The moral status of children in child protection: a case for emerging from our moral ignorance

Author: Carmela Bastian

Bastian, Carmela, 2017 The moral status of children in child protection: a case for emerging from our moral ignorance, Flinders University, School of Social and Policy Studies

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The heart and soul of statutory child protection is ensuring that children are safe and protected; that their rights, development and wellbeing are central and flourishing. A growing and consistent theme in child protection discourse is the increasing silence, invisibility and marginalisation of children who experience trauma, oppression and dehumanisation. “Childism” facilitates an understanding of the prejudice and oppression of children (Young-Bruehl, 2012), and anti-childist practice provides the foundation for a transformative agenda (Wall, 2010). The study reported in this thesis is particularly concerned with exposing childist practices within family and statutory child protection contexts with the aim of understanding the lived experiences of children who had been maltreated.

The study begins with a philosophical deliberation asserting that children have moral status and are valuable members of the human community. The concept of moral status and other compelling factors enhance children’s humanity and moral standing, thus degrading childism. Children who experience maltreatment are morally worthy and deserving of care, compassion and recognition. The philosophical deliberation illuminates the criticality of relationships, rights and obligations. It informs morally just practice in statutory child protection.

Morally just practice is a central concept in this study. The Emergent Model of Morally Just Practice (EMMJP) a synthesis of the Just Practice Framework (Finn & Jacobson 2003a, 2003b) and Ecological-Transactional Perspective (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995), and the Capabilities Approach (Nussbaum, 2011) is the interpretive conceptual framework. EMMJP was developed by the author specifically for this study. The EMMJP model serves two functions in the study context: first, it provides an interpretive conceptual framework; second, it is evaluated for its applicability as a social work practice framework in statutory child protection. Morally just practice, which makes the claim that child protection workers are morally and professionally obliged to attend to the realities of children’s lives without abandoning the quest for social justice and human rights, is a critical element of the emergent model and an essential component of social work practice.

Critical social research methodology is operationalised in the study by a critical-dialectical process that grounds the research in the concrete realities of children’s lived experiences and statutory child protection. The Emergent Model of Morally Just Practice conceptual framework, as an interpretive lens, demands an intimate knowledge of children’s lived experiences within their family context. It is an interpretive instrument inclusive of children’s development, rights and wellbeing. As such, it facilitates the analysis of the narratives, as case studies, of Dean, Jack, Baby Kate and Ebony, four children central to the study. All four had been in need of care and protection, and met their demise while in contact with statutory child protection. Interrogation of the children’s narratives exposed childism within the contexts of the family and statutory child protection. The trauma that characterised the children’s lives culminated from complex transactions of parental developmental histories, parental characteristics, meaning of the child and structural factors. The interrogation also identified dynamics that resulted in a profound elimination of the children’s humanity.

The statutory child protection agencies that were mandated to attend to the safety and protection of Dean, Jack, Ebony and Baby Kate failed them, thereby exposing the chasm between the rhetoric and reality of practice. Complex, interacting forces contributed to childist practices within the statutory child protection authorities, exacerbating oppression and dehumanisation of the children. The evidence shows a fundamental lack of attentiveness to, and recognition of, their adversity and suffering. Child protection processes and responses illustrate speedy casework resolution, or conveyor belt social work, minimising moral attentiveness and effectively excluding the children and families from the moral community. These strategies, indicative of neoliberalist and managerialist agenda that promote efficiency but obscure the human aspect of statutory child protection work, preclude the formation of working alliances and erode workers’ confidence and competence.

As the lives and deaths of Dean, Jack, Ebony and Baby Kate in this study unfold, the readers will observe the fatal impact of childism in family and statutory child protection. It will become clear that a transformative agenda must fundamentally reclaim the rehumanisation of children – CHILDREN MUST COME FIRST.

The concluding chapter provides a critique of the Emergent Model of Morally Just Practice framework and determines its applicability as a framework for morally just social work practice in statutory child protection. The model starts with a genuine concern for a child’s wellbeing coupled with a commitment to social justice and human rights. Engaging with, and having an in-depth understanding of, the oppressive and dehumanising realities of children’s lives promotes humane practice and moral status, and erodes childism. This transformation is contingent on humane and ethical statutory child protection agencies that nurture and attend to workers’ needs, interests and wellbeing.

Keywords: moral status, children, child protection, childism, ethical practice

Subject: Social Work thesis, Social Administration thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Social and Policy Studies
Supervisor: Associate Professor Lorna Hallahan