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Social inequality, 'the deviant parent' and child protection practice.


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.

The focus on parental deviance rather than societal factors concentrates investigative attention on the nuclear family unit, the mother as primary carer and on routine parenting practices (Buckley 1999, Farmer and Owen 1998; Foster Alter 1985, Gough et al. 1989, Munro 1999, Packman et al. 1986, Scott 1998, Thorpe 1994, Young and Brooks 1989). For example, in Buckley's (1999) examination of 238 consecutive referrals/ reports to child protection authorities in Ireland, investigations rarely took into account financial and housing difficulties. In England, Farmer and Owen (1998) found the focus of child protection investigations and case conferences involving 44 children on the child protection register was squarely on mothers' actions and attitudes.

Like findings have been reported in Australia. In Victoria, Scott (1998) interviewed and observed workers in 10 cases involving 17 children. These workers rarely took account of the family history or support network. In Western Australia, Thorpe's (1994) review of 655 case records led him to conclude that
 investigations, judgements, assessments and interventions appear to
 fit more into an activity which could best be described as the
 regulation of parenthood, the enforcement of standards and the
 imposition of norms rather than the protection of children (197).

The workers' almost exclusive focus on parental deficiencies is also reflected in the reasons given for removing children. For example, in the United States, Lindsey (1991) found parental problems were the most often cited reason for the entry of children to foster care. Similarly, Kadushin and Martin (1988) found that parent related problems were the precipitating factors for child placement in 75-80% of cases.

The contrast between parent and worker explanations for child removal is revealing. In NSW, Fernandez (1996) surveyed workers and parents in 294 cases where children were removed. For the workers, 'parenting behaviour and function' was the most common primary reason for entry to care. In direct contrast, parents identified social and environmental pressures as primary reasons for the entry of their children to care. Parents nominated the lack of informal and formal social supports in just over half (57.6%) of the cases. Workers used this reason in only one sixth of cases (16.9%). More than one third (37.3%) of parents cited housing and financial difficulties while workers cited these difficulties in less than half this number of cases (15.2%). Parents specified unstable marital relationships in 30.5% of cases and workers did so in less than half this number (14.4%) (Fernandez 1996).

The nature of services offered to parents further illustrates this point. Typically services are educational and/or therapeutic programs intent on parent reform and put in place irrespective of parental need (Farmer and Owen 1995, Fernandez 1996, Pelton 1982). Farmer and Owen (1998) observed the same response by workers to two very different situations. The first was lone mothers in unsupported and impoverished circumstances and the second was fathers who physically abused their child to manage frustration or assert dominance. The workers failed to differentiate the differing needs of the two groups and in both cases offered counselling and emotional support targeted at stress reduction for the mother.

Example of the 'parent as problem' framework

Families headed by parents with intellectual disability frequently attract the scrutiny of child protection authorities (McConnell and Llewellyn 2000). The challenges confronting these parents are well documented. From the start, their capacity to parent is usually questioned and their aspirations opposed by close kin and professionals (Booth and Booth 1995, Llewellyn 1990). Their life experiences, often marked by segregation and victimisation in school, sexual and/or physical assault and the absence of positive parenting role models, may leave them poorly prepared for parenthood (Andron and Tymchuk 1987, Booth and Booth 1995, Dowdney and Skuse 1993, Espe-Sherwindt and Crable 1993). Being poor, not having suitable housing and being without employment are common life circumstances (Booth and Booth 1993, Dowdney and Skuse 1993, Llewellyn et al. 1999). Furthermore, they often have to manage alone with little support from family and few friends to speak of (Booth and Booth 1995; Llewellyn and McConnell 2002).

The authorities are a major influence in their lives. International studies report rates of child removal of around one child in every two (Accardo and Whitman 1990, Booth and Booth 1995, Gillberg and Geiger-Karlsson 1983, Mirfin-Veitch et al. 1999, Pixa-Kettner 1998, Shaw and Wright 1960, Schilling et al. 1982). Three studies have also revealed significant over-representation of these parents in court proceedings. In the USA, Taylor et al. (1991) examined 206 consecutive cases before the Boston Juvenile Court. In 31 cases (approximately 15% of the total sample) either one or both parents were identified as intellectually impaired (IQ<79). McConnell et al. (2000) reported a lower but nevertheless proportionally high prevalence rate of 8.8% in their court sample of 285 cases. The third and most recent study reviewed 437 consecutive cases involving public law applications by local authorities in England under the Children Act 1989, and determined a prevalence rate of 22.1% (Booth et al. 2004).

McConnell et al. (2000) found that child protection authorities and courts rarely considered influences apart from the parent's intellectual disability in accounting for perceived family problems. For example, concerns about poverty, poor housing and social isolation were rarely documented. Indeed, the researchers found little information in the court files about the social and environmental circumstances of families. Concerns about the parent's lack of insight and resistance to statutory intervention, documented in 41.2% of cases, were particularly common. Concern about a child's special needs, for example developmental delay, was also common (41.2%) as were non-specific concerns about poor parenting skills (35.3%).

Internationally there is evidence that parents with intellectual disability may be denied support services with only token attempts made at family preservation (Hayman 1990, Watkins 1995). This is due, at least in part, to the mistaken belief that parents with intellectual disability cannot learn, adapt and overcome parenting deficiencies (Booth and Booth 1993, Budd and Greenspan 1985, Dowdney and Skuse 1993, Espe-Sherwindt and Crable 1993, Feldman 1994, Llewellyn et al. 2003). When services are provided these are generally targeted at parent reform using parent education as the intervention (Llewellyn et al. 1997, Tymchuk and Feldman 1991).

Although these parents wish to learn more about child development and behaviour management, material and social support are also priorities (Llewellyn et al. 1998). The type of support parents desire includes help with finances and housing, exploring work options, accessing community resources (knowing what services are available and how to use these), and opportunities to meet people and make friends (Llewellyn et al. 1998, Walton-Allen and Feldman 1991).

In the next section we offer a critical-historical explanation as to why social disadvantage is at best a secondary consideration in child protection practice. This explanation focuses on the historical transition from welfare to a protection paradigm, made possible through the de-politicisation of social inequality.

A Critical-Historical Perspective

The state reconciles the tensions between democracy and capitalism by providing money and services to minimise social inequality (Habermas 1975 and 1987). Child Welfare, for example, is a strategy used by the state to provide compensation for socio-economic hardship experienced by families. This Welfare response to families in need has, until relatively recently, dominated state intervention. Now Child Welfare has given way to Child Protection (Clarke 1993, Jack 1997, Parton 1995, Pelton 1989, Scott 1995). This transition is essentially one from a system concerned with social inequalities to a system directed at controlling social deviance and policing family life.

Child Protection has epistemological and material dimensions. Parton (1995) suggests that when child protection workers encounter parents who are struggling irrespective of the reason they see children at risk as opposed to families in need. For Lindsey (1994) this means that
 Within the child protection framework lone parents and poor
 families, who form the core of those investigated are no longer seen
 as families-in-need who might merit support services but instead are
 treated as alleged child abusers who may be deserving of reproach
 and punishment (156).

Child Protection also involves identifying 'high risk' parents for targeted intervention. This results in channelling significant resources into investigation and surveillance functions at the cost of family support and preservation initiatives (Parton 1995, Pelton 1989, Scott 1995).

For this transition from Child Welfare to Child Protection to occur, the harmful effects of socio-economic hardship on families had to come off the political agenda. This was necessary in order for the Child Protection response to be regarded as legitimate. Five historical developments contributed to this transition.

(i) Reform of the welfare state and emphasis on parental responsibility

During the 1980s a number of criticisms of the welfare system emerged. Welfarism was blamed for problems encompassing economic and social spheres. These problems included, for example, higher inflation and unemployment, growth in crime, the rediscovery of poverty and a growing rate of divorce (Parton 1998). In short, the welfare state was criticised for the all too visible social inequalities and under-performing economies.

Reform of the welfare state followed driven in part by neo-conservative individualism, which is often associated in the United Kingdom (UK) with Thatcherism (Parton 1995 and 1998). Parton (1995) describes this reformation as nothing less than the redefinition or retreat of the boundaries of the state. The vision of society became one in which the market, free from state interference is the key institution for the economic sphere, and the family, autonomous and self sufficient, becomes the key institution for the social sphere. The family is seen as an essentially private domain from which the state should be largely excluded. There is an ideological commitment to non-intervention. The family ought not be encouraged into dependency.

A key feature was the change in emphasis from social to parental responsibility (Patton 1995 and 1998). Parents (particularly mothers) became charged with child rearing responsibility and the state took on the minimalist function of 'overseer'. Legislation redefined the boundaries between family and state and specified the reciprocal rights and obligations of each. In other words, playing a major role in drafting and upholding this new social contract (King and Trowell 1992, Parton 1995).

The intention of this new social contract is to protect families from unwarranted state intervention and to provide a strong legal mandate for the state to intervene with those families that fail to meet 'expectations'. It is expected that good mothers accept responsibility and love and care for their children, put their children's needs first, support, guide and correct their children and maintain a hygienic and tidy home environment (Kline 1993). These expectations can be traced to the ideals of motherhood as explicated in Euro-centric middle class parenting practices (Farmer and Owen 1998, Kline 1993, Thorpe 1994).

(ii) Rights discourse

The rise to prominence of rights discourse also underpins the transition from Child Welfare to Child Protection. Feminist critique of power relations along with the 'discovery' of child sexual abuse opened the private sphere of the family to scrutiny. This gave rise to the children's rights movement (McGillivray 1992, Parton 1995 and 1998). At the same time, a vocal parental rights movement emerged in response to what was perceived as over-zealous intervention by the state (Parton 1995 and 1998).

Through the individualising discourse of rights, parents and children were re-cast as individuals with unique and potentially conflicting interests (Kline 1993). The strong link between parent and child became attenuated; the relatively weaker link between child and state strengthened (McGillivray 1992, Smith 1991). This conceptual segregation of parent and child laid the groundwork for an adversarial child protection system in which two parties (with potentially conflicting interests) require separate representation. The state in the guise of the statutory child protection authority could then claim to act in the child's best interests against the parents now constructed as adversaries. Once 'thinking' about children as separate from their parents is legitimated, their physical separation is no longer contentious. Indeed, removing children from their parents becomes a natural, necessary and legitimate response when the interests of these two parties are (or seem to be) at odds (Kline 1993).

(iii) The role of the clinical sciences

A third underpinning to the transition to Child Protection is the historical role played by the clinical sciences of medicine and psychology. This role is most clearly seen in defining what is 'normal' and what is 'deviant', where deviant is taken to mean both different and pathological. The clinical sciences continue to play a central role in defining the 'normal' family, the 'healthy' child, and the 'good' mother (Donzelot 1977, Parton 1998).

The influence of the clinical sciences is critical in at least two respects. They have shaped the prevailing consciousness of what constitutes child abuse and neglect. The association of science with medicine and psychology bestows a veneer of objectivity, precise determination and legitimacy. Yet in practice what constitutes abuse and neglect is open to frequently conflicting interpretations (Parton 1998). Despite this, clinicians are cast as experts with their judgements in matters of abuse and neglect counted as truth claims (McConnell et al. 2000).

The diagnostic-prognostic reasoning found in the clinical sciences focuses on individual traits to explain and anticipate behaviour. Within this interpretative framework, interventions that target the deviant individual logically follow. The target of the intervention is the individual; the purpose, the reform of this individual. The circumstances and environments surrounding the individual receive little or no consideration. King and Trowell (1992) summarise thus
 Within these individualising discourses the social meaning-all
 those environmental and circumstantial factors that are outside
 the immediate control of the family--tends to be lost as a cause
 of harm to children or as a way of alleviating harm (20).

(iv) The proliferation of child abuse and neglect reports

The exponential increase in the number of child abuse or neglect reports worldwide further underpins the transition to Child Protection (Clarke 1993, Parton 1995, Pelton 1989). For example, in Australia the number of reports grew from 91,734 in 1995-96 to 107,134 in 1999-00, to 219,384 in 2003-04 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2004). This cannot be explained only by a greater incidence of maltreatment. It is also due to child maltreatment moving beyond 'the battered baby syndrome' to include neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and risk of, or potential for harm.

Most child notification reports are not about severe maltreatment (Buckley 1999, Parton 1995, Thorpe 1994). Nevertheless, the media attention given to the small number but tragic cases of extreme maltreatment 'shored up' with official statistics gives an impression of large and growing numbers of children needing to be rescued from their cruel and uncaring parents (Pelton 1997). This journalistic practice further legitimises Child Protection practice in the public's mind.

(v) Public inquiries

A fifth underpinning of the transition to Child Protection is the proliferation of public inquiries into child maltreatment. In the UK alone there were 45 such inquiries in the period of 1973-1994 (Munro 1999). All document major criticisms of policy, and practice (Parton 1998). Each report draws attention to the basic tension in child protection practice. Child protection workers are criticised for failing to exercise their statutory powers of intervention (for example, inquiries following the deaths of Maria Collwell in the UK and Daniel Valerio in Australia). The same workers are also criticised for failing to respect the rights of parents and intervening prematurely (for example, the Cleveland inquiry in the UK and the Children of God case in Australia).

What emerges from these inquiries is a greater emphasis on correct procedure, accountability and legalism (Jack 1997, Parton 1998). Judgements made by child protection workers become subject to greater scrutiny. Ultimately, the court becomes entrusted with the responsibility for child removal. Harm to a child is more likely to be attributed to the neglect of parental responsibility; the legalisation of the child protection process serves to bolster the parent-as-problem approach to child protection practice.

Summary and Conclusion

To reiterate, children removed by child protection authorities typically come from poor and marginalised families. From an ecological perspective, this is hardly surprising: social disadvantage predisposes children to maltreatment. This has been known for more than three decades. At the same time, social disadvantage as a potentially explanatory factor for child maltreatment has been neglected in child protection practice. Instead, the individual parent takes centre stage leading to 'reform parent or remove child' practice priorities.

Child removal is generally seen as a last resort. Child protection authorities in Australia and the United Kingdom for example are required by law to explore all alternative means to secure a child's welfare. This directive assumes however that child protection workers can and will distinguish between children who ought to be removed and those for whom family support and/or family preservation initiatives are appropriate. In extreme cases of child maltreatment there is no question that differentiating appropriately, while difficult, is an achievable task. Unfortunately most child protection cases are not that clear cut. There are often differing opinions about the nature and extent of the allegations against the parents leading to ambiguity and uncertainty.

How do child protection workers respond to this? When parental deviance is the foremost explanatory factor, child protection authorities are more likely to 'see' children in need of removal rather than families in need of support. Parents may be blamed for reported concerns when their difficulties arise from their impoverished circumstances and disadvantageous environments. In such cases, interventions directed at parent reform may be tried, but if the circumstances precipitating family problems are not addressed, the interventions are likely to have only limited success. Children may then be removed without other alternatives being explored.

To apply ecological approaches and empirical evidence to child protection practice requires a fundamental shift in how parenting and child maltreatment is conceptualised. This shift will not be achieved by rolling back, even if this were possible, the conditions that served to de-politicise social inequality. For example, the primary, responsibility of parents for the care of their children can hardly be contested and advocacy for children's rights ought to be vigorously pursued. The question is what conditions are needed for the broader circumstances surrounding parents and children to come into clear focus? This question deserves vigorous debate.

In the interests of advancing this debate, we suggest that re-thinking the concept of 'parenting' will help to re-orient policy and practice. The taken-for-granted, individual parent-focussed approach to parenting regards this occupation as the work that only one or two individuals called parents do in raising a child. In contrast, a child-focused approach to parenting brings in more individuals. Following the work of philosopher Sara Ruddick (1989), parenting becomes the work of meeting a child's needs for protection, nurturance and socialisation. This alternative, child-focussed standpoint allows for the participation of many in 'parenting' a child. Although one or other parent may be primary, other people, for example grandmothers, older siblings, neighbours, child care workers, school teachers, coaches and so on may contribute to meeting a child's basic needs. Parenting thus can be viewed as a social, not a solo activity. Indeed, from the moment a child is born, her world is full of people. By the age of seven months an infant's contacts may number around 100 people (Salzinger, 1990). Many of these contacts may have a significant influence on a child's life chances.

By adopting a child-focussed perspective, the parent is de-centred. We can begin to imagine the policy and practice implications. Take for example the expert assessment of parenting capacity, which is a primary determinant of children's court outcomes. Whose 'capacity' is to be assessed? When parenting is defined as the work of many people and circumstances meeting a child's basic needs, then a limited focus on the nuclear family unit becomes entirely inadequate. The assessment of parenting capacity thus needs to take into account the multiple determinants of outcomes for children including the range and diversity of other people in the child's life.

A child-focussed perspective on parenting affirms a collective, societal responsibility for raising the next generation. Hillary Clinton was not the first to observe it takes a village to raise a child. From this perspective we are obliged to look beyond individual parents and to ask questions about the safety of our neighbourhoods, accessibility of childcare facilities, inclusiveness of schools, adequacy of prevention and early intervention services, fairness of industrial relations policy, and so on. The extension of our argument forces the confrontation to go beyond the community as we know it; it forces us to confront social disadvantage. Failure to do so would make us all neglectful 'parents'.


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David McConnell, PhD, is Senior Lecturer (Disability), and Executive Director of the Australian Family & Disability Studies Research Collaboration (, based in the School of Occupation & Leisure Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney.

Gwynnyth Llewellyn, PhD, is Professor and Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney and Director of the Australian Family & Disability Studies Research Collaboration, www.
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Author:McConnell, David; Llewellyn, Gwynnyth
Publication:Australian Journal of Social Issues
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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