Power and Powerlessness

The news has been awash with tales of woe. These have varied from the current fuel crisis, problems with the economy, debates about the extension of detention without trial for 42 days, child poverty and ongoing concerns about levels of crime in our communities. Although many of these issues may be considered in part global issues, requiring intergovernmental responses, as individuals they leave us powerless.

The powerlessness has led to the rise of single issue politics. This is in part, I believe, due to an increasing disillusionment with party politics in general and central Government in particular. This is not meant as a dig at the Labour Party, because you could see this disillusionment with party politics occurring a long time before New Labour came to power. However, this rise in single issue politics has a consequence for all Governments, leading them to be constantly reacting to events rather than setting the agenda.

Protecting Children

There are parallels within the world of child welfare. Recently in preparation for a conference paper I have been revisiting the whole issue of child protection in the U.K. As part of this preparation I was reading Harry Ferguson’s eminently readable book Protecting Children in Time, in which he makes the point that we cannot understand child protection in the U.K. unless we see it in a historical context.

He goes further and points out that we cannot separate it out from the issue of power. We need to understand the relationship between the so-called expert and the service user, a relationship that is defined by structures that have been in place to try and manage risk. He talks about “one of the biggest deficits of education in child protection, and certainly of social work, is a failure to get to grips with the complexity of service users and the reality of involuntary clients as they are experienced in practice” (Ferguson, H 2004: 218).

This discussion is not just an intellectual debate about the position of children in our society, although I would propose that understanding the position of the individual in a society is absolutely crucial. Being a child, an adult or an older adult are all social constructs; their parameters have been set by society. The Government in large part has set these parameters around children, in response to what it perceives as need, or in the U.K.’s child protection arena, a response that is deeply influenced by ‘child abuse scandals’.

Protections which control

Governments of whatever political colour have put in place rules and regulations to protect us, whilst at the same time controlling us; and yet these rules are not clearcut when it comes to children. This is in large part due to the Government’s view of childhood, which is contested, developmental and contradictory.

It is contested in part because resources are finite and decisions have to be reached as to where to direct resources. It is developmental because it is linked to an idea that children are born, grow up and become adults. It is contradictory because children on one level are seen as defenceless innocent people who need to be protected – until they become a nuisance and then, on another level, they are seen as criminals. This applies from as young as ten years old, when they can be punished in the same way as adults. Cynically it could be suggested that children have rights so long as they behave, and then they have responsibility.

Whose needs should we meet?

Why is this important? In answering this question, I am indebted to one of our students who, when asked about the centrality of assessment in social work, rightly pointed out that is it the service user who should be at the centre of our interventions.

The assessment process has at times been part of the bureaucratic wall put in place that separates the professional from individual. Every Child Matter’s Common Assessment Framework rightly sees the child at the centre; the problem is that at times the regulations and procedures become the dominant discourse in the professional narrative, rather than the needs of the child.

Bureaucratic procedures can at times provide us with a comfort blanket that we cannot part from or a ‘satnav’ machine that guides us where to go but leaves us stranded when it either breaks down or gets us lost. The starting point for all our work is to recognise both the individuality of the child and his or her complexity. Procedures provide us with a structure, an aide memoire; what they do not provide us with a blueprint for every eventuality.

Ferguson, H (2004) Protecting Children in Time. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

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