Poverty and child protection revisited

The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.

The lineage of contemporary brain-science-informed child rescue can be traced back through Freudian psychology, the eugenics movement for racial purity, and ultimately to the late nineteenth century bourgeois horror at the moral threat posed by the urban poor – the dangerous classes (Ferguson, 2004). Although the scientific rationale has mutated over time, the imperative to break inter-generational cycles of poverty by changing behaviour – re-moralising the poor – has remained the same. This thinking underpins statutory social work.

The key problem with this discourse is, of course, that a focus on the way in which impoverished parents reproduce suffering for their children conceals the fact that poverty (for some) is an inevitable function of (arguably a requirement for) the capitalist social form. Foucault (Chambon, 1999) suggests the following:

So instead of saying, ‘There is the working class and the marginal’, we would say, ‘within the overall lower class, there is a divide between those who work and those groups who are not part of the system of production’. The institution of police, the legal system, and the penal system are one of the means to deepen this partition, which is needed by capitalism (pp. 94-5).

We only need to look at the consequences of thirty years of neoliberal economics to recognise this inconvenient reality. We live in a very rich country. Poverty is simply a result of how our economic system is structured; how wealth is distributed. However, for the most part, the veils and blinkers remain very much in place. We are seeing something of a renaissance of Victorian charitable philanthropy for example. If only we could find the causes of poverty!

The knot that I would like to begin to un-pick concerns the relationship between poverty and child protection social work. There is general agreement (at least among people who know anything much about it) that child protection is tricky work. It is not a paint by numbers game. Causal relationships in the social world are complex rather than simple and linear. The relationships between poverty and parenting – and between poverty and child maltreatment – are nuanced. There is some evidence, for instance, that higher rates of child protection notification and higher tariff outcomes are connected with increased professional surveillance of families in economically deprived neighbourhoods.

Recent research work in England (Bywaters et. al., 2017), for example, identifies an inverse intervention law, whereby poorer localities within relatively affluent areas are likely to experience more intrusive child protection responses than those applied in areas of general impoverishment. There is also the fact that relatively poor localities in unequal societies are linked with social problems generally – violence, crime, employment, drugs, housing (Parton, 2014). Why would child maltreatment be any different? In the Aotearoa New Zealand context this picture is further complicated by racial inequality. For Māori there are intersections between the history of colonisation, urbanisation and institutional racism. There is also an intertwined relationship between this history and the relative economic status of Māori (DSW, 1988 – Pūao-te-Āta-tū).

So, what might all this mean for the practice of child protection? We now have a Prime Minister with a stated commitment to addressing the scourge of child poverty, do we not? It is hoped that related policy initiatives will reduce inequality and income poverty but this is a policy process that is distinct from child protection social work, isn’t it? I don’t think it is as simple as that and I do think it is about time we came to grips with this in practice. First we need to untangle our assumptions.

We know that child protection decisions need to be focused on child safety. We also know that there is a relationship between poverty and child maltreatment. However we tend to treat these two situations as distinct and separable. Poverty belongs to the realm of economic and social policy. Child protection belongs to state social work. The current orthodoxy seems to go something like this. Child protection is about protecting children from harm. Children are frequently harmed by those responsible for their care. Some children are at higher risk than others. In large part decisions must be informed by a cautious assessment of danger.

This approach leaves little apparent room for an understanding of how the experience of poverty influences the parenting of children; except perhaps as a risk factor in its own right. We hear a lot about the utility of conceptual frameworks for child protection – evidence-informed or trauma-informed understandings about the causes and consequences of child abuse. What might a poverty-informed child protection framework look like?

Here are some beginning ideas. We know that economic inequality is not only racialized, but also gendered: women, mostly brown women, parenting in poverty. We know that the strain of prolonged economic scarcity and hardship necessitates struggle and resistance (Gupta, 2017; Krumer-Nevo, 2017). We know that poverty damages health and well-being and that it massively restricts choice – food, clothing, transport, housing, travel, rest and recreation. We also know – or should know – that differing experiential realities generate differing narratives, differing wisdoms, survival strategies and resiliencies. Economically disadvantaged people are no less human, no less emotional and no less rational than the bourgeoisie. They may need some help, but they are not in need of treatment – parenting courses will not cure poverty in this generation or the next or in any generation to come.

This does not mean that non-intervention is always justified or that the children of the poor will always be safe. Child protection is challenging work. However, it does mean that social workers need to see the big picture in their micro practice and recognise the lived realities of whānau: listen, learn and treat people with respect. This is not unprofessional or unsafe – it is the essence of informed relational engagement which is, in turn, the essence of quality child protection practice. As I have said before in this blog-space, call me old fashioned if you like but child and family social work is a thinking person’s game.

Image credit: Travis


Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Daniel, B., Featherstone, B., Jones, C., . . . Webb, C. (2017). Inequalities in English child protection practice under austerity: A universal challenge? Child & Family Social Work, doi:10.1111/cfs.12383

Chambon, A. (1999). Foucault’s approach: Making the familiar visible. In A. Chambon, A. Irving, & L. Epstein (Eds.), Reading Foucault for social work (pp. 51–83). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Davidson, G., Bunting, L., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., & McCartan, C. (2017). Child welfare as justice: Why we are not addressing inequalities. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1641- 1651.

Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gillies, Edwards, & Horsley (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Chicago, IL: Policy Press.

Gupta, A., Blumhardt, H., & ADT Fourth World (2017). Poverty, exclusion and child protection practice: the contribution of the politics of recognition and respect. European Journal of Social Work. 2017. 1-3.

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wrestling the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of Social Work, 20 (6), 811-822.

Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse and Neglect, 41, 30 – 39.

Department of Social Welfare. (1988). Pūao-te-Āta-tū (Daybreak) Report of a Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington.

7 replies on “Poverty and child protection revisited”

Great article
I do hope there will be a change in mind sets,especially on group programs. And in particular Parenting Programs. This has come to the fore because of the numbers game for NGOs. They are not effective, never have been, and no way can they be evaluated to make a difference for whanau.
Fa’afetai lava

Hi Toalepai

I wouldn’t say that parenting courses have no place but agree we do need to stop seeing them as a fix-all and be a bit more realistic about what they can achieve. We also need to talk about how child and family social workers / community services can really get alongside parents who are struggling against the odds. This doesn’t mean that we don’t look after the interests of children – it isn’t either / or – but fixing systems will make more difference than seeing everything through a lens of trauma and risk. Preventing poverty by treating the poor is a myth. I reckon this all part of re-imagining how social work can challenge the causes as well as the consequences of inequality. The change of Government gives us more space for this very important conversation and the point of this blog – really – it to encourage people to be part of a process of change to both policy and practice vision. What are we doing / what could we do?

Hi – Well said! Just cruising through the comments section looking at Ian’s post.
Re – “I reckon this all part of re-imagining how social work can challenge the causes as well as the consequences of inequality…. What are we doing / what could we do?”
Most public discussion/media releases about “what we are doing/ or could do / about “poverty” is positioned outside of the discussions about child welfare, ensuring that any introduction of the subject about “what we are doing etc” remains firmly “off topic.”and can be called out as such by anyone feeling a pinch of discomfort in their conscience. To that end I’m posting this link for readers to enjoy.
“Financial services for the poor and credit-challenged are big business”. by HOWARD KARGER
Thoughts on use of information and references originating from overseas….
When researching controversial subjects, much more original detailed information is available on subjects which invite controversy in NZ from other western states and countries -eg US, Canada, Uk, Germany, etc than there is applying to NZ local issues.
This makes it easy for Nzers who want to quash discussion to play the “irrelevancy” card. I have lost count of the times when I have attempted to state a point of view only to be shouted down in this way.
Poverty and how governments approach the issue is a world wide discussion. Often when people point out NZ poverty issues, critique surfaces which attempts to claim that “poverty does not exist in NZ” using third world poverty to justify their point of view. This would include many people who volunteer as corporate charity collectors. I have yet to hear anyone successfully argue that “two wrongs make a right” … or that suddenly this variety of argument can be used to both justify denial and petulantly) dispute relevancy with blatantly lame arguments .

Thanks for the contribution Jayne – Yes, Aotearoa New Zealand is a unique setting but we are also enmeshed within a global picture we can’t ignore. We live in unstable times – the neoliberal illusion is imploding. There are new risks posed by right wing populism and there is also a new energy within the political left. This means new opportunities for engaged social workers to re-think (and re-act) our roles, identities and allegiances.

Great discovering Ian.

I won’t comment on the lot but will like to take the opportunity to speak to a couple of key points you make towards the end of your article. They were the notion that “informed relational engagement” takes place and that child protection is a “thinking person’s game”. I couldn’t agree more with these words. Unfortunately we don’t have a work force in Oranga Tamariki that are 1) allowed to do relationships and 2) think. We therefore have a huge issue. I probably need to correct myself, it’s not so much the work force but the broken system within which they work. We have had a name change folks but I haven’t seen anything yet to inform me that this system is about to change. You can’t ‘think’ when you have 30-40 complex families on your books. You can’t ‘think’ when you have random catch ups with your supervisor who gives you 20 min a week (if you’re lucky) and in that time they take a couple of crisis phone calls and you struggle with them, as they are a bully who has little respect in the office. This is a scenario that is common and in line with what I have been experiencing for over 15 yrs within OT (I work in NGO). I know this because I do do relationships and I think and until the culture can change, so that the S/W’s within OT can be heard, I’m afraid for the profession. OT are still recruiting new grads to this challenging work: that’s ok but you have to guide and nurture these people and that takes time (minimum of 1 hour a week) and skill, and how many OT supervisors have professional quals in supervision? I don’t like to point out the deficits and can see the solutions so clearly, however up till this point, no one seems to want to listen. Please, I hold hope that this new CEO of OT can deliver change but she will need to hear the voice of her workforce and I hope that they can think long enough to do this – their silence is deafening me.

Thank you for the opportunity to think and act.

Great comments Phil. I to have the same views about the internal system of OT.
The 2 points especially: 1) Unqualified supervisors- and new graduates on multi complex cases
2) Overload of front line – gives little time for reflective practice

I am also in the NGO sector + hope we will be heard.

Cheers Phil – thanks for sharing your important thoughts. Yes supervision / reasonable work loads / time to engage families and kids / capacity that resources unmet needs / support to make difficult decisions – none of it rocket science …and yep the silence is deafening. State social workers seem to feel signed up to a code of silence – there are opportunities in the new regime, but better practice can’t all be developed and imposed from above.

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