Child protection policy and practice: a relationship lost in translation.

AuthorHyslop, Ian


This article considers the challenges and opportunities facing contemporary child protection practice and contends that a meaningful understanding of child protection can best be gleaned by examining how practice is connected historically and sociologically with the broader discipline of social work. The essence of social work is described as a contradictory mix of surveillance and empowerment. The Victorian genesis of social work is linked to a distinction between the deserving and undeserving, yet also with a theme of redemption and liberation. It is suggested that the positioning of social workers as intermediaries between the comfortable and the threatening classes remains a salient feature in current practice. The relevance of the enduring phenomenon of a constructed underclass for child protection practice is explored. It is contended that anxiety associated with the breakdown of modernist certainties in the last 40 or 50 years has created an impetus to define and measure child protection in a mechanistic and risk-averse manner, and that the dominant instrumental form of social science misapprehends the nature of child protection as "practice". A paradigm conflict is described, whereby managerial policy frameworks fundamentally fail to accommodate the essence of social work. It is argued that the effective development of child protection practice requires that it be re-conceptualised as complex, creative and interactive as opposed to a two-dimensional process of procedural compliance. It is suggested that child protection practice must be reacquainted with the voice of practice wisdom--contextualised in the same way that social work is itself a process of engagement with social context. Practitioners, educators and theorists are challenged to actively advocate for an accurate understanding of child protection as ambiguous and situated social practice.

I asked her pardon for the cruel lesson, and to her great surprise, gave her the eighty rubles. She murmured her little "merci" several times and went out. I looked after her and thought: "How easy it is to crush the weak in this world." (Chekhov 2003:22)


There are significant opportunities for developing child protection social work in Aotearoa / New Zealand. From the media-fuelled public and political outcries when infant children are killed at the hands of their parents, to our statutory agency's struggle to retain experienced social workers, contemporary practice is under severe pressure. Arguably, this pressure has been imperceptibly building; ebbing and flowing like an incoming tide over the last 10 or 20 years, perhaps for much longer from a historical perspective. An aura of risk anxiety is, of course, nothing new to child abuse and child protection practice. After all, child abuse involves a crisis for the child, the family, the wider community, and for the agencies charged with intervening (Summit 1983). Consequently, as Morrison (1997:1) so acutely observes, "Anxiety runs like a vein throughout the child protection process".

It is instructive to adopt a broad "contextual" approach when seeking to understand the challenges facing practice development in this field. Child protection has developed, over time, as a public service delivered principally through the emerging profession of social work. Social work is, in turn, no more separable from its past than social life is separable from social history (Bourdieu 2003:72) Accordingly, this paper sets out to explore some of the tensions that beset the ideological and sociological construction of child protection social work; to look back in order to find a way forward. It is contended that the analysis that emerges could contribute to the development of a policy vision that reconnects child protection practice with social work values and principles. The strength of social work resides in the capacity to link, in theory and in practice, big-picture analysis with the circumstances of individual lives; the political with the personal. By way of analogy, it is argued that child protection cannot be well understood unless it is reconnected with its socio-political dimensions, its complex practice context, and with the value base that informs social work.


Social work is a socially constructed activity in that the parameters of practice are influenced by dominant societal perceptions of what is normative and desirable. What we look for is often what we find, although our visions (and our illusions) change with the times. Societal anxiety has spread and gathered momentum as the clarity and security that characterised the era of industrial modernism has progressively dissolved over the last 40 or 50 years (Parton and O'Byrne 2000:4). This cultural sea-change, often referred to as post-modern times, is associated in the social sciences with an epistemological crisis: critique of the notion of objective professional expertise, of the credibility of the scientific method of truth production as pioneered by the likes of Comte and Durkheim; and a questioning of the validity of the Cartesian dualism that underpins the scientific way of knowing (Sarantakos 1998:35). Ferguson (2004:132) refers to a "melting" of the solid visions of modernity, arguing that such assumptions have always been illusory in the context of child protection practice.

Parton (2000:460--461) has proposed that the recognition of social work as an intrinsically interactive and contingent activity (that "the social" cannot be removed from social practice) may mean that it is a discipline that is uniquely tailored to an uncertain post-modern society. Social work is at best "variably rational" and routinely accommodates ambiguities and dualities (Hutchison 1987:586, Webb 2001:67). It constantly seeks to balance an uneasy dialectical essence in its positioning at the intersection of social care and social control, and in its practice of seeking objective outcomes through a process of subjective interpersonal interaction (Dingwall et al. 1983). Power is understood and experienced as non-linear, contested, and to some degree negotiable in the relationship between social worker and "client".

Conversely, the implosion of modernist absolutes has prompted a growing concern in Government, and in social life, with the minimisation of uncertainty: of "risk" identification, containment and control (Beck 1992). In the case of child protection practice, the greater visibility of child abuse generally, and public scrutiny of the injury or death of children known to social services particularly, has prompted increasingly shrill demands for the design and application of stringent measures to predict and reduce risk (Connolly and Doolan 2007). This article contends that a resultant preoccupation with lineal procedures--task performance, timeliness, fiscal accountability, and, above all, technocratic measurement--is ultimately counter-productive, in that a dispassionate and disengaged form of practice is promoted. The art of practice is buried beneath an anxious science of uncertainty. Trebilcock (1995:11--12) credits H.L. Mencken with the astute observation that simple solutions to complex problems are not only comfortably seductive, but also generally wrong. As Connolly and Doolan (2007:3) suggest:

... trying to replace professional judgment with protocols, tools and guidelines ignores the fluidity of child protection practice ... Attempting to make complex matters simple by developing tools and checklists is a naive response and more than likely to fail. CONTESTED PRACTICE FUTURES

In terms of the future development of social work practice, and of the ownership and control of that development, the stakes may be extremely high. In asserting that it is "no exaggeration to say that the very future of social work itself rests on reaching a deeper understanding of child protection", Ferguson (2004:7) polemically suggests that no less than the survival of the social work profession is at stake. This claim is germane to the Aotearoa / New Zealand context given the extensive social work resources invested in a field that is subject to constant political and media interrogation. Scott (2006:7) describes a centrifugal, self-reinforcing crisis in child protection practice in Australasia in the following terms:

Most child protection services...

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