.

The message is clear: children, not families are the focus of the state’s responsibility, but even this narrowed responsibility can be undertaken at a distance via the NGO sector. However, this does not mean complete abandonment by the state, because the chains of audit created mean that those NGOs will carry an ever-heightened responsibility that can result in sanctions if they are unable to bring down the numbers of physical abuse (as laid out in the better public services aims), or cannot produce acceptable evidence of their effectiveness. Social theorists take this changing pattern of pictures in several directions. Nikolas Rose calls this ‘responsibilisation’, and notes its common appearance in advanced liberal economies. He describes this as the movement of the ‘social state’ to the ‘facilitating state’. A facilitating state is no longer expected to “…answer all societies needs for order, security, health and productivity. Individuals, firms, organisations…schools, parents, hospitals…must take on themselves – as ‘partners’ – a portion of the responsibility for resolving these issues …Organisations and other actors are.. to be set free to find their own destiny but, at the same time, they are responsible for that destiny and for the destiny of society as a whole” (Rose, 1999, p.174).

Thus, projects of responsibilisation tend to simultaneously make subjects more autonomous, but also more responsible. Those who make ‘poor choices’, within such a ‘head picture’, particularly in regards to taking risks, are deemed ‘irresponsible and subject to exclusion or sanction. In this case, both professionals and parents are likely to have such a project of responsibilisation imposed upon them, and be held personally responsible for a range of negative outcomes. This despite the multiple contributing factors impacting on both parenting capacity, and professionals’ capacities, as individuals, to address them. The worst possible outcome is parents are demonised, the structural contributors to abuse ignored, and professionals becoming increasingly risk averse to avoid punishment for outcomes they have no control over. Dangerous pictures indeed.

Emily Keddell, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Otago.

(The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, or any association to which I belong)


Rose, N. (1999). Powers of freedom. Cambridge: University Press

One reply on “The pictures in our heads: Part one”

Such an important article thank you. CPAG is very conscious the child is inseparable from the situation of the family. When we talk about incomes it is of course the family income and the tax credits are paid to the caregiver that matter for the child. Abuse of all kinds can thrive in conditions of poverty The pictures you suggest are filling the public’s minds re child abuse issues are chilling indeed.

“The worst possible outcome is parents are demonised, the structural contributors to abuse ignored, and professionals becoming increasingly risk averse to avoid punishment for outcomes they have no control over. Dangerous pictures indeed.”

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