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Blame, culture and child protection

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Book review by Irene de Haan, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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VOLUME 30 NUMBER 3 2018 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK
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Blame, culture and child protection
Jadwiga Leigh, 2017
Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK
ISBN 978-1-137-47008-9, pp. 255, hardback, NZD170.00
In recent years, the public has held social
workers responsible for rescuing “at-
risk” children and the media are poised
to pounce when a child is seriously harmed.
Sensationalist reporting has tarnished
the profession’s reputation, especially in
England. Jadwiga Leigh’s book offers an
insider’s perspective on what it means to be
a social worker in this context. It includes
stories, vignettes, observations and reflective
research notes from her comparative
ethnographic study of English and Flemish
child protection agencies. The tone is
experiential, immediate and, at times, very
personal. Drawing on social interactionism
and Goffman’s work on stigma, Leigh
discusses the nature of “profession” and
“professional identity”. She explains how
professional decision-making is profoundly
undermined by constant awareness of
public scrutiny and describes the different
experience of social workers in Flanders,
where child welfare practice maintains
a tradition of supporting families, child
protection practice is interdisciplinary,
compassionate and collegial, and social work
is still a respected profession.
Beginning with a lament for English social
workers’ loss of status, Leigh explains that
the profession has reacted to blame by
veering towards risk avoidance, stifling the
responsive, “inspirational” practice that
was formerly its hallmark and undermining
social workers’ confidence in their specialist
expertise. Social workers dread featuring on
the front page of the tabloid newspapers as
the person responsible for “failing” to protect
a child. Faced with the dilemma of assessing
whether a child is safe at home, it can feel
much safer to err on the side of caution and
use statutory power to take that child into
care, thus both fulfilling and shaping public
perceptions of the social work role. An
alternative course of action is to work with
the child’s family to help them resolve issues
considered risky but that can feel unrealistic
when administrative requirements are
prioritised over relationship-building, and
when other sources of support are hard
to find. This kind of risk-averse practice
has infiltrated the child welfare field in
Aotearoa New Zealand, where recent
rhetoric positions children as “vulnerable”
to harm because their families’ problems are
entrenched and intractable.
Leigh’s book explains how English child
protection agencies reacted to the threat
of public vilification. In a rather futile
attempt to insulate themselves against
criticism, they adopted a defensive
stance. To forestall accusations of careless
monitoring, they developed hierarchical
organisational structures and managerial
surveillance of social workers’ compliance
with administrative procedures. Targets and
timescales leave little scope for developing
the trusting relationships that enable
social workers to hear families’ stories,
understand their problems, and work
with them towards some kind of solution.
Child protection has morphed into agency
protection and child protection social work
has internalised risk. However, instead of
protecting the social work profession from
public blame and contempt, this reaction
eroded the profession’s reputation. Child
protection social work is perceived as
callous rather than helpful. Yet, rather than
regaining respect by articulating the strong,
cohesive body of knowledge that underpins
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the profession’s specialist expertise in
supporting people experiencing hard
times, child protection social work has been
complicit in the damage done.
Organisational culture that equates
professionalism with compliance is
incompatible with the values and expertise
at the heart of social work’s capacity to
promote the well-being of children and their
families, and to its capacity to promote social
justice.
Leigh compares this regrettable state of
affairs with the very different Flemish
child welfare system which is based in an
established, integrated continuum of care.
The preventive end of this continuum
features home-based support provided
by specially trained nurses for all families
with new babies, for as long as they need
it. The investigative end of the continuum
aims to maintain a supportive attitude.
Leigh’s book uses photos and descriptions
to illustrate how physical environment
embodies prevailing assumptions about
the professional/client relationship and the
status of social workers. Photographs of
the English site show a bleak environment
that prioritises managerial concerns about
efficiency and reflects power differentials.
This “fortress of social work” reflects
hierarchical staffing structures by positioning
social workers in an open-plan office
where confidentiality is compromised and
managers can keep an eye on what is going
on from behind venetian blinds encasing
the glass that partitions their workspaces
from the common space occupied by other
staff. There is no sign of any attempt to make
children and families feel comfortable in
the building, while obvious signage does
nothing to decrease stigma.
By contrast, the Flemish agency is located in
a school. Social workers meet with children
and families in personalised, individual
offices accessed via a corridor adorned with
artwork intended to demonstrate that many
families have struggled previously, and
thus lessen stigma. A photo of this corridor
shows artwork in the form of “coffin-shaped
boxes” containing compressed paper records
of work with previous families. This seems
bizarre, but Leigh does not discuss other
possible interpretations – an example of
her tendency to report rather than analyse.
Despite her focus on “how space and
environment can impact on the identity
of those who work in these settings and
those who visit them” (p. 139), she does not
probe the incongruity between the agency’s
professed aims and its practice. For example,
students are excluded from the staff
lunchroom despite the agency’s commitment
to collegiality.
Leigh’s comparative ethnography leaves
crucial questions unanswered. How realistic
is it to imagine shifting individualised
child protection practice typical of risk-
averse cultures towards the collegial,
interdisciplinary work and collective
responsibility that characterises the work
of the Flemish agency described in Leigh’s
book? To what extent is it possible for a
statutory agency to engage in supportive
practice when families view social workers
as authoritarian? Deep-seated suspicion
of English social workers’ motives and
competence is implicit in some of the stories
presented in the book. Such suspicion
builds over many years and will not easily
dissipate, so how could the English child
protection model metamorphose into
something resembling the Flemish model?
The book’s discussion of entrenched
risk-averse orientation suggests that
metamorphosis could not happen without
a fundamental change in the way child
protection agencies view, value and support
their social workers. Transformation to
a less mechanistic culture would require
significant attitudinal change, a shift away
from the prevailing view that it is imperative
to rescue children from families deemed
dangerous and towards supporting families
to raise their children safely. Flemish child
protection builds on universal, preventive
service provision, inter-professional respect
and collective responsibility. Unfortunately,
preventive services in Aotearoa New Zealand
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Reviewed by Irene de Haan, University of Auckland, New Zealand
protection social workers. The book provides
vivid extracts from social workers’ accounts
of their professional lives and thus offers
insight into the realities of practice, including
anxieties, regrets and disappointments
that now characterise the child protection
field. Although social workers may not be
encouraged by the book’s content, it could
potentially counteract the media’s propensity
to denigrate social work. If the book were
required reading for journalism students,
they might more carefully consider the moral
dimension of their own future work. Mostly,
however, the book points to the need for
social workers to take control of the narrative
about what social work can, and should, do.
have also been eroded and collegial practice
is not well developed.
The experiences described in Leigh’s book
will resonate with many social workers.
This may be helpful to those struggling
with a sense of dissonance between what
they entered social work to do and what
they find themselves doing. The book’s
description of a sustained comparative
ethnography project will be useful to
people contemplating research projects
using similar methodology. Where it may
be especially useful, however, is in helping
outsiders understand the quandaries and
constraints routinely encountered by child
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