Welcome to the nightmare: Social work, child protection and the punishment of the poor

Nigel Parton’s (2014) recent study of the political context surrounding the ‘reform’ of child protection practice and policy in England contends that the state is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian agenda in relation to a particular section of the population, England’s poorest and most vulnerable families. The neoliberal project involves a shift in responsibility for social outcomes from the state to families.

In focusing on the core business of efficient child rescue Parton suggests that neoliberal governments are asking the wrong question. Instead of demanding more efficient detection and authoritative intervention we should be focusing on the causes of child maltreatment. Adequately addressing this question requires a focus on the social and political dimensions of child protection and its association with poverty and growing inequality. Why do we tolerate the marginalisation and stigmatisation of vulnerable children and families in a society of boats, BMWs, and investment properties? For social workers, the challenge is two-fold: what does our profession have to offer in such circumstances, and are we prepared to take action in defence of our values, beliefs, and those whom we serve? Child protection social workers engage with the lived realities of those on the margins of our society. This is our area of expertise – it is complex, challenging, and highly skilled work.

Entering the homes and lives of those who continually experience disrespect is a privilege but it is not a job for the faint hearted, especially in societies that are increasingly driven by hostility to those who are vulnerable and in need. (Featherstone, White & Morris , 2014, p.1)

No experienced practitioner would deny there are times when children must be removed, sometimes permanently, to protect them from dangerous circumstances. However, with skill, time, resources and patience change can be managed and safety secured, even in relatively risky situations. Indeed, the CYP&F Act 1989 was designed to facilitate this approach. This legislation was founded on the principles set out in Puao Te Ata Tu and yet, whilst the innovations associated with the CYP&F Act 1989 have been internationally acclaimed, a full implementation of the principles of Puao Te Ata Tu has never been adequately resourced. In recent times we have invested in the development of assessment frameworks that provide a holistic view of risk and need. And yet, however strengths-based, holistic, and culturally informed such frameworks are, ultimately they are only as useful as what happens next: the resources, time and skills that social workers apply to engaging and intervening with vulnerable families. This is the core business of social work. It always has been. I know this because I did it for twenty years of my working life.

My worst fear is that the changes set in motion by the process of ‘modernising’ Child, Youth and Family will move us further away from this core work towards an even more residual child risk and rescue service targeted primarily at the brown proletariat. Cost effective evidence based programmes will be administered by NGOs to those families willing to become responsible – the deserving poor. Parton (2014) also observes that most policy review and consultation processes are fed by preconceived reform agendas. The current CYF review is a blatant example. Consider for a moment the process of manufactured consent which has taken place: an inclusive Green Paper, a White paper centred on postivist and technological solutions, and now a fundamental service review focused on results, an ‘investment approach’, restructuring, outsourcing and possible legislative change – all under the cloak of ‘modernisation’.

The best way to hasten this particular “New Darkness” is to remain silent. A key message from Paulo Freire is etched in the critical consciousness of all who resist oppression: silence is complicity. Social work is about relations of power. Ask a child protection social worker. It is time for our profession, individually and collectively, to question the process and intent of the current review, to speak out and to act in defence of our values and in the interests of the children and families with whom we work.

Ian Hyslop, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.

(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.)


Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-imagining child protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol: Policy Press.

Parton, N. (2014). Social Work, Child Protection and Politics: Some Critical and Constructive Reflections. British Journal of Social Work, 44(7), 2042-2056. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcu091

5 replies on “Welcome to the nightmare: Social work, child protection and the punishment of the poor”

Thank you Ian for protesting on our behalf. I am in the UK visiting my elderly parents and today is the day after election day. It is a dark day in dark times for the UK and a grim reflection of the neo-liberal agenda and what is to come for social work ‘client’s here. The Tories will now be free to cut a further 12 billion pounds from welfare spending which is mooted to include abolishing maternity benefit and to bar under 25’s from claiming incapacity benefit or housing benefit, limiting welfare benefits by family size, forcing single parent on benefits to seek work when their children reach 3 years (currently 5), and making it harder for sick people to claim state aid by introducing “stricter” fit for work tests. My mother cried this morning when she woke up to the news and quite right believes that all she can now do for the next 5 years of this government is to take more action. It’s been a depressing day.

Twitter full of UK people living on disability and carers benefits who are really fearful about surviving the next five years. Such cruelty and such incomprehensible policy to intensify poverty picking on the most vulnerable.

Thanks for your support Kay. Yes the U.K result a tremendous blow for progressive politics globally. But authoritarian renforcement of the logic of private accumulation and inequality (albeit ideologically disguised as freedom and community empowerment) must inevitably stimulate resistance. It is social workers who see the tragic human consequences of Tory dogma and repression more than any – so fight the good fight we must e hoa – doing what we can where we can – we make the future but not under condtions of our choosing ( i am sure I have heard something like that before somewhere?) Take care.


This post by Ian Hyslop is getting lots of attention in Twitter. Picked up by very sad UK social workers after disastrous election. They are very worried about prospect of more draconian benefit cuts and privatisation of child welfare services. International social work solidarity.

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