Academic journal article Human Organization

Notifying Neglect: Child Protection as an Application of Bureaucratic Power against Marginalized Parents

Academic journal article Human Organization

Notifying Neglect: Child Protection as an Application of Bureaucratic Power against Marginalized Parents

Article excerpt

The research on which this contribution is based draws upon a systematic analysis of a national sample of permanent custody deprivation cases in Iceland. The problematic that we are investigating exists at the focal point of notifications of neglect and the systematic applications of organizational power exercised against marginalized parents, here parents with disabilities in specific. Permanent custody deprivation is a serious application of bureaucratic and legal power. This is compounded in the case of parents who are already subjected to intersecting forms of disempowerment, in conjunction with the nebulous concept of "neglect" as it exists in practice and the problematic ways in which notifications of neglect are made and acted upon. The notifications initiate the process, but they also inform the resultant investigation and serve as part of the justification for custody deprivation presented to the courts. Analyzed from the perspective of the anthropology of bureaucracy, we explore the institutional logic and the sociocultural biases that can result, we contend, in unjust custody deprivation decisions. The disproportionate rate at which parents with disabilities (particularly those with intellectual or developmental disabilities) are subjected to child protection investigations and court-ordered custody deprivation orders is well documented in the international literature (e.g., Aunos, Goupil, and Feldman 2003; Booth and Booth 1994; Callow, Tahir, and Feldman 2017; McConnell and Llewellyn 2000; National Council on Disability 2012). What is less explored are the complex systematic mechanisms through which cases are brought to the attention of authorities, how they are investigated, and how the evidence needed to support custody deprivation is produced. The primary focus of this article is on the notifications as they initiate the process, but some evidence will be presented toward the conclusion to argue that critical attention also needs to be paid to how notifications inform the investigative and adjudicative stages of custody deprivation.

The larger project that provides the data for this article is the multi-year study, Family Life and Disability (20142017), which systematically analyzed a national sample of publicly accessible permanent custody deprivation orders in Iceland. There is no question that abuse and various forms of child neglect do occur, and that, as a result, a child protection system is required. However, we view local child protection committees in a similar manner to what Heyman (2004) has called "power-wielding bureaucracies." The actions of these organizations have numerous implications for individuals and groups as the result of their activities, deploying complex forms of "coercive, material, and ideological power' (Heyman 2004:489) that need to be investigated and critiqued to ensure that custody deprivation orders are a decision of last resort and that the process is rigorous, just, and truly in the best interests of the child.

We emphasize the notifications which initiate child protection investigations and which may ultimately lead to the demand for custody deprivation being made by a municipal child protection committee. The national government agency for child protection in Iceland (Barnaverndarstofa) has issued a detailed handbook for the local level child protection committees concerning notifications (Barnaverndarstofa 2015). The notifications are generally treated by the municipal level child protection (CP) committees as necessary tools and as objective indicators of neglect, or the risk of neglect, of children. However, we contend that the disability status of the parent(s) plays a role in how notifications are interpreted and whether or not they are acted upon. Furthermore, in practice, the concept of "neglect," which forms a significant proportion of the notifications that are made to municipal child protection committees, in our data appears as rather ill-defined. This stands in contrast to the national child protection agency, which issued guidelines on the matter (Freysteinsdóttir 2012). …

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