For the past few months now I’ve been engaging in a critique of the child protection agenda as it operates here in the UK and similarly in North America. I was over in North Carolina recently and couldn’t but be struck by the similarities between the issues we faced; child deaths, looking for someone to blame, chronically understaffed social work or welfare agencies. It’s the same script. But let’s be clear; it’s not the only script. It’s a product of a particular way of constructing children and our relationships with them. Most European countries do so in what I would argue are far healthier ways.
When you’re caught up in that unrelenting pressure not to be held accountable for the next child death you keep your head down or you argue for more resources or better procedures; or you leave to drive buses or serve tables or whatever. When like me you have the luxury of standing back from direct involvement, it becomes increasingly clear that the system itself is built on sand. As I’ve argued over the past few months, there have been some spectacular own goals scored in the name of child protection and our concerns are rarely allayed, only heightened.
The problem is, we–ve got a child protection system built upon procedures and legal and medical substantiation when it should really be all about values and attitudes. This opens up a fundamental fault line in the way we approach work with children. There was a lecture recently in Glasgow by a visiting social work professor called “This isn’t what I came into the job for.” It was about the disillusion felt by those who came into social work with high ideals, wanting to make a difference to people’s lives only to find themselves, spirits sapped, bogged down in a morass of procedure and a fear of making mistakes. The climate of fear that surrounds child protection feeds into a moral panic about children and what to do with them. Conspiracy theorists might want to reflect that governments consciously or otherwise, quite like moral panics as it gives them an excuse to impose greater social control. Make up your own minds on that one.
One way or another, we–ve reached a stage where we’re scared of kids and when we’re scared, we can’t live fully with them “our interventions become formulaic rather than spontaneous. Just as dogs pick up that I’m scared of them, kids pick up when adults are scared “and they don’t like it. They push for contact; they push for boundaries and when they don’t get what they’re looking for they act out and give us ways in to put a label on them. Sadly, we–ve become better at dealing with labels that with kids.
At the risk of sounding old, I’m going to reminisce. I had some wonderful moments in child and youth care. They involved things like walking off football pitches caked in mud and sweat, arms around lads I had been playing alongside; sitting on a riverbank at midnight around an open fire; cycling down hills, no hands; taking kids to the theatre, believing (rightly) that they’d enjoy it; sitting in street cafes in Provence with kids who had never before been further than Edinburgh; showing them Paris; missing the last train back to our youth hostel and having to spend the night walking the streets of Montparnasse, snatching a few hours sleep in the railway station. And the laughs were mighty; the practical jokes and the banter that develops when you’re thrown together sharing the lifespace fosters a sense of community and belonging that is powerful and unique. It was enriching experiences like these that sustained workers through the harder bits of the job and like the long hot summers of our childhoods, it’s what nostalgics like me look back on.
I sometimes feel sorry for workers nowadays. So many of the things I remember with fondness would now fall prey to the health and safety tsars and the professional thought police who want to measure and regulate our relationships with kids. To paraphrase, (I think it was the emperor Caligus speaking about the Roman incursion into what is now Scotland) “They create a desert and they call it safety”. I could live with all of this if it were only my memories that were at stake and if kids actually got a better deal from the kind of “professional” interventions we now offer them. But here’s the nub “the kind of experiences I mention above were also the 'Eureka' moments when you made connections and breakthroughs with kids. To deny these is to rip the soul out of what the job is really all about.
That’s the fundamental question we need to address “what is the job all about? What is care? These are questions that scholars at the Thomas Coram Institute at the University of London are exploring in some exiting ways and it’s to them I now turn to support my arguments. The way we currently think about care is political. It is bound up in the capitalist, managerial philosophies of the 1990s. Brannan and Moss assert that “while the “new caplitalism” calls for individualism, instrumental rationality, flexibility, short-term engagement, deregulation and the dissolution of established relationships and practices, caring relationships “are predicated upon an expressive rather than an instrumental relationship to others. They are based on trust, commitment over time and a degree of predictability.” (p.202), Cameron elsewhere in the same volume considers Trontro’s ethic of care in which care is described, not instrumentally, but as a “general habit of mind.” Whilst likely to short-circuit the managerial mindset, this is a description that will resonate with child and youth care workers. Cameron goes on to say that Trontro “makes a distinction between “protection” which is limited to a presumption of bad intentions and harm that is likely to arise and 'care' which is defined by starting with the other’s needs and seeing what can be done to meet them” (p.93).
I–ll conclude with a final quote from Moss and Petrie.
Joy, spontaneity, complexity, desires, richness, wonder, curiosity, care, vibrant, play, fulfilling, thinking for yourself, love, hospitality, welcome, alterity, emotion, ethics, relationships, responsibility “these are part of a vocabulary which speaks about a different idea of public provision for children, one which addresses questions of the good life, including a good childhood and starts with ethics and politics. (p.79).
As child and youth care workers, this is our language. We need to reclaim it in all its richness and not allow ourselves to become bogged down in merely protecting children.
Brannan, J. and Moss, P. (2003) Rethinking Children's Care, Buckingham: Open University Press
Moss, P. and Petrie, P (2002) From Children's
Services to Children's Spaces. London: Routledge Falmer