Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Social Inequality, 'The Deviant Parent' and Child Protection Practice

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Social Inequality, 'The Deviant Parent' and Child Protection Practice

Article excerpt


There is sound empirical evidence for the relationship between relative poverty and social isolation and children being 'at risk' of abuse and neglect (see Jack 2000). Building on this evidence, theories about child maltreatment take into account the ecology of the child's environment, their immediate family, support networks and the social cohesion of the community. Child protection practice however is more likely to be focused on policing 'the deviant parent' than addressing social disadvantage. There is a readiness to see the parent as the problem and to attribute child maltreatment to innate parental deficiencies (King and Trowell 1992, Lindsey 1994, McConnell et al. 2000). The obvious response is to reform the parent or remove the child. Child protection workers are less likely to consider changing the parents' circumstances or their family environment.

Our purpose in this paper is to reinvigorate an old debate at a time when an increasing proportion of state revenue is being invested to expand the state's capacity to 'protect children'. We begin with an overview of the literature to reveal the 'parent as problem' framework that underpins child protection practice. Taking a critical-historical perspective, we suggest that this framework emerged and maintains its legitimacy in child protection practice through the de-politicisation of social inequality. Five historical developments are discussed.

The 'parent as problem' framework

The cruel and uncaring parent mythologised in the media is rarely encountered in child protection practice (Buckley 1999, Clarke 1993, Patton 1995, Pelton 1989, Thorpe 1994). Most cases do not feature battered babies and evidence of wilful maltreatment, if present, is rarely clear and compelling. The body of evidence suggests that child protection cases typically involve children and families marginalised by poverty, social isolation, addiction, disability and/or minority status (Fernandez 1996, Gough et al. 1989, Lindsey 1994, McConnell et al. 2000, Morton 1999, Parton 1995, Pelton 1989, Thorpe 1994). These families often lack the material and social means to offset the impact of situational or personal problems, which, in turn, are often precipitated by adversity and deprivation (Belsky 1993, Garbarino 1977, Jack 1997, Jamrozik and Sweeney 1996, Pelton 1982 and 1997).

A study of care matters before the New South Wales (NSW) Children's Court revealed a significant over-representation of marginalised families. McConnell et al. (2000) reviewed the court files for 285 consecutive cases brought by the statutory child protection authority, the NSW Department of Community Services. Parents with disabilities featured in almost one-third (29.5%) of cases. Families of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and families of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds comprised 11% and 14.4% of cases respectively. Almost 40% of cases involved single mothers. Approximately 70% of the families lived in areas with Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (Australian Bureau of Statististics 1998) scores below 1015, which is the median for NSW. This finding suggests a level of impoverishment well below NSW and Australian norms.

Despite the consistent finding of social disadvantage among families subject to child removal, social and environmental stressors play only a minor role in workers' understanding of causation (McGillivray 1992). Across countries and jurisdictions researchers have noted that workers tend to attribute perceived difficulties to parental pathology/dysfunction or incompetence (Farmer and Owen 1998, Fernandez 1996, Kadushin and Martin 1988, Pelton 1982, Thorpe 1994). As Clarke (1993) observed, poverty, isolation and other deprivations are increasingly being conceptualised as risk factors with predictive potential rather than being understood as factors that explain, at least in part, the child maltreatment phenomenon. …

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