The child at the centre : rethinking child protection


University of British Columbia

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Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis considers the central problems posed by child protection in liberal societies and how those problems have played out in, and are addressed through, the legislative and administrative reforms in British Columbia in the 1990s. Child protection brings two important social values into conflict: on one side, liberal (adult) individualism (including the autonomy/privacy of the family as a counterweight to the State) and, on the other, the communal interest in child well being (including humanitarian and civil/moral order interests) which, in liberal societies, is delegated to the State. This conflict is a feature of liberal societies and cannot be, truly, resolved; child protection requires choices and decisions about the values/interests on either side of the conflict. British Columbia's new "child centred" child welfare system is about making those decisions on an individual basis focused on the child. The new Ministry contains a range of options and approaches ("intervention" and "support") and does not, per se, endorse one over the other. The professional task is to choose the appropriate response; "child centred" practice means that "appropriate" is defined from the beginning with reference to the child. The conflict between family privacy and the communal interest in child well being has previously been managed, or contained, within the "liberal compromise" (Dingwall, Eekelaar and Murray, 1983) , that the State may inspect the family provided that its agents make the best of what they find. The most significant effect of the compromise had been to minimise identified mistreatment. By the 1980s, however, it was increasingly clear (to professionals and the public) that neither children nor family privacy were adequately protected within the compromise. "Non-interventionist" child protection, which appeared to reconcile the problematic by subsuming child protection within family support, became the modern reform paradigm (as a response to perceived failure, and as an idea with wide political appeal, resonating with liberal norms of privacy and conflict avoidance). However (as the Report of the Gove Inquiry would show) supporting families and protecting children are not synonymous. The legitimacy and coherence of the "noninterventionist" paradigm depends on the disappearance (explained as both respecting family privacy and the professionalism of child protection workers) of child deaths (the most obvious form of child suffering). After the Gove Report's publicisation of the sometimes fatal (for the child) consequences of family support and the disappearance of dead children inside "the system" (dramatically, and very publicly, cast as professional back covering, shockingly indifferent to the child at the centre) the non-interventionist paradigm appeared untenable. It is too early to tell how the Ministry's "child centred" decision making will better protect children (and family autonomy), however, several features of the post-Gove reformsamendments moving the focus of the Child, Family and Community Service Act away from "non-intervention", the structure of the single Ministry and the regular inquiries and reports of the Children's Commissioner- do have the potential to preclude a comeback for the non-interventionist paradigm (despite the paradigm's political, cultural and professional appeal) and may also create an organisational and (professional) cultural context conducive to child centred decision making.

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