Family values politics in welfare states

July 21, 2014

In The Politics of Child Abuse, Nigel Parton (1985) quotes June Lait lamenting “Possibly there cannot be, certainly there is not, a single piece of evidence which establishes that social work intervention, short of removal, has prevented child abuse.” Similarly, in Battered (1987) the problem of making keeping families together a child welfare services priority is presented as problematic.

“The social worker who enters the family makes contact with the parents and strives to maintain a good relationship with them as they provide access to the child and the hope for the child’s future. As a result the parents, rather than the beleaguered children, too often become the focus of attention. Children are often sent back home even where there is considerable risk, and what is called a ‘distinct lack of parenting abilities’.”

Perversely, social workers sometimes respond to a “disclosure” of full accountability for having intentionally injured a child (after the family is referred to the child welfare services system out of concern raised by unconfirmed suspicions of abuse) as a sign of progress in a parent’s relationship with service providers, and are too easily persuaded to return the child to the abuser’s care once the parent has begun responding to their demands for open dialogue about the abusive behavior and, with coaching, has adopted a posture of intending to change their parenting habits in the desired direction.

Abusive parents also find social workers gullible toward their claims that they will, in the future, channel their evident aggression problems toward being fiercely protective of their children, rather than utilizing the children as permissible targets for aggression provoked by those they cannot afford to retaliate against.

Healthy alternatives to child battery would need to share certain attributes:

  • An exertion of physical prowess over someone substantially weaker without the need for time-consuming strength training
  • Convenience, something that can be done without time management planning after a bad day at work or a miserable commute in traffic
  • Low risk of consequences for oneself (and possibly the satisfaction of observing lasting consequences for the victim, who replaces your child self if you were abused as a child and need to adopt the dominant role in your limited imagination’s role options)

There is a troublesome commitment here to not viewing child batterers as cynical and opportunistic, possibly a holdover from medicalization of “child battery syndrome” or the desire of social service providers to emulate the medical model for case work in mental health services, despite evidence that rates of child battery tail off as children reach school age and the chances of getting caught increase. Helping professionals have strong preconceptions about biology and family politics that militate against suspecting parents of a potential for sadistic attitudes toward their own children.


What would the alternative entail? Acknowledging the potential in parents for coldness toward their own children so profound they could set out to cause them pain and suffering in a premeditated fashion and calmly avoid getting caught doing so, that if more than one adult was fully aware of the behavior, groups of adults colluded in covering it up if not in perpetrating the abuse intentionally, and that the child’s opportunities for eliciting help from those not directly responsible for the maltreatment were thwarted by the biases of teachers and doctors and their unwillingness to provoke parents and initiate paperwork.

If deterring intervention were not difficult for the responsible adults, the sense of impunity such a situation instilled would be unconscionable. But anyone who was already pessimistic about the benevolence of human nature would be reluctant to admit that most children who escape maltreatment in their own homes are coasting on the goodwill of adults who are not being forcibly held accountable for their own best behavior in any effective way by society at large.

In Failed Child Welfare Policy (2002) it is explicitly argued that the “veil of confidentiality” between service providers and clients, which is officially only invoked in the name of protecting the client, is in actual practice readily used “to insulate the agency” from its critics instead. The conflicts that service providers fear include friction among agencies (such as social work, public administration, family therapy and family court systems) and shortcomings of the whole system that are easily traced to the mundane failings of any bureaucracy – “service providers’ tendency to categorize clients’ problems according to services and divisions of labor is convenient for administrators but can have grave consequences for clients.”


This book focuses on the reforms that have prioritized keeping families together by working with families as units rather than rushing to remove children at risk from their imperfect homes, and warns that these reforms put the social services system in an awkward position where it can end up mirroring and reinforcing the “dysfunctional characteristics” that are purportedly being brought to light and addressed within the client families. When shortcomings become scandalous, the typical approach to reform comes in “the form of new leadership, new rules and reorganizations that further demoralize an embattled workforce.” The undertrained staff at the bottom of the pecking order tend to focus on treading water.

The priorities of administrators trying to make the bureaucracy itself run smoothly tend to trump other concerns, because in professionalized social services “conformity to agency policy or to the standards and procedures of professional casework” is something on which each service provider’s livelihood and social status depends. Direct contact with clients occurs at the bottom of a chain of command, where there is little recourse to alternatives whether or not a client’s needs demand flexibility from the service provider, and at the top of the organization’s hierarchy is often a political appointee.

Thus the case workers may end up being as inflexible and authoritarian in imposing prescriptive interventions without responsive listening to client needs as the stereotypical doctor suffering from “medical narcissism” – with the important difference that a social worker’s bag of tricks is largely limited to allocating welfare payouts, assisted housing and mental health services. No effective science of behavior change exists to equip them to actually reform the dynamics of families they are tasked with improving as independent units.

Failed Child Welfare Policy (2002) cont’d: “The term ‘iron triangle’ has been used in reference to the strong, interdependent relationships among federal agencies, congressional committees and subcommittees, and interest groups.” At the local level, this pattern is replicated by tight-knit “relationships that exist among the public child welfare agency, the court, and private contractors” who often operate public service institutions through the privatization of management contracts. Private contractors often have politically influential individuals on their boards of directors, and where services cannot be readily replaced should a contractor be found noncompliant with service agreements and terms, firing the contractor may not be feasible.


Any kind of interagency hand-off would undermine the predictability bureaucracy could otherwise offer to clients trying to learn how to navigate the system, and even intake and protective services referrals are often provided indirectly “by connecting families with other service providers that offer counseling, parenting training, and day care, among others.” Sometimes “connecting” the client with these resources is merely a matter of providing the flier disseminated by that particular service provider.

Coordination among these service providers beyond this level of cross-provider referral is something the various institutions tend to resist – the authors of Failed Child Welfare Policy describe this as the behavior of “contentious, often resistant systems (mental health, health, other social service providers, among others) whose members acknowledge the value of coordination in principle,” but defend their own organizational prerogatives.

The now-tired media circus protocol for child battery fatalities to be built up into a cause célèbre with one villain per victim to keep the community on the same page about the need to unreservedly condemn the outcome was recommended by a doctor early in the history of recognizing and responding to child batter – Eric Turner, writing for BMJ, put it this way (paraphrased by Parton 1985) authorities and public service providers should cooperate with the media to “create an atmosphere in the community which did not overlook violence, and he argued that ‘what is really needed is a cause célèbre with front page treatment in the press’. Secondly, it was important to make conviction virtually certain and then give an exemplary sentence of many years in prison.”

In HBO’s The Newsroom this scandal genre is roundly critiqued for promoting a naive exceptionalism (under-recognition of the frequency of child battery fatalities) – the public is encouraged to deceive itself about just how abnormal a parent and a set of circumstances surrounding the child’s case would have to be for things to go that far. Just as infotainent promotes an “evil genius” theory of serial killer success stories, in reality what people have the good sense to do behind closed doors is generally difficult to discover or confirm. The Wire comments persuasively on the general difficulty of solving any murder case whatsoever, much less linking multiple cases to a repeat offender who knows how to take basic precautions against getting caught.


American Psycho satirizes the phenomenon with an end sequence in which the culprit in a killing spree is surprised and frustrated with the difficulty of boasting credibly of such success. He is brushed off by an ambivalent lawyer who knows better than to humor a client who wants to confess; Vegas is rumored to have lawyers who notarize consent forms for gang bangs that specify a porn star who enters into a regrettable film shoot has waived her right to pursue the issue.

Among on-line support groups stories of referrals to punitive inpatient treatment facilities made at the behest of parents determined to stamp out the adolescent or young adult’s confidence that speaking out against an abusive relative would be worth while tend to come out once in a while, sometimes detailing levels of punitive behavior change intervention that could at best be described as unhealthy bullying and at worst inspire horror movies like Gothika and satires like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Isolating strategies for deterring the victim’s effort to get help from friends or authorities are well-known, including use of discrediting narratives (e.g., Anne Sexton’s family alleged her creative writing about experience of child sexual abuse was “in imitation of Sylvia Plath”), and of course mentalizing the allegations as a symptom of psychosis or attention-seeking behavior of a milder variety.

If successfully confronted about a failure to report child abuse to the police, physicians have various ways of insisting they could not have known, laid out early in the discussion of “child battery syndrome” as a medical discovery. “Firstly, doctors in casualty departments were simply unaware of the possibility, secondly, they were psychologically unwilling to believe that parents could do such things, thirdly they were unhappy at violating the principle of client confidentiality, and fourthly, doctors are usually reluctant to become involved in the criminal justice process that might forfeit both their time and ability to control the outcome.” Social services have historically preferred alignment with doctors and mental health professionals to working with the courts or police, and are prone to mentalizing assault allegations as paranoid ideation when working with adult clients.

The idea of preventing child cruelty being a major part of the child social services mission was quickly rephrased as a mission to prevent child neglect; it is ironically easier to substantiate and process a child removal decision on the basis of unsafe housing conditions (rats, mould) than on the basis of intentional child maltreatment, which puts parents who can’t afford well-maintained housing at serious risk of arbitrary and punitive child removal should an opportunistic authority figure want something from them, even if the parent is not liable for imprisonment.


This may be why the conventional wisdom is that nothing could be worse for a child than being diverted into foster care, an intentionally under-resourced “safety net” that is actually used largely as a last resort for placing the children of the prison population. There is also a conventional attitude that only one’s biological parents can be expected to take a child’s welfare seriously, since children are essentially a public nuisance and removal would be doing any parent or primary care-giver a favor, as seen in 19th century objections to the idea of child removal in abuse cases: “it would free the self-indulgent at the cost of the self-controlled and, worse still for the children, would put a premium on their ill-treatment.”

Once contact has been made with helping professionals and due diligence on their part has been satisfied, any evidence that this didn’t resolve the child welfare problem that was brought to their attention is to the discredit of all parties that were involved, and there is considerable temptation to suppress that evaluation or find a more flattering way of looking at the outcome. Reopening a closed case in the event of recidivism is something the social worker themselves would resist out of personal embarrassment, because it would represent a failure of their earlier efforts to reform an abusive parent.

This is family values politics in the form of bureaucracy, a form of institutional violence that reifies the unchecked prerogatives of biological parents over those too young to earn their own income or testify cogently on their own behalf in court. Bureaucratic inertia and the defensiveness of ineffectual service providers are the cause, and unremitting vulnerability to child abuse is the consequence. Children are one of the four groups Marth Nussbaum identifies as excluded by neoliberalism’s frontiers of justice, and the state of child welfare policy bears this out.

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