Redesign or downloading of services? A critical examination of a restructuroing program for foster care in New Brunswick.
Les meres de familles d'accueil d'enfants presentant des problemes de plus en plus complexes, elevent ces enfants benevolement ou bien son mal remunerees. Elles ont exprime leur mecontentement face a leurs conditions de "travail". Le Nouveau-Brunswick tente de repondre a ces problemes en reconceptualisant le service de familles d'accueil. Mais comment ceci affecte-t-il les meres? Meme si certains des changements proposes s'averent etre progressifs, la restructuration risque tout simplement de transferer les services aux travailleuses touchant un moindre salaire.
Foster care services have undergone dramatic changes in the last 20 years: children who enter care are older and exhibit more serious problems than before and fewer families are willing to foster (Report of the Task Force on Foster Home Services, 1990; Foster Care as a Residential Family Resource, 1990). In 1986 more than 900 families provided foster care in New Brunswick, but this number dwindled to less than 700 families in 1994 (Report of the Task Force on Foster Home Services, 1990, p. 17). In other provinces foster care services are also in turmoil. In 1988 foster mothers(1) in several Ontario Children's Aid Societies threatened to go on strike to protest their "working conditions." They complained that they were a cheap "dumping ground for society's problem children" (Kendrick, 1990, p. 4). They demanded more financial compensation and more support for their services.
Because of the increasingly greater needs of the children who enter care, and the subsequent higher demands on the skills of the decreasing pool of foster mothers, a discussion concerning the "professionalization" of foster care is taking place. In Ontario, among child welfare administrators, this discussion centres around two main issues: increased levels of training for foster mothers and greater compensation for their services. Increased financial compensation to foster mothers is not motivated by altruism but more by necessity. Foster care must compete with other types of caring work that is better paying for the women involved, "[I]n light of increasing competition for the services of potential foster parents from other services that can be carried out in the home but do not carry the same 24-hour-a-day stresses, such as supervised private-home day care" (Foster Care, p. 24). According to the same report, foster mothers also need "a more extensive repertoire of skills than in the past" because of the increased levels of problems foster children bring with them when entering care (Foster Care, p. 20).
In New Brunswick, the sense of "crisis" is situated in different locations for the various players in the foster care system. For the child welfare agency, in New Brunswick the provincial government, the "crisis" in foster care is mostly located in its inability to attract enough foster mothers with whom to place apprehended children, especially as many of these children are displaying more severe problems than ever before. From the perspective of the foster mother, the crisis is located around her kitchen table. These women have to cope with children with severe behavioural, and sometimes substance abuse, problems (Foster Care, 1990). For the foster children, the "crisis" may result in inappropriate placements that can cause them more damage or may set them adrift in the system.
To forestall foster mothers from closing their doors "prematurely," to avert an "over-reliance on more costly and sometimes less effective alternatives, such as group homes," and to keep abreast with national trends (professionalization), a complete overhaul of foster care services in New Brunswick was proposed in the report Redesign of Foster Home Services in the Province of New Brunswick (1992). Although the pretext for the overhaul may have been the needs of foster families and the needs of foster children, reducing cost was also an obvious motivator. In the past 10 years, spending reduction has been a high priority for the New Brunswick government. For example, all institutional care facilities for children have been closed down; if children cannot be cared for at home, foster care is the only alternative. In addition, the proposed changes are also in keeping with the shifting of social spending to the private sphere: private companies are building new schools, prisons and highways in the province.
In this paper I will examine the foster care services' redesign and its impact on foster mothers. Based on 20 interviews with foster mothers across New Brunswick as part of a larger study, I will discuss foster mothers' views on some of the changes in the redesign of foster care service. The overall goal is to attempt to assess whether the redesign of foster care services is a genuine attempt to accommodate foster mothers' concerns and improve the services for foster children or is merely a redesign intended to download services to lesser paid workers.
The development of child welfare services in New Brunswick exemplifies Meyer's (1977) and Donzelot's (1979) notion that the professionalization of medical and social practitioners has fueled state intervention in the family. Frequently the families in "need" of intervention were poor and their life style closely scrutinized. For example, one family was described as having an "intemperate father and a mentally weak mother. "The "mother ... was out until a late hour, and the father was home drunk" (Young, 1964, p. 5). Over the years the cooperation between private Children's Aid Societies and the Provincial government grew stronger. By the 1960s in New Brunswick, all Children's Aid Societies had become provincial government departments. Children from "irregular" families became the responsibility of the state rather than the local community. The state used mainly foster mothers to care for these children. In March 1992, 1,189 children were in the care of the Minister of Health and Community Services for a variety of abuses ranging from physical, sexual and emotional abuse to neglect (Child WelFare in Canada, 1994). In New Brunswick more than half of the children in care of the Department of Health and Community Services now live in foster homes.(2)
In New Brunswick foster care has always been a voluntary job with some reimbursement for cost. Foster mothers receive room and board rates based on the child's age. The current rates are approximately $7 a day for a child 5 years or younger, and $10 per day per child for children between 12 and 18 years of age. For the care of a child with disabilities or special needs, the foster family receives a supplementary fee of $8.65 per day per child. A seasonal allowance, ranging from $127.52 to $271.34 depending on the age of the child, is automatically received. When a child enters care, a basic clothing allowance ranging from $190 to $310 can be paid to the foster parents/mothers. The monthly federal Family Allowance ($85) is intended for routine expenditures for the child, such as hobbies, allowance, etc. Furthermore, the Department of Health and Community Services will pay the actual cost, with prior approval, for such items as health care and day care services, recreation equipment and activities, counseling, uniforms, tutoring, graduation expenses, home-maker services, school outings and camping trips. The Department of Health and Community Services considers the actual labour of the foster mothers to be provided on a volunteer basis.
This paper is based on research that was undertaken during 1994 and 1995. A survey was sent to all 650 foster mothers in New Brunswick (one survey per foster family). Of the returned surveys (47 percent response rate), 93 percent, were completed by women. This is not a surprise, because the notion of foster care is very much premised on the ideology that mothers are the best care givers for a child. (It is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze the concept of mothering in relation to foster care.) The intent of the larger study was to examine how relationships between the care giver, the foster child, the state and the care giver's own family members are constructed. The biographical information collected in the survey reveals that almost half of the foster mothers had finished high school (47.6 percent), while nearly a quarter (23 percent) had some post secondary education, ranging from community college to a university degree. The majority (55 percent) of the foster mothers were full-time stay-at-home mothers, a further 20 percent worked full-time, and 20 percent worked part-time outside the home.(3) The profile of foster mothers departs somewhat from the average New Brunswick female work force participation. In 1994, 52 percent of women in New Brunswick participated in the labour force on a full- or part-time basis (Report Card On the Status of Women In New Brunswick, 1996). Those foster mothers working for pay tended to be involved in jobs that mirrored women's work in the home: e.g., cooking, baking, personal care. By contrast, the vast majority of their male spouses had obtained full-time employment or were seasonal workers. A small proportion of the male spouses did not have employment outside the home.
Almost 90 percent of the foster mothers were married, with the remaining foster mothers being single, widowed, divorced, separated or living in common-law relationships. The average age of foster mothers was 43 years. Most of them still had some or all of their own children living at home. In general, foster mothers' own children were teenagers with an average age of 19 years. Foster mothers and their families lived predominantly in rural areas (81 percent) and the vast majority (88.9 percent) reported involvement in religion, ranging from Roman Catholicism to being a member of a Pentecostal Church.
Finally, fostering was a long term commitment for many foster mothers. The women who responded to the survey had been fostering for 7 years on average. They had cared for an average of 13 foster children during their individual fostering careers. Foster mothers in New Brunswick, once they get involved, do not abandon fostering easily.
The government's redesign of foster care services in New Brunswick is rooted in its "response to the crisis in fostering and the pressure foster families were experiencing in accepting and attempting to work effectively with older and problematic children in care" (Redesign of Foster Home Services in New Brunswick (1992, p. 7). A Task Force on Foster Home Services was created and had foster parents and staff from the New Brunswick Provincial Department of Health and Community Service as members.
Within a redesigned program, foster care would consist of four distinct levels, with promotion to each level occurring only when the foster family has completed the mandatory training. Financial rewards, ranging up to $800 per month per child, would be offered as an incentive to advance through the various levels.
On a more theoretical level, there were demands for the reconceptualization of foster care services. In fact, there was a strong move to make biological parents an integral part of foster care services with the foster family at the center. Some studies indicate that foster mothers' involvement with the biological parents is a positive step. An Australian program named The Shared Care Program has aimed to "confront the negative stereotype of the biological parent and the exploitation of the foster mother, and to explore the benefits of women working together" (Smith, 1991). The program encourages the foster mother to welcome and support the biological mother as much as possible so as to avoid their pitting themselves "against each other as `good' or `bad' mothers" (Smith, 1991, p. 176). Instead, the biological mother is perceived to be in need of a break from parenting responsibilities and also in need of training in parenting skills.
Building on the same notion of foster mothers' involvement with the biological parents is Kathleen Kufledt's (1991, 1994) reconceptualization of foster care services as "inclusive care." Inclusive care places emphasis on educating and/or helping the biological parents to cope with their children. Kufeldt argues that in order for inclusive care to be competent and productive,
... there needs to be a shift to a different paradigm: rather than conceptualizing the interventions as placement of the child in a substitute family, we need to reconceptualize in terms of a new and enlarged role-set consisting of child, both families [biological and foster], and a social worker. (Kufeldt, 1994, p. 85)
In other words, Kufeldt calls for a "paradigm shift" to include the biological parents in the foster care givers' daily activities and to see foster families as other than substitute care givers so as to avoid creating "good" versus dysfunctional families.
The Redesign of Foster Care incorporated three critical issues: the acceptance of "inclusive care"; improved financial compensation; and improved training and support for foster mothers. In order to address these issues, a new classification system and new training and support initiatives were created to allow foster mothers to be promoted to different levels of care and responsibilities. In short, an attempt was made to professionalize foster care services as provided by foster mothers. Although foster mothers were very interested in restructuring foster care services, upon analysis of the redesign report and comparing it against the interview responses, some important incongruities between the needs of the foster mothers and the wants of the state emerged.
For foster mothers to be promoted to the proposed level 4, the highest level of foster care service, they would have to undergo extensive training and adhere to twelve outlined criteria. The criteria reflect the increased level of training needed in order for foster mothers to work with severely traumatized children. However, these criteria also reflect a very different direction from the traditional service delivery approach; they reflect the acceptance of inclusive care. The danger of the acceptance of this new model, in a time of fiscal restraint or worse, downsizing, of provincial social services, is that a progressive concept is easily transformed into an exercise of downloading of services to lesser paid workers.
For example, the report on the redesign of foster care services does not discuss in any way the role of social workers and the province in the implementation of "inclusive care." No new resources have been demanded by the authors of the redesign to implement the new directions in foster care properly. The most important incongruity lies between the new directions of the redesign of foster care services and the attitudes of foster mothers. During the interviews, the foster mothers made it clear that they were very ambivalent, and in some cases even hostile, toward contact with the biological parents of the foster child they care for.
Traditionally the contacts between foster mothers and the foster child's biological parents are channeled through the child's social worker. In many cases, the foster mothers never meet the foster child's biological family. Criteria 7 and 8 in the redesign state that foster mothers are expected to accept "natural parents who are aggressive, hostile, negativistic in their relations with, or rejecting of the child" (Redesign of Foster Home Services in New Brunswick, Appendix 1, 1992). Furthermore, the foster mother would have to:
[Coach the] natural family through: demonstrating parenting skills; encourage natural parents to assume more parenting responsibility as they are ready for it.
[Activities such as] shopping with the child, making appointments, contacting the child's school ... may be carried out jointly until the natural parents gain enough confidence; encourage post-discharge contact (Redesign, Appendix 1).
These criteria are a dramatic departure from the previous foster care responsibilities of foster mothers. Furthermore, an additional criterion states that a foster mother must also be willing and able, "to teach or coach less experienced foster parents" (Redesign, Appendix 1).
The proposed redesign would therefore increase the foster mothers' work load dramatically. The foster mother would now be expected to deal with a child with severe behavioural problems, be expected to teach severely dysfunctional families how to care for children and be expected to teach less experienced foster mothers how to be better foster parents. Her monthly fee would be (with a maximum of 2 children) $800 per child -- the fee "to compensate the foster parents for their time, skill and effort" (Redesign, 1992, p. 30). Initially, when this redesign is implemented, the workload of the social workers may increase because they will have to teach the foster mother these new skills; however, their contacts with the families of the foster children will decrease dramatically, thus eventually fewer social workers will be needed.
To involve foster mothers more in the rehabilitation of dysfunctional families is not empirically grounded and therefore suspect in its intentions. Of the 20 foster mothers interviewed, only one foster mother had extensive contacts with the biological family of the foster children. The other 19 foster mothers preferred not to have any contact at all.
Nevertheless, many foster mothers recognized that if the re-unification of a family is going to have any chance of being successful, the foster children need contact with their parents and/or family. Despite this belief, the foster mothers were very skeptical about re-unification, particularly when the foster child's family was not offered any assistance to solve their original problems (as is often the case in the current construct of foster care services). As one foster mother explained, "I was trying to explain to social services that, how can you fix a problem just by removing the children and putting the children back six months later without those parents having been helped?" She went on to argue that, "Natural parents definitely have to be in the picture more so than anything. The only thing that I do say is: This is my safe haven [home], this is the child's safe haven. No parents will ever enter whether it be with good will or bad will!" Few foster mothers seemed to enjoy having contact with the foster children's parents. They endured because they felt that they had no choice. The court and/or the social worker ordered the visits.
There were a number of reasons why foster mothers did not like contact with the foster child's family. Sometimes the foster mothers felt unsafe when they had to interact with a parent who was perceived to be violent. However, in many cases the foster mothers did not like contact with the foster child's parents because they felt strongly that their role was to protect the foster child. They seemed to feel that they had failed the child when they had contact with the foster child's family. The reasons for these sentiments were rooted in their experience that many foster children were distressed when they returned from a visit with their families. The feelings of distress could have been the result of frustration with the biological families or the anxiety of having to leave their families after a visit. Nevertheless, the outcome was that, for a couple of days after the visit, the foster children were often difficult to handle. Above all, the children were sad, depressed or angry. As a result, foster mothers sometimes saw the foster child's parents as the "bad" people. On the other hand, foster mothers sensed that sometimes the foster child's parents envisioned the foster parents as the "enemy," someone who had taken their child away. At best, the relationship between the foster mothers and the foster child's parents was uncomfortable, emotional and rocky; at worst, it was down right hostile. Only one foster mother enjoyed having contact with the foster children's mothers, although the foster mother required strict rules of conduct for the contact. She explained:
There are some I could not get in contact with. We always have some discussions along the way. I do not have any problem with that. Some parents stay with us over the weekend or Christmas. That is after [we have had] the children for a year.
This foster mother was very much the exception. Although she allowed biological parents in her house, it was not until she had cared for a foster child for more than a year (many foster children stay only 6 months in a foster's home before they are moved). In most cases, the contacts were merely tolerated for the sake of the foster child. Some foster mothers were upset when they were required to have contact with the foster child's parents, particularly when the parents had abused that child. One foster mother explained her feelings and actions:
The only time it bothers me is when I know that there was abuse. It bothers me, especially if that child is going to be transported back. I mean that's horror to me and in my opinion, I don't think enough is done before they are put back. Really, that is the only scary thing. We have one daughter that we have adopted. She was going to be placed back and I knew that when she came. It was just horrible, a horrible thought and we got involved with adoption and we did finally adopt her and she is still with us. She was mentally handicapped and there was a lot of abuse that was never even mentioned and it was horrifying, I don't even like to talk about it.
Another foster mother felt that the natural parents had lost their right to parent their own children. She stated:
... under certain circumstances, yes, I would go along with it.... Like, if it is a newly divorced mom say and she can't handle it and needs time to get a job, to get training to get on her feet, no problem. But these people that have lost their right to parent.... They lost that right, they proved themselves unfit. I don't want any contact with them; it will only make my job worse because the child is not going to respect me and listen to my rules if they can keep going back to the natural parents. It won't work.
Many foster mothers experienced an increased work load after the foster children had been visiting their biological parents. The foster mothers felt that in many cases they had to spend a lot of time "picking up the pieces." As one foster mother explained:
We are here for the children, not for the parents. I feel that it is not my problem but the social worker's or something like that. I am here for the children.
Other foster mothers did not like the foster child's parents to come and visit them at their homes. Some foster mothers felt apprehension and fear knowing that the foster child's parents knew where they lived. One foster mother in particular feared for her foster daughter's safety. She explained:
... our daughter's father unfortunately knows where I live.... He is not to come within so many feet of her and not to try anything because he knows that he is going to be in the wrong and if he does he will be handled.... It makes me feel a little unsafe at times knowing that maybe if she drives up and down the road on her bike what could happen.
Many foster mothers rejected the forced role of mediating between the foster child and his/her parents. They felt that the foster child's parents were the responsibility of the Department of Health and Community Services. The foster mothers who did have contact with the foster child's parents were often frustrated. One foster mother complained that she had to have contact with the foster child's mother, but said, "No, I would rather that there wasn't any contact. It really again depends on circumstances because some natural parents can be very violent."
In the current construction of foster care, the foster mothers, by and large, would like to have as little contact with the foster child's parents and family as possible. This contact often was not satisfactory because the expectations on each side were dissimilar. Foster mothers felt that the foster child's parents should "shape up" and do their best, and become good parents, even though they recognized that there is little support for the foster child's parents in the system to help them. Moreover, some foster mothers felt that their safety, the safety of their family and the safety of the foster child were put at risk when the foster child's parents knew too much about them.
The relationship between foster mothers and the biological parents is seen to be very problematic even though that relationship is in most cases limited. Foster mothers expressed a deep hesitation towards involvement with the foster child's family. They felt that they were advocates solely for the mistreated child, not for the mistreating parents. It was extremely difficult for the foster mothers not to see the natural mother or parents as the failed parents who caused much pain and grief to the foster child. The foster mothers believe their role is to help the foster child and that the social workers are responsible for helping the foster child's natural family.
Redesign or Downloading?
There is no doubt that the restructuring of foster care in New Brunswick, based on the notion of "inclusive care," would be able to improve the services for the foster children as well as for the foster mothers. The literature indicates that "inclusive care" is a very positive development for children in care of the state.(4) Restructuring of foster care services would also be beneficial for foster mothers; after all it was the foster mothers, through the New Brunswick Foster Families Association, that initiated a review of the delivery of the foster care services in New Brunswick. They wanted to have a fee structure that reflected what it cost to care for a foster child, they wanted improved training opportunities and they wanted a better support system. However, based on the interview data, it seems that in the process of redesigning the system, the state, under the disguise of better services delivery, has used this as an opportunity to download services that were traditionally carried out by social workers onto the lesser paid foster mother, while supposedly instituting "inclusive care." Foster mothers seem ill-prepared to deal with biological parents and no provisions in the redesign have been suggested to change that. The new fee structure ($800 per child per month at the highest level) does not reflect the increased workload and "the skill and effort" they have to demonstrate. Of course, foster mothers can be educated and trained to deal with the new role, but there is no indication that the provincial government is willing to support the notion of "inclusive care" with human (Financial) resources. Although the New Brunswick government has not terminated social work positions, it has amalgamated various departments in the Department of Health and Community Services, increasing the workload of supervisors and the budget has been "frozen." The result is that no replacement social workers can be hired during maternity leaves and short and long term sick leave. The net effect is that the workload of the front-line social workers has increased over the past seven years.(5) This trend is not only developing in New Brunswick, but across the country.
The current restructuring of the welfare state means that the context of social work practice is changing. Commenting on the ideological and fiscal change occurring within the Canadian welfare state, Bracken and Walmsly claim that, "A reduction in resources available for social work service places demands on social workers to provide "more for less." ... Higher caseloads, declassification of professional social work jobs, increased use of volunteers, and the use of consumers as providers of services all suggest a deprofessionalization of social work in that many traditional social work tasks and functions are now being carried out by professionally untrained persons (Mullaly, 1993, p. 23).
The concept of empowering foster mothers by taking their complaints seriously and initiating change seems to have been highjacked by the state to implement changes that amount to downsizing. The state selectively gives credibility to certain aspects of fostering (the ability to teach mothering skills), while denying credibility to other aspects of fostering (the mothering skills of the foster mothers), so as to further their own goals. Women in paid and unpaid caring jobs, such as foster care, are very vulnerable to this trend, particularly inasmuch as they depend on state funding.(6) Clearly, in future when marginalized groups work for change, they must ensure that their agenda is not coopted by the dominant group, in this case the provincial government.
(1.) In much of the literature dealing with foster care, foster parents are treated as a homogenous family unit in which both members have the same viewpoints, interests and responsibilities. However, I have chosen to depart from that approach for three reasons: (1) "Since the social situation of the sexes is different, it is likely that their viewpoints on the same institutions would also be different" (Eichler & Lapointe, 1985, p. 21); (2) some research indicates that "the actual work of caring for children [in foster care] has been allocated to women ..." (Swift 1995, p. 102; Kendrick, 1990); and (3) 93 percent of the returned surveys in the study were completed by foster mothers.
(2.) Almost 20 percent of children apprehended by the state are taken care of by extended family members (provisional care); and a further 10 percent were living under supervision with the biological parents. Of the remaining children, 8 percent lived in group homes, 5 percent lived independently and less than 3 percent lived in adoptive homes (Child Welfare in Canada, 1994).
(3.) Some women had retired from the work force.
(4.) The success of inclusive care is often "measured" in the successful re-unification rates between the foster child and his/her biological family.
(5.) This information was obtained from the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers.
(6.) As of the Summer 1997, most of the suggestions for the redesign have not been implemented. The rumour among social workers was that it is probably too expensive. It is more beneficial for the Province to use the volunteer labour of foster mothers than improve the system for foster children and foster mothers. This underscores my belief that the implementation of "inclusive care" is not motivated by improving foster care services in New Brunswick, but motivated by a desire to downsize social services to the more vulnerable and lesser paid workers.
In the last two years, the Department of Health and Community Services has been very preoccupied with the tragic deaths of three children, under their supervision, who were still living with the biological families: a 3-year-old boy died of torture and starvation, a 2-year-old girl died of dehydration and starvation, and a 3-month-old girl was shaken to death by her father. In September 1998, the Provincial Government announced that they would create 11 additional positions for social workers throughout the entire Province and that further financial resources would depend on "political will."
Canada. Child Welfare in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1994.
Donzelot, Jacques. The Policing of Families. New York: Random House, 1979.
Eichler, Margrit and Jeanne Lapointe. On the Treatment of the Sexes in Research. Ottawa: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 1985.
Ontario. Foster Care as a Residential Family Resource. Ministry of Community and Social Service in Ontario, 1990.
Kendrick, Martin. Nobody's Children. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1990.
Kufeldt, Kathleen. "Foster Care: A Reconceptualization" in Community Alternatives, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 9-17.
Kufeldt, Kathleen. "Inclusive Foster Care: Implementation of The Model" in Current Perspectives on Foster Family Care for Children and Youth, Brad Mckenzie, ed. Toronto: Wall & Emerson, 1994.
Meyer, Phillipe. The Child and the State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Meyer, Carol H. "A Feminist Perspective on Foster Family Care: A Redefinition Of the Categories" in Child Welfare, vol. 64, no. 3, (May-June 1985).
Mullaly, Robert. Structural Social Work: Ideology, Theory, and Practice. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993.
New Brunswick. Redesign of Foster Home Services in New Brunswick. N.B. Health and Community Services & N.B. Foster Families Association. Fredericton: Province of New Brunswick, 1992.
New Brunswick. Report on the Task Force on Foster Home Services. New Brunswick Health and Community Services, Fredericton: Province of New Brunswick, 1990.
Report Card on the Status of Women in New Brunswick. Moncton: Advisory Councils on the Status of Women, 1996.
Smith, Brenda. "Australian Women and Foster Care: A Feminist Perspective" in Child Welfare, vol. 70, no. 2 (1991).
Swift, Karen. Manufacturing `Bad Mothers': A Critical Perspective on Child Neglect. Toronto: University Press of Toronto, 1995.
Young, Canon John V. History of Children's Aid Society of the County of Saint John, 1964.
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|Author:||Miedema, Baukje (Bo)|
|Publication:||Resources for Feminist Research|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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