Troubling Child Protection Practice in England: What can the Capability Approach, Bourdieu and Fraser offer to the promotion of humane social work with children and families?

Gupta, Anna (1); Vannier, Helene (2) (2016). 'Troubling Child Protection Practice in England: What can the Capability Approach, Bourdieu and Fraser offer to the promotion of humane social work with children and families?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract This paper explores the impact of child protection interventions by social workers in England through a theoretical framework based on the CA, Fraser and Bourdieu. With an awareness of the imbalanced identities, legitimacy and power of the actors involved, it aims to evaluate to what extent the intervention of social workers (dis)empower children and parents involved in the child protection system, i.e. by expanding (or reducing) their capabilities. This paper is based on the complementary work of the two presenters. On the one hand, Gupta has worked on developing the application of the CA to social work in England (Gupta et al., 2014). On the other hand, Vannier’s (2015) recent successful PhD, offers, by combining Sen and Bourdieu, a sociological investigation of how relational practices represent dynamics and social structures that shape people’s opportunities to be and do what they value. The ways in which a society responds to its most vulnerable children is central to the debate about the relationship between children, families and the state. When and how to intervene in private family life where there are concerns about harm to a child are dilemmas that continually challenge policy makers and practitioners. Contemporary UK has witnessed a shift in tone and substance played out in child protection work (Featherstone et al., 2014). Stringent cuts in welfare and family support services have led to significant hardships for many families, while at the same time the numbers of child protection investigations and children in compulsory state care are rising. The child protection system in England has become increasingly harsh and punitive, especially for families living in poverty many of whom are from minority ethnic backgrounds. The majority of families experiencing child protection interventions live in socially adverse circumstances; however, the role of social work is increasingly being narrowed to focus on deficit-based assessments of risk rather than the promotion of well-being. We need to question the ways through which macro-structural level inequalities may be negotiated or reinforced in the micro-level interactions that families experience with social workers, and consider the implications for the human rights of marginalised children and families. This is particularly relevant in the context of the promotion by the UK government of adoption without parental consent.  This paper presents the diverging experiences and perspectives of parents who live in poverty and have experienced child protection interventions; young people in the care system; and social workers, gathered through a series of workshops and focus group discussions. The analysis of these discussions draws upon the CA and the work of Bourdieu and Fraser. It explores how an evaluative framework that captures the impact of child protection intervention over families’ capabilities can help social workers to critically assess their practices and their role in the promotion of social justice. It therefore aims to enable them to reconcile their practice with the primary values of the profession, in ways that can challenge the impact of neoliberal policies in ‘austerity’ England. At a theoretical level, we argue first that the CA represents an opportunity for analysing and questioning social work practice not as an institutional project, but through its impact on the people’s abilities to be and do what they value. Sen’s concept of capabilities effectively introduced an ethical shift from previous (institutionalist and materialist) social justice theories. The ethical framework of the CA allows a multidimensional assessment of the outcomes of social work practice for the effective welfare of parents and their children. The CA also debates the need for the state to guarantee one’s effective capabilities (Keleher, 2014) and particularly to protect the capabilities and rights of vulnerable persons, such as protecting children from harm by imposing limits on some parental rights and freedoms (Nussbaum and Dixon, 2012). Second, we build a case for the articulation of the CA with Bourdieu’s and Fraser’s work in order to understand the influence of relational and social factors over families’ parenting choices and opportunities. Fraser’s and Bourdieu’s dynamic understandings of recognition and power relations can further assist the application of the CA to critical social work practice. Bourdieu makes sense of the objective and symbolic structures that imbue people’s interactions, power relations and practices, and which shape one’s abilities and places in the social structure. Moreover, his relational approach explores the position of state institutions in the promotion of dominant interpretations of social norms, and its stake in the (re)production of inequalities. Fraser demonstrates how social recognition, economic redistribution and political representation constitute complementary spheres of social justices that reinforce each other, and debates on its political implications. Beyond illustrating the pertinence and strength of such a theoretical framework, we discuss, at an empirical level, how the power relations involved in child protection social work can shape families' (dis)empowerment in society, through social, economic or legal dynamics. We offer a critical assessment of social work, as a key actor of the reproduction of social inequalities. Finally, we suggest legitimate conditions and methods of social work interventions that advance children’s rights whilst striving for the empowerment and respect for the human dignity of children and parents from diverse backgrounds. We argue that social work policy and practice need to give voice to families regarding what they value pursuing in their parenting roles. Policy and practice complementarily need to account for and diminish the structural constraints that families experience in the exercise of their (parenting) agency, in order to promote social justice and human rights.  

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