Academic journal article Child Welfare

My Cheque and My Children: The Long Road to Empowerment in Child Welfare

Academic journal article Child Welfare

My Cheque and My Children: The Long Road to Empowerment in Child Welfare

Article excerpt

One thing I never knew--that there was a difference between a financial worker and a social worker. I thought they were both the same thing. I didn't know that when I went into the welfare office there was another office next door, with social workers. I thought the financial worker could cancel my cheque and take my children if I wasn't careful. [Single-parent mother, quoted in Callahan et al. 1994]

It is a lot more intimidating to do a sexual abuse investigation in a rich neighbourhood than in a poor one. It is a whole different ball game. In a rich neighbourhood, there are educated, sophisticated people who can talk their way around you. It's not just getting in the door, it's in court where these people have high-powered lawyers and you cannot make a mistake. Whereas with poorer families, whatever you do, you cannot lose. It is sad, but true. They are intimidated by us; they don't have the skills, the resources, the lawyers ... it's like a kangaroo court. We end up advocating for our clients while at the same time trying to take away their children. One client thanked the worker after she lost her child in court even though she had opposed the application. A person from a rich neighbourhood would never do that. [Child welfare worker, quoted in Callahan et al. 1994]

In the first quotation, the mother does not know about the qualifications or responsibilities of the person across the desk. She has heard from others, including the media, about the powers of social workers. She knows enough to keep her head down throughout their transactions--whether about her financial situation or her family--to speak when questioned, volunteer nothing, and hope for the best. The child welfare worker, however, far from feeling powerful, acknowledges her own lack of power. She knows that she is only able to practice child welfare, as it is currently constructed, on poor clients and that she must rely upon their ongoing intimidation to do her job.

This article examines the gulf between child welfare workers, usually women,* and their clients, who more often than not are impoverished female single parents. It raises questions about the structure of child welfare, which relies upon the existence of this chasm. It proposes approaches for both workers and mothers to understand and confront their different but linked subjugation. These approaches are based upon research projects carried out by the authors in a public child welfare agency [Callahan & Attridge 1990; Callahan et al. 1994].

Although the concept of empowerment is the underpinning of this article, we have been reluctant to use the term because "it is found everywhere in social work and is in danger of losing all meaning" [Lee 1991: 5]. Thus, we begin with a discussion of different perspectives on empowerment and the particular meaning given to the term in this article. Empowerment, employed as a verb to describe what social workers do to and with their clients, encompasses a full range of theories and practices [Hegar & Hunzeker 1988: 499]. For many, "the language of empowerment trips too easily off the tongue and is too easily used as a synonym for 'enabling'" [Mullender & Ward 1991: 3]. Some view the term as just another way to enhance professional expertise and thereby the power of the worker who somehow knows how to empower hapless clients. Thus, it "reinforces the cult of the expert rather than promotes autonomy," fortifying the hierarchical order that empowerment practice ostensibly sets out to subvert [Preston-Shoot 1992: 20]. Moreover, it is used to justify "propositions which ... represent varying ideological and political positions" Mullender & Ward 1991: 1]. Those on the political right praise empowerment because it minimizes government services and helps people stand on their own two feet. Those on the left use empowerment to signal attempts to organize the disadvantaged and help them move from the margins of society.

For us, a useful beginning definition of the term comes from B. …

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