Mandated Prevention in Child Welfare: Considerations from a
Framework Shaping Ethical Inquiry
Houston, S., Devaney, J. and Spratt, T. (2011)
Published in the Journal of Social Work Vol. 11(3) pp. 287-305
Summary: This paper outlines a framework for approaching ethical dilemmas
arising from the development, evaluation and implementation of child welfare
policies. As such, it is relevant to policy makers, social researchers and social
workers. The central tenets of the framework are developed by drawing on ideas
from moral philosophy and critical social theory. These ideas are presented as
axioms, theorems and corollaries, a format which has been employed in the
social sciences to offer a rational justification for a set of claims.
Findings: This process of reasoning leads to four principle axioms that are seen
to shape the ethical scrutiny of social policy: (1) problematizing knowledge (2)
utilizing structured forms of inquiry to enhance understanding (3) engendering
enabling communication with those affected by the ethical concern and (4)
Applications: The four axioms are then applied, by way of example, to the current
and contentious, ‘third way’ policy of mandated prevention in child welfare, where
the aim is to obviate deleterious outcomes in later life. It is argued that the
framework can be applied beyond this specific concern to other pressing, ethical
challenges in child welfare.
Keywords: moral philosophy, social theory, ethics, mandated prevention, child
Child welfare policy in the United Kingdom has been characterized by a range of
strong, divergent opinions about how best to meet children’s needs (Hendrick,
2003). One example of a prominent debate within this contested field is the
attempt to balance the rights and interests of children with those of their parents
(under domestic and international, human rights legislation and policy). Others
include the antimony between the safeguarding and promotional agendas
shaping family policy; the discordance created by the contrasting ‘care’ and
‘control’ themes in procedurally governed, professional environments; the
dissonance between family support practices and risk-averse, child rescue
initiatives; the bifurcation between so called ‘deserving’, troubled young people
and their ‘undeserving’, troublesome counterparts; and the imperative to act in
partnership with families compared to situations when benevolent paternalism
might be seen as justified.
While decision-making models have been formulated to help inquirers examine
ethical dilemmas in practice situations (McLaughlin & Pinkerton, 1995; Linzer,
1999), they do not specifically target policy dilemmas in child welfare (Lonne et
al., 2009). Dilemmas of this kind raise moral concerns and invite philosophical
and sociological responses. In this paper the authors develop a framework to
address this lacuna. It comprises a number of axiomatic imperatives derived from
the authors’ deductive reasoning. We argue that the framework can be used to
enhance an inquirer’s ethical awareness, enabling him or her to reach a point of
creative tension from which moral decision-making may evolve. The inquirer may
be someone who devises social policy (a public official), evaluates it (a social
researcher) or implements it (a social worker). To add flesh to this schematic
structure we then apply it to a recent and contentious debate that has emerged
concerning the legitimacy of mandated prevention in child welfare.
This issue of making prevention in child welfare compulsory has been rehearsed
in recent policy developments in the United Kingdom, signalling a requirement to
identify families whose children are predicted to experience future disadvantage.
In this context, the Social Exclusion Plan (HM Government, 2006) sought to
identify and prescribe involvement in the lives of those families who experienced
multiple problems and whose present circumstances predicted a lifetime of poor
outcomes in terms of health and social well-being. The focus on cost within the
plan, in experiential terms to individuals, and in economic terms to the State, was
most visible (Spratt, 2008). In this policy thrust, preventative services were
therefore mandated by co-joined economic and social policy (Jones-Finer, 2004)
and underpinned by models attempting to predict which families were most at
risk. As the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, put it: “You can detect and predict
the children and families likely to go wrong….about 2.5 per cent of every
generation seem to be stuck in a lifetime of disadvantage and amongst them are
the excluded, the deeply excluded” (Blair, 2006).
The use of predictive tools is not a new phenomenon in work with children and
families where, on the narrower ground of prediction of child abuse, there have
been a number of attempts to develop assessment tools (Peters & Barlow,
2003). As Taylor et al. (2008, p. 1195) point out, ‘actuarial risk assessment
instruments (weighted scores based on empirical studies of child protection
cases and future outcomes) carry more potential than do consensus-based
systems (based on specific client characteristics and individual clinical
judgement)’. While such instruments may offer a potential aid to practitioners
working with high risk populations, they are more limited in their potential as
survey methods designed to detect high risk families in the general population.
The limits to predictive accuracy, however, may be challenged on the grounds
that it is worth netting relatively high numbers of ‘false positives’ if we also
identify enough ‘true positives’.
This is essentially the argument underpinning the public health model. For
example, screening for diabetes or cervical cancer will identify large numbers of
those exhibiting risk factors who do not go on to develop these conditions but will
also identify a significant proportion that are ‘true positives’. Preventative
treatment is being essentially driven by health economics; that is, it is more
economic to offer low cost, preventative treatments to many who will prove not to
need it to prevent high cost treatments for a minority. Such debates, however,
invariably involve a shift from technical and calculative dimensions to moral and
ethical concerns. For example, in and unprecedented move, a large majority of
the social work professoriate in the United Kingdom wrote to the Guardian
Newspaper (Baldwin et al., 2006) to express their unease at the stigma likely to
be experienced by families targeted for special intervention on the basis of
prediction. Their concerns were crystallised by Munro who observed that
‘ultimately judgements about “acceptable” levels of accuracy come down to a
moral judgement: how many innocent children is it acceptable to wrongly label
….in order to catch a high number of accurate predictions?’ (Munro, pg. 50,
2007). To balance this equation we might ask: ‘how many children are we willing
to miss in order not to stigmatise some who are wrongly labelled’? This question
takes on an added purchase when we consider the emotive association between
adverse early childhood experiences and poor outcomes in later life such as
suicide (Brezo et al, 2008).
Our contention, then, is that this particular public policy issue is emblematic of
other ethical cleavages in child welfare policy in the sense that it requires not
only a technical response, but also a moral one. In fact, the latter should precede
and envelop the former. Technical-rational responses that are separated from
moral considerations, or colonize them, are in danger of de-humanizing the
subject. For us, values and ethics lie at the heart of social policy formation and
should be acknowledged as master imperatives within the discourse (Taylor,
Outline of the Ethical Framework
The ethical framework described below (see Figure 1) was derived through
deductive, axiomatic reasoning, a form of appraisal which has been employed in
the social sciences to offer a rational justification for a set of postulates or
propositions (Rossides, 1998). It comprises the following inter-linked elements:
(a) key axioms (an axiom is a statement of self-evident truth) (b) related
theorems (a theorem is a general proposition arising from an axiom) and (c)
corollaries (a corollary is a supplementary consideration arising from a theorem).
When taken together, and applied to an empirical area in the social world, these
three elements show how an argument or position unfolds, what premises have
been adopted to support it and the justifiability of the conclusions that have been
reached. For example, Max Weber, a founding thinker in sociology, put forward
the axiom that rationalization processes lay at the heart of modernization in the
western world. From this axiom, he proceeded to logically develop his theories
on the impact of calculation and authority on economic practices within the
modern, capitalist State. As a corollary to these theories Weber formulated ideas
concerning the alienating affects of bureaucratisation and disenchantment.
In order to develop the ethical framework using this axiomatic method, we first of
all followed Kant’s investigatory technique of positing a transcendental question.
In this case we asked: ‘what needs to be in place to achieve an ethical social
policy? This question naturally led us to think about the recipients of social
policies and to imagine, as part of a thought experiment, how they might
respond. It also led us to identify the necessary antecedents to policy formation,
and to consider the consequences of them not being in place. By way of contrast,
the theorems and corollaries were explored from the joint perspectives of moral
philosophy and critical social theory: two bodies of knowledge intimately
connected with ethical inquiry in the social world. Moreover, because the
framework was focused on an evaluation of policy issues, it was pitched at a high
level of generality, took account of stakeholder interests and addressed the
important theme of social well-being.
PLACE FIGURE 1 HERE
Each of the elements is summarised and justified below.
Axiom 1 (the knowledge axiom)
An inquirer should critically appraise the relevant knowledge informing an ethical
dilemma in social policy.
Justification of the axiom
Knowledge is the ‘sum of what is known’. However, simply amassing what is
known in this context - the ideas and facts informing an ethical dilemma – does
not further insight in every case. Bringing reflective processes to bear on
important theoretical and empirical information, particularly at the outset of an
inquiry, is therefore required in order to illuminate: (a) the range of areas
pertinent to the inquiry (b) an understanding of human experience including ideas
concerning cause and effect (c) the parameters of the inquiry (d) contradictions
or complementarities in positions that have been taken (e) the potential
consequences of particular courses of action. In Socratic terms, virtue follows
from the critical inspection of pertinent knowledge.
Theorem related to the axiom
Facts, hypotheses and intuitions shape the manner in which ethical issues are
approached. These areas are sourced by principles, systems of ideas, concepts,
theories, ideologies, propositions, scientific claims and findings.
Corollary of the theorem
A supplementary consideration is the validity, perspicacity and robustness of the
knowledge brought to the inquiry, and its capacity to cast light on complex
issues. We must critique knowledge and evaluate opinion and argument when
scrutinizing an ethical dilemma (Osmo, 2001). Skills of analysis and reflection
must be applied testing the veracity of knowledge claims and the progression
from premise to conclusion. The inquirer must avoid the blind alley of tautology
(adopting circular reasoning) and the cardinal sins of essentialism (categorising a
particular group’s characteristics in universal terms rather than seeing them as
context-dependent and therefore potentially variable), reductionism (reducing an
understanding of complex phenomena to a single determining factor) and
reification (viewing something that is abstract as a material thing).
In line with this train of thought, theory should be tested against Aristotle’s ‘law of
non-contradiction’, where logic dictates that two opposing positions cannot both
be true at the same time. Fundamentally, critical thinking necessitates that
knowledge is problematized, recognizing how it has been shaped by vested
interests. Without critical thinking, inquirers may succumb to the effects of
cognitive bias, ideological distortion, errors of thinking, undeclared interests and
Axiom 2 (the procedural axiom)
An inquirer should approach an ethical dilemma in social policy through a
structured process of investigation leading to a heightened awareness of its
impact and consequences.
Justification of the axiom
Ethical dilemmas are often complex, messy and challenging. Through structured
inquiry we can respond to them systematically, posing relevant questions and
investigating set areas. Without structure, our appraisal may be haphazard,
piecemeal and superficial.
Theorem related to the axiom
One way of approaching ethical quandaries in a structured manner is through
designated procedures drawn from moral philosophy. Procedural ethics, when
applied to the social world, establish criteria to be followed to guide the inquirer in
his or her analysis of issues carrying a moral import that are not simply resolved,
particularly when there are contradictions, critical tensions or competing
viewpoints. The criteria, sui generis, do not prescribe (nor proscribe) a particular
course of action, outcome or decision; nor do they offer a univocal position on
issues such as the laudability of mandated provision in children’s services.
Rather, they generate a set of considerations in a structured and sequenced
order which, if followed, assist the parties to reach and defend their own position
on the basis of reasoned and structured enquiry.
The use of ‘procedural remedies’ in moral and political philosophy is notable.
Kant’s appeal to the ‘categorical imperative’ (where moral decisions accrue from
common agreement about what is best for all), for example, has become
foundational. A range of more contemporary theorists have drawn on this
procedure when deliberating on ‘what ought to be done’. Thus, Habermas
adapted Kant’s stance in his formulation of the ‘universalization’ principle (1990).
According to this principle a valid moral decision was reached when those
affected by it endorsed it as the preferred way forward. In reaching this agreed
position the participants must have accepted the consequences of the decision
for all concerned.
Benhabib (1992), as well, appropriated the notion of universalization, but argued
that it had to be applied in the context of a full understanding of how culture
shaped human interests. Cultural awareness enabled the moral agent to
consider the impact of gender, race and class on personal identity. It balanced
ideas on abstract justice with considerations relating to difference, particularity,
situation and emotion. Central to Benhabib’s thinking was the requirement to
apply democratic communication emphasising respect for the ‘other’, the
‘reciprocity of perspectives’, the movement to ‘enlarged thinking’ beyond one’s
egotistical needs and the appreciation of ‘difference’. This thesis was paralleled
by Thompson and Hoggett’s (1996) plea for social policy to combine a
sophisticated, universalist stance with a commitment to cultural difference.
It is relatively easy to apply the principle of universalization when stakeholders’
needs and interests are congruent. However, in cases of contested meanings, for
example, where parents’ interests may be incompatible with those of the child,
the issues are inherently more complex. Understanding, agreement and
consensus on what constitutes the best interests of the child may not be realistic
in the frisson of highly charged emotions. In such cases, Habermas argued that
his procedural ethics can be used as a counterfactual tool; that is, as a means for
illuminating how ethical decision-making had fallen short of an ideal standard in
order to provoke self-evaluation and a reconsideration of one’s ethical stance.
Corollary of the Theorem
This procedural requirement, to universalise a decision, pivots on what Mead
(1967) has referred to as ‘role taking’ and the use of empathy with significant
others. Role-taking, for him, was part of day-to-day social relationships and
identity formation and involved a close consideration of another’s perspectives,
interests and needs. In so doing, it offered a bridge to another’s mind and
emotions, heightening sensitivity to another’s inner mental processes.
In a related vein, the demonstration of ‘care’, a mandatory part of any ethical
inventory, has received notable sociological (Gilligan, 1982) and political
(Williams, 2001) coverage. Care, as an ethical response, negates individualism
and promotes normative decisions that take cognizance of: (a) human
interdependence (b) human vulnerability and how it is affected by others’ choices
and (c) the contextual details surrounding a subject’s needs and interests.
Detached appraisal, without empathy and care, it is argued, can miss the
nuances and intricacies of grounded, concrete experience and the suffering of
the ‘situated’ self (Slote, 2007).
Axiom 3 (the dialogical axiom)
An ethical dilemma in social policy should be approached through enabling,
reflective dialogue with the individuals most affected by it.
Justification of the axiom
Language is fundamental to the organization of social life. It is bound up with an
individual’s sense of identity. More than that, language conveys a recognition of
the subjects’ need for care, for the acknowledgement of their rights and the
validation of their strengths (Honneth, 1995). Meaningful interaction and empathy
is predicated on language. Through language consoling and venting gestures
occur that benefit both the speaker and hearer. Monological reasoning (as
reflected in solitary thought), without empathetic language, can fall prey to
subjectivism and distorted cognition.
Theorem related to the axiom
It is through the strength of better argument that moral positions can be
articulated, defended, rejected or accepted. Argumentation is naturally
progressed through reasoned propositions or claims about the subject matter
involving all of the subjects who may face the consequences arising from the
discussion. Pertinent here, is the mutual quest for understanding and consensus,
for points to be clarified and agreed, where possible. Instrumentalized
communication, where one speaker seeks to achieve a personalized end,
irrespective of the other’s perspectives, where consensus is not sought, and
persuasion or manipulation may be to the fore, does not engender moral
Corollary of the theorem
Subjects engaged in ethical discourse must be allowed to speak freely without
the constraining effects of power (Habermas, 1990). It follows from this
proposition that: (a) all the interlocutors have the right to shape the agenda for
discussion at any point in time (b) all of the interlocutors have the right to
challenge any assertion whatsoever (c) communication should be as free as
possible from obfuscation and professional jargon (d) attention should be given
to creating the most conducive physical surroundings and organizational
ambience (e) advocacy is implemented for marginalized perspectives (f) there
ought to be an awareness of the different forms of power and how they are
displayed in language (Lukes, 2005).
Axiom 4 (the self-awareness axiom)
Self-awareness is necessary when attempting to resolve an ethical dilemma in
Justification of the axiom
Subjects, as moral agents, are prone to errors of thinking. They appropriate
heuristic devices in acts of perception, utilize cognitive dissonance (and
resonance) to reinforce their views and fall prey to influences such as ‘group
think’ when conversing with others (Kahneman et al., 1982). The subject’s class,
gender, age, cultural background, race, religion and psychobiography will also
collectively shape his or her attitudes to ethical issues. Mindlessness ignores the
impact of these social categories and the subject’s internal values that cohere
around them. In contradistinction, mindfulness brings attention to these areas
drawing connections between the inner world of the inquirer and the outer world
of constraining social structure. Moreover, ethical dilemmas are situated within a
social and political context which shapes the subject’s consciousness (Bourdieu,
1977). Thus, the troubles of the individual have to be set in the context of much
larger sociological patterns. Yet, subjects have the power to examine these
patterns and exercise their agential powers to effect change.
Theorem related to the axiom
Self awareness generates understanding and insight into one’s cognitive
processes. Such understanding can then be used to regulate these processes.
Regulation involves planning, monitoring and evaluating one’s thoughts, taken-
for-granted assumptions and beliefs. It also involves an awareness of the impact
of the external world on the inner world of the self. The capacity to stand back,
objectively, and examine this inner-outer interplay, opens up the potential for
cognitive ‘space’ and within cognitive space the enactment of moral agency
(Kant, 1964). To acknowledge and exercise moral agency is to be self-directed. It
is to reach a position where one’s actions in the world arise from scrutinized
beliefs and desires. Critical here is the awareness of one’s moral autonomy
regardless of social constraints. As Kant insisted, morality cannot be imposed
from the outside: it is a matter of the individual’s choice based of his or her
deliberation and reflection. Through self awareness we rationally choose our
actions, although such choices are tempered by constraining social factors.
However, with self-directedness and choice comes responsibility. Responsibility
is inherent within moral reasoning.
Corollary of the theorem
Philosophically speaking, there is a long tradition connecting emotion with moral
sentiment. Aristotle and Adam Smith saw emotion as heightening moral
behaviour despite Hobbes assertions that it led to selfishness. Put another way,
‘values have both cognitive and affective dimensions’ (Barnes, 2008, pg. 465).
Hence, introspective analysis must take account of both of these domains
(Taylor, 2006; Hogget, 2000).
Emotions and desires can distort objectivity but not in all instances as Kant was
forced to concede. Even though emotional reactions can be embroiled in self-
interest, they can also sensitize the moral inquirer to the nuances of human
suffering. The awareness of emotional connectedness or the lack of it, or its
contingent nature, provide valuable insights about personal inclinations towards
others and self. Emotional connectedness is the wellspring from which we see
the world as others see it. Moreover, emotional connectedness generates a
‘fusion of horizons’ with another person’s cultural experience. In turn, this creates
a ‘deliberative space’ for policy change, where public officials can enter into
dialogue with service users (see Axiom 3 above) about potential service reforms.
These public spaces are synonymous with ‘emotional spaces’ (Barnes, 2008)
where ‘identities are negotiated, constructed and possibly transformed, righteous
anger, pain and frustration are expressed, and hopes and aspirations are
pursued’ (p. 460).
Towards a Creative Tension
By way of further clarification and summary at this juncture, these axioms are not
meant to be applied in a set order to guide ethical analysis. Linearity is not being
advocated nor is abstract rumination. In fact, ethical inquiry is often messy,
convoluted and fragmented and relates to ‘real life’, grounded concerns. In this
context, inquirers often have to grapple with contradictions and tensions between
competing viewpoints. Consequently, they may oscillate between these
axiomatic imperatives before a tentative position materializes; or, it might be the
case that the axioms are applied concurrently.
Furthermore, the implied conceptual harmony of the framework is not meant to
convey the notion that its application to the real world is easily achieved. Rather,
the process is one of struggle. It is a Sisyphean encounter with antinomies,
vagaries and contradictions in which there are no right answers but only right
choices. Ethical deliberation must show tolerance for ambiguity, complexity and
conflict, and in so doing, unleash dialectical processes that move thinking beyond
an impasse. Put bluntly, reaching a point of creative tension is the aspiration;
from here, options, decisions, consequences and actions are considered, albeit
in a tentative manner. Self-doubt and self-criticism are desired end points in this
deliberative process. In short, creative tension is the axial principle around which
reflective processes revolve. It rests comfortably on the ‘boundary’ between
competing perspectives viewing uncertainty as the source of moral inspiration.
Moreover, it paves the way for an enlarged mentality that revels in productive
theorizing by concentrating on the binary oppositions that categorize our
constructions of the world (for example, the opposition between ‘universalism’
and ‘particularism’ in meta-ethical debates (Hewitt, 1993)).
In summary, we contend that ethical formulations arise in social life through a
critical engagement with knowledge, ethical procedure, enabling dialogue and
self-awareness,. The next section applies this axiological framework to the
contested issue of mandated prevention. In doing so, it highlights a number of
substantive questions and considerations pertinent to the debate. Such probing
offers a directional compass for those inquiring into this problematic (for instance,
policy makers and social researchers) or who are pushed into what Bauman
(1993) refers to as a ‘dilemmatic space’ where the practical implications of policy
create challenges ‘on the ground’ (for example, social workers).
Following Locke, our role in all of this is one of an ‘underlabourer’; that is, we
attempt to illuminate and ‘clear the ground’ for other inquirers assisting them to
formulate their own position on mandated prevention. In keeping to this role of
philosophical midwifery we therefore attempt to ‘bracket’ or leave to one side our
own conclusions on the problematic. Yet, this declared distance does not
preclude us from posing a number of critical ‘Socratic’ questions and adjoined
considerations concerning mandated prevention.
Application of the Framework to Mandated Prevention
The application of the framework to mandated prevention is summarised in Table
1 (see below) and explained more fully in the unfolding text:
PLACE TABLE 1 HERE
Axiom One - Critically Appraising Knowledge
When approaching mandated prevention in child welfare, inquirers, under this
first stage, are encouraged to problematize a range of knowledge including
relevant empirical findings related to family life, child and family policy, child care
law, organizational procedure, constructions of childhood and ideologies of
welfare. This paper cannot do justice to an examination of all of these areas, so
we have elected to examine the latter source because it has such a formative
bearing in shaping approaches to preventative child welfare policy.
‘Third way’, welfare ideology in the United Kingdom has been prominent in New
Labour’s political landscape and in our view was the progenitor of the move
towards mandated prevention. Here, Anthony Giddens, reportedly Tony Blair’s
favourite intellectual, set out this original welfare manifesto, steering a route
between the Scylla of old guard socialism and the Charybdis of modern
conservatism. The Government was encouraged to invest in the welfare State by
promoting a mixed economy of care, balancing regulation and de-regulation. In
doing so, it was enjoined to minimize social exclusion and tackle directly the lack
of access to various forms of social capital while promoting the inclusion of the
‘underclass’ as well the upper echelons of society who, it was argued, had
become disengaged from the spirit of public service.
In order to respond critically to this area of knowledge, we pose the following key
questions and their accompanying considerations, namely:
Question 1: ‘What is the underlying view of the subject (for instance, the child or
adult carer) and the nature of society within ‘third way thinking’ and the policy of
Points to Consider: Drawing on the corollary attached to this axiom, the inquirer
can dissect this question in greater detail by querying whether ‘third way’ thinking
portrays an accurate and ethical picture of these personal and social domains
(when compared with other forms of evidence drawn from research, theory and
philosophy). At first glance, the policy of mandated prevention appears to present
a view of the person as an ‘object’ to be targeted through a raft of social
interventions, albeit with benevolent intentions in mind, rather than a subject in
her own right; that is, someone who purposively acts to create meaning and
shapes her own welfare needs. In addition, mandated prevention could be seen
to present society as a functional, integrating, coordinating, and sustaining
domain - one affording stability through proactive social policy measures as
opposed to a social sphere that dominates and coerces through power, ideology
and constraint. An inquirer approaching mandated prevention will have to think
through the ethical implications of these fundamental views and where they stand
in relation to them based on presenting evidence.
Question 2: ‘Are there any contradictions or tensions in ‘third way’, welfare
ideology – aspects of it that are internally inconsistent which have implications for
mandated prevention in child welfare?’
Points to Consider: The corollary attached to this axiom directs inquiry towards
the problematic nature of knowledge, its inconsistencies and contradictions. One
key consideration, in this context, is whether social policies that purport to
prevent long-term hardship, such as mandated prevention, can sit comfortably
with wider economic policies under the ‘third way’ umbrella which seek to
promote economic deregulation, privatization and seemingly authoritarian youth
justice strategies. It could be argued that economic deregulation leads to greater
insecurity in the job market and hence impacts negatively on social well-being.
Against this position, a laissez fair marketeer will argue that deregulation makes
industry more competitive and sustainable in the long-term thus enhancing social
outcomes in the longer term. Connected to these considerations one must ask
whether the aspiration to promote ‘equality of opportunity’ under ‘third way’
ideology, rather than economic redistribution, provides the right social
infrastructure for the policy of mandated prevention to succeed. In this regard, it
could be argued that early prevention will be thwarted unless income disparities
are tackled at their root causes. For the proponent of the ‘third way’, however, it
is a ‘hand up’ rather than a hand out’ that ultimately counts.
These are only illustrative, rather than exhaustive, questions and responses and
they are only applied to one dimension of relevant knowledge: welfare ideology.
Nevertheless, they should be seen as Socratic questions – questions and
considerations that are meant to be approached in a systematic, disciplined way.
The intention behind Socratic questioning is to probe deeply, to engender
dialogue, in order to interrogate the plausibility of statements (charitably, yet
critically) within a moral conversation involving divergent opinions. Continuing to
apply this method, let us now turn to the remaining elements of the framework
and examine briefly how they might illuminate the ethical issues surrounding
mandated prevention in child welfare.
Axiom 2 – Applying Ethical Procedure
Arising from the moral philosophy outlined earlier we have prioritized two key,
procedural questions that can be posed, namely:
Question 1: Who exactly are the intended recipients of the policy of mandated
prevention and can it address their needs and interests?
Points to Consider: The policy of mandated prevention cuts across numerous
social categories and problems: children with special needs, young people and
adults with mental health issues, potential and actual homelessness, substance
abuse and involvement with crime. Many of these social categories display inter-
related pathways, points of negative synergy and ‘chain reaction’ but also ‘turning
points’ and ‘windows of opportunity’. The theorem attached to this axiom
suggests that an ethical social policy will attend to the particular needs and
interests of all these categories, taking account of difference, culture, situation,
setting and emotion. Mandated prevention, to be ethically sound, must
apprehend these needs and interests in a way that sees them as historically
situated, socially connected and culturally embedded. Needs and interests must
be disaggregated but must also been seen in the context of systems of human
inter-dependence and social ecology - as the framework exhorts.
The preoccupation with ‘risk’ in mandated prevention may not sit easily with this
conception of need as it prioritizes individual dangerousness and pathology and
decontextualizes the individual from his social mileau. Indeed, it must be asked
whether a ‘top down’ social policy such as ‘mandated prevention’, one that is
driven by government rather than the community, can facilitate accurate empathy
with the stakeholders, empathy that connects not only with cognitive processes
but also with human emotion and meaning? In this context, the axiom embraces
Habermas’ social theory and his warning about the ‘colonization’ of every day life
in the community by State driven policy imperatives. For Habermas, the State is
preoccupied with power and money; because its objectives are primarily
instrumental rather than personal, it must be open to disparate voices from the
Question 2: If the policy of mandated prevention was introduced and
universalized, what would it mean for those who are have the least power, the
least social capital, the least structural opportunities in society? Would this act of
implementation be considered fair and just to a detached outsider, one
compelled to adopt Rawls’ veil of ignorance for example?
Points to consider: For a detached observer applying the veil of ignorance
procedure (as the axiom invites), the policy of mandated prevention might offer
social protection. It could be that one might be born into a family where neglect
featured strongly due to parental abuse of alcohol. Being identified early on as
being ‘at risk’ and therefore in need of social services could be seen as a means
of mitigating severe outcomes in later life: poor school achievement, an
impoverished self-concept and lowered resilience. That said, how might the
same individual feel about being targeted based on a risk profile? Or, having
records kept on one’s most intimate circumstances? To what extent might
mandated State involvement in one’s life induce sitgma – a feeling of being
different to others who have not been targeted, profiled, considered from afar,
Axiom 3 – Promoting Enabling, Reflective Communication
On the face of it, the language of mandated prevention represents the State’s
attempts to present a benevolent and paternalistic interest in the welfare of
children. The inquirer must problematize such assumptions and approach this
linguistic frame with a questioning attitude. Thus,
Question 1: How does the language of mandated prevention shape need and to
what extent does it take account of subjective accounts of experience?
Points to Consider: There is an explicit presumption that families who will be
targeted for support are deemed to be of concern to the State (Blair, 2006). Yet,
while some of the children and families identified may be experiencing social
exclusion, their own verbal definitions of their situations, both positive and
negative, must not be overlooked nor ignored in discussions. To impose a
category upon a person, even though well intentioned, denies the validity of their
subjective experience. An ethical approach is one that recognizes the salience of
an individual’s definition of the situation, her narrative and memories. For some,
current achievements and happiness are primary considerations and State policy
must not relegate them as secondary to envisaged future outcomes (Leonard,
What is more, in the policy of mandated prevention interventions seem to be
justified on the assumption that children and their families are both in need of and
willing to accept support. Yet, as identified by the authors elsewhere ( ), some
families are unable nor willing to accept support services. At what point does the
State therefore impose support through linguistic (and other forms of) coercion
and what does this mean for the nature of the relationship between the State and
the family (Donzelot, 1979). Consonant with these points the inquirer must
investigate whether the language of mandated prevention is being used to
reshape popular conceptions about poverty, social class and deprivation. Indeed,
one must investigate how the language used frames the issue of power in society
and whether it perpetuates class and gender differentials or promotes cultural
stereotypes. Critically, does the parlance enhance self-actualization or ender
Question 2: How does the policy of mandated prevention incorporate democratic
communication with those most affected by its tenets?
Points to Consider: In developing and implementing any social policy, this axiom
suggests that consultations with relevant stakeholders, including representative
groups of children and families, must hold power held in check to ensure
unfettered participation and the free exchange of ideas. Reasoned argumentation
and consensus are formative to such discussions. This presents a huge
challenge for those committed to the policy of mandated prevention. By framing
the policy as ‘mandated’, the cartographers have emphasised its official,
sanctioned and authorised aspects. An inquirer must ascertain whether dialogue,
negotiation and participation - the three hallmarks of legitimated policy – have
been build into the process of developing ideas about the best means for helping
those most disadvantaged. An integral part of this process must be language that
is accessible to the recipients of services from a range of religious, cultural and
Axiom 4 – Developing Self-Awareness
To fully appreciate how the interplay between our own internal reflection and the
external world shapes moral choice, it is necessary to consider the following
Question 1: How is our ethical approach to the policy of mandated prevention
shaped by the social categories within which we fit: our gender, age, religion,
Points for Consideration: Inquirers, at the outset, must acknowledge that their
approach to the issue of mandated prevention may be affected by bias, blind
spots or gaps in knowledge. For instance, media coverage and moral panics
about children and parenting, crime and deviance have the potential to impact on
the inquirer’s attitudes (Cohen, 2002). The inquirer’s taken-for-granted notions of
‘respectable’ and ‘non-respectable’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, ‘depraved’ and
‘deprived’ actions and predilections need to be dispassionately scrutinized as
does populist folk lore about the effectiveness of various interventions such as
prisons and community surveillance programmes. In large measure the
evidence-based discourse and its mantra of ‘what works’ lies at the heart of
mandated prevention but the inquirer’s own view of effective forms of helping
needs to be critically appraised. Some services such as Homestart do not show
significant benefits against other community services (McAuley, 2004) but
nevertheless may have hidden benefits that can only be seen in the longer-term.
Furthermore, the inquirer’s general outlook and specific attitudes to children and
family life will inevitably be shaped by different domains of experience including
her psycho-biography and the nature of continuing, significant face-to-face
interactions within her social world. Prominent here will be the institutional
domains, the family and workplace, and how they have shaped perceptions. On
a more macro scale, the polity and economy affect the inquirer’s propensities
towards such areas as the social construction of childhood, societal ‘threat’,
‘victimhood’, child abuse and mental disorder – all of which are prominent
constructs within the policy of mandated prevention.
Question 2: How has emotion shaped the inquirer’s perspective on mandated
Points for Consideration: Mandated prevention is an emotive social policy. It
deals with society’s pressing concerns, its fears, and its ideas concerning the
nature of State welfare under modern capitalism. So, beneath the meniscus of
rationality lie the powerful currents of emotion which help mould our moral
choices and ethical stances. Such emotions are shaped by the historical ecology
of psychosocial environments and altered or maintained by contemporary
settings. How then do we recognize the impact of our own emotions on the
formulation of rational judgements in relation to the issue of mandated
prevention? For instance, a rising incidence of teenage suicide will evoke
feelings of deep sadness but also of moral outrage. The inquirer’s sensitivity to
such feelings is necessary in order to prevent uninformed and injudicious knee
jerk reactions to the problem. In all of this, there is the danger of policy making by
what may be called ‘lurched sway’. It must be remembered that the policy of
mandated prevention has been orchestrated within the context of a ‘risk’ society,
a society that is all too aware of fearful outcomes, and a society that must have
confidence in its public services to mitigate them where possible.
During the past decade child and family social policy in the United Kingdom has
moved beyond an initial concern with modernisation and efficiency to
establishing a much more ambitious set of goals which join social and economic
agendas in a future orientated social investment strategy. Informed by social
research and economic theory this approach seeks to promote investment in
human capital over the direct provision of economic maintenance. Children, in
particular, are presented as the ‘building blocks’ for creating a new welfare
architecture and vibrant economy. Pivotal to this policy direction is an emerging
body of research positing that exposure to a range of adverse experiences in
childhood has an association with negative, social and health outcomes in
adulthood - outcomes which are costly to the State. Thus, by identifying such
children early on and intervening to ameliorate their difficulties, through a policy
of mandated prevention, the aspiration is to offset such predicted longer term
This paper has argued that policy formation is a process that deserves intense
ethical and sociological scrutiny. This process has been examined and its critical
components delineated and justified through rational argumentation that builds
from four foundational axioms and their supportive theorems and corollaries. In
applying this ethical process to the policy of mandated prevention, we have
highlighted core questions and related points for consideration to enable those
affected by it to test the policy’s potential and ethical proficiency. This process
can also be applied, we argue, to other child welfare policies.
More specifically, we believe that the framework has a particular purchase for
social work. Social workers primarily face ethical dilemmas at an individual and
familial level. However, they must not forget the macro context shaping their
practice. That is, they must reflect more widely on the ethical basis of the social
policies influencing what they do. Weiss et al. (2006) encapsulate the point well
when they say:
‘Social justice is a primary goal of social work. Indeed,
retrenchment in welfare states has led to a growing emphasis on
this task in social work discourse. To be able to promote social
justice effectively, social workers must understand the impact of
social structures and policy upon service users and must be
actively involved in policy practice...however, policy practice is
still neglected in social work practice and in the professional
socialization process’ (pgs. 789,790).
There are a number of ways of responding to this imperative. Thus, in training
fora, social workers need to consider the policy context, or so called ‘hot policy
topics’, through group discussion and structured case examples. The framework
outlined earlier could enliven this analysis by providing a structured format to
enhance critical thinking and the promotion of social justice. Another application
lies in group supervision where a team of social workers might move their focus
beyond the strict demands of their cases to the social imperatives curtailing and
shaping their responses. Or, a group of residential social workers in a children’s
home might, for example, scrutinise the recent governmental interest in social
pedagogy as an overarching model for practice. Social work managers, too, are
centrally engaged with policy directives which must be appraised from an ethical
standpoint. In essence, we believe that the relationship between social work,
social policy and ethics deserves much more critical attention in a world where
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