Brains, biology, and tests for future ‘burdenhood’ –misguided blind faith in science?

Who hasn’t seen the brains? The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect.  I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.

Who knew that child maltreatment had such severe physical consequences, written on the brain? Who knew? Those of us present – educators of social workers, teachers, early childhood educators – were shocked. Many with missionary zeal went off to change curricula and lecture schedules to fit in material about the brains. There was little consideration of the need to think critically about what we were being shown and the context of the images.

As the next few years unfolded the brains were everywhere. ‘Have you seen the brains?’, people would ask.  As the proselytising progressed the brains became intertwined with policy. Governments, faced with seemingly intractable problems such as the ‘tail’ on educational achievement, youth ‘delinquency ‘ and child abuse, loved the brains. ‘Give us more science ‘,’give us the evidence to support what we want to do’.

Early intervention rolled out into communities, accompanied as always by the brains. ‘Roll up, roll up, see Dr X and his fabulous brains’.  The message was clear- early childhood was everything; intensive, white, middle class normative parenting must be delivered throughout the land. Parenting ‘education’ became big business – there were careers to be made, profiles enhanced, crikey it became possible to be a Professor of Parenting. Who knew? And the evangelising was always accompanied by those amazing brains.

And then, slowly at first there were the first signs of critique. Then an avalanche of carefully researched challenge. More about that later in a future post.

But the brains still hold sway. And just recently we were informed by the news media that criminal careers could be diagnosed at the age of three!  “Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old” screamed the Telegraph headline.  A simple test.  All these children ripe for the testing. The news story reports “The team believe that if all children could be tested it would be possible to work out who were at greatest risk, so that interventions could be made to prevent them slipping into a life where they were a burden on the state”. Not physically and emotionally well, happy and contributing- just not a burden (for a helpful and very readable critique see Macvarish (2016).

And yes there is more- there is big data! Yes, we can test for future child maltreatment and, presumably deviance, using big data as well, but there are significant ethical concerns (Keddell, 2015). But governments say let’s spend money on that.  Quick let’s do something, anything to attack the threat of future liability to the public purse these children pose. Let’s ‘screen and intervene’ becomes a policy imperative (Rose, 2010, pp.96-7) because as Rose explains because “this way of thinking, therefore, is so powerful because it is imbued with hope as well as anxiety”.

Isn’t it marvellous that we can diagnose the future welfare scroungers and criminals with a simple test? Isn’t science fabulous? Who knew?  Biology will save us all. I heard recently that there are still social workers handing around pictures of those brains., presumably to frighten struggling parents.  Perhaps they still adorn the staff room walls in early childhood centres. The brains were a con. The most commonly used image, as pointed out by Healy (2015, p.1499) is devoid of a detailed case history and fails to provide a comparison scale, both of which would be evidence of good academic rigour, and most importantly:

… the technologies themselves provide compelling visual images that are accessible, but also easily misinterpreted, by a range of health professionals, users of services and the general public

Furthermore the ubiquitous reference to the institutional neglect suffered by Romanian orphans, often used as evidence to support the religion of the brains, was extreme and very isolated, and is not in the view of many critics, comparable to cases experienced by child protection workers:

because such deprivation involves much more than just limitations in caregiving, it is no doubt mistaken to equate it completely with – and thus expect exactly the same effects of – the kind of parental neglect typically encountered by child protection workers dealing with troubled families (Belsky & de Haan, 2011, p. 414)

The brains have become a potent symbol of the inexorable drive of conservative governments to seek to shift the blame for social ills onto the victims. To blame poor parents for everything. To responsibilise those with the least resources for the outcomes of their poverty. To assume moral weakness and derelict parenting to explain away the problems of young people, single parents and those struggling with homelessness.

Throwing all this public money, good money after bad, on all these biological dead ends is stupid and cynical. In the 1930s they were looking for a science to fix the ‘problem of the poor’ .The idea persists that a society based on a discipline and punish regimen will fix the poor, the people , most disadvantaged,  often referred to as the underclass (Macnicol, 1987). The concept of the underclass has persisted as a loosely defined collection of people, often seen as outside other class categories (Macnicol, p. 299), who engage in various behaviours considered to be antisocial. Captured in the ‘feral families’ discourse in Aotearoa New Zealand. The need to segment society via moralising labels is highly persistent. Crossley (2015, a, b) writes of the current UK programme ‘troubled families’   Such language is heavily coded with meanings that persist within social and political discourse. These labels make it easy to distance policy-makers from the subjects of their interventions.

And what do we have in Aotearoa New Zealand? Growing numbers of children in care (yet every social worker knows that the state is a very poor parent and can’t deliver love); an enormous prison muster that is disproportionately Maori; persistent and racialised health inequalities, the impact of welfare austerity (Edmiston, 2016) and growing homelessness.  The sad sight of people queuing with their children to get basic food at the foodbank days before Christmas (RadioNZ, 2016).

So the brains, the big data, the tests for future fecklessness and all the emphasis on early intervention haven’t achieved anything much.

We have a callous, cynical and morally bankrupt lot in power. They will spend money on anything to show they ‘care’ as long as it’s not dismantling this regime that dresses up punishment and cruelty as rehabilitation. Read new article Beddoe and Joy (2017) here for more  


Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76.  Read here

Beddoe , L. (2014). Feral families, troubled families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013 New Zealand Sociology 29(3), 51-68.

Belsky, J., & de Haan, M. (2011). Annual research review: Parenting and children’s brain development: The end of the beginning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(4), 409-428.

Crossley, S. (2015a). Realising the (troubled) family’, ‘crafting the neoliberal state’. Families, Relationships and Societies, 5(2), 263-279(doi:

Crossley, S. (2015b, May 25). ‘Feral families’ or a ‘filthy civilization’? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Re-Imaging social work:

Edmiston, D. (2016). ‘How the other half live’: Poor and rich citizenship in austere welfare regimes. Social Policy and Society, 1-11. doi:10.1017/s1474746416000580

Healy, K. (2016). After the biomedical technology revolution: Where to now for a bio-psycho-social approach to social work? British Journal of Social Work, 46(5), 1446-1462.

RadioNZ (2016, 7 December). Christmas Queues.

Telegraph (2016, 12 December). Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old

Welshman, J. (2007). From transmitted deprivation to social exclusion: Policy, poverty and parenting. Bristol: Bristol

Macnicol, J. (1987). In pursuit of the underclass. Journal of Social Policy, 16(03), 293-318. doi:10.1017/S0047279400015920

Macvarish, J.(2016).Viewing children as future criminals: Debunking a new study predicting which kids will become a ‘burden’.  Accessed 23-12-6 at

Image credit: Penn State

5 replies on “Brains, biology, and tests for future ‘burdenhood’ –misguided blind faith in science?”

Thanks Liz for putting it plainly, and highlighting our society’s unfortunate tendency to put blind faith in the voice of the ‘knowers’ and those in the halls of power.
In my work I have seen those brains you write of, and I make a point of not using them in my work with whanau, as I base my practice around the things we can do as adults, as parents, as people, to gain the best results, not avoid the worst.

I have a solution to eliminate the ‘problem’ of the poor. It seems simple to me, however it must be a lot more complex, as our governments have not implemented it as yet: equitable redistribution of resources. Tax those with more, give to those with less. Ensure every resident has the same level of access to the same level of services. Design systems to recognise and respond to each person as an individual – our ‘Corrections’, education, health and social welfare systems (including care and protection) spring to mind.

In short, to recognise that inequalities are caused by society and can be cured by society – those who benefit from existing inequalities have no interest at all in getting rid of it, so it will be up to the rest of us to do something about it.

Here’s the thing – have we examined the brains of the children and young people ‘rescued’ by the State then shuffled around multiple caregivers, contained in residences then left to their own devices once they turn 17?

Where is the evidence that State intervention by way of removal from parental/family/whanau care has, can or will provide ‘stable, loving homes’ in which children and young people can ‘thrive, belong and achieve’ …and fully develop their brains?

Check out the proposed amendments to the current Legislation…. all green light go for early intervention/prevention, more scope for ‘notifying’ children whose ‘wellbeing’ (note the change in the threshold for state intervention) may be in jeopardy, Children’s Teams with a ‘Lead Professional’ (or ‘named person’?) for each child, imposition of an ‘investment approach’ to ensure the ‘best interest’ (i.e. achievement of individual responsibility and capacity to contribute to the national kitty) of the child is achieved. If not, then there is increased capacity for the Court to make care and protection orders… looks like another great NZ ‘social experiment’ in the making. Or is it simply a variation Getting it Right for Every Child?

So many small children and adults seem sad, then scared then angry, and become defensive and fight all as if for survival. Too many in Child Welfare and in prison said to me, “why should I care about anyone, as no-one cared about me”. Some responded to me IF we slowly established a therapeutic relationship, with hope, and I made sense to them. Then, with support and new info, we worked through their sadness, anxiety, and how to want to choose to channel their anger, towards their goals and to “feeling good” . Society gets the children it deserves.

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