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Are We De-professionalizing Child Protection?

A week or so ago I wrote a blog post that discussed some of my concerns about the implementation of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. This week I want to share some of my critical reflection that has arisen as a result of the practicum project I have been working on. Lynn Barratt and I have been looking at recruitment and retention issues for the child and family welfare sector and I am finding some of the issues hit close to home!

Increasingly in working on the project I have been exposed to the trend of de-professionalization of the social service industry. Not only does this have obvious implications on my own employment prospects in the sector, it also raises a range of important questions around the impact of our work with vulnerable children and families. My research and training whilst at PeakCare, and arguably throughout my MSW degree, has highlighted for me the complexity of issues social workers engage within their practice. I do not mention this complexity lightly. I am the first to admit that life is complex. There are so many competing priorities, obligations and needs that it is easy to be overwhelmed.

The families I have come in to contact with under statutory child protection services are generally families with multiple needs and complex problems that go far beyond the run of the mill problems experienced by most of us. I am talking about issues of poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, chronic unemployment, dis-empowerment, mental health, homelessness, unsafe and under resourced neighbourhoods, isolation, discrimination and racism. It’s hard to imagine raising a child in an environment where there are serious and complex problems that prevent ‘good enough’ parenting from taking place, no matter how well intentioned and committed a parent may be. It might be easy to judge these parents, from the place of our own privilege and comfortable arrangements but what right do we have? We who have perhaps not experienced any of the things I have mentioned or who perhaps have been better placed to respond effectively to hardship.

I truly believe that families are the experts in their own lives and that if anyone is to undertake work with these vulnerable families they are going to need to be well qualified, critically reflective and respectful. It just makes good sense that we’d want the best qualified and trained practitioners to do the most complex and intense or work … right? So what’s up with the Department of Child Safety ” Review of the Qualifications and Training Pathways, Department of Child Safety QLD” , 2007 Consultation Paper, wherein it was declared that previously the work of child safety officers had required the possession of skills around family and child issues but that this had now changed. I wonder at this shift and how any work with vulnerable children and families could be undertaken with anything other than education and knowledge that is central to child and family issues? When did child protection stop being about children and families?

In this report, The Department of Child Safety states that ‘the multiple needs of children and young people in the statutory system requires a diversely skilled and qualified workforce which has the ability to respond from a multi disciplinary perspective and offer particularly vulnerable children and young people the best possible outcomes’. Concernedly the department has opened its doors to workers with a plethora of qualifications including law and criminology. I wonder what frameworks those with law and criminology qualifications bring to their work with some of societies most vulnerable? And I wonder at how workers come across to families when their training has been focused on legal structures and crime? How are such workers meant to take a humane, ethical and holistic approach to families? Will their frameworks ensure social justice, critical reflection and anti oppressive practice? I am not convinced.

Certainly a multidisciplinary approach is essential to good practice and I have no doubt our service delivery benefits by multi disciplinary teams and collaborative working. However, I question broadening the qualifications for lead role and case management tasks, which seem central to the provision of best practice in child protection work. What motivated the Department of Child Safety to move down this de-professionalization path? It may have been recruitment and retention issues, but was it the provision of quality supports and services for vulnerable children and their families? I’ll leave that for you to ponder. I know I am!

Lauren Thompson – MSW student on placement with PeakCare

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carolyn Ovens #

    It would be good to begin to analyse the complex lives of families who find themselves in the confusing siloed departments at Commonwealth and state levels not to mention local government in Australia. I think we need to take a critical approach drawing on conflcit theory which accepts that government departments are competitive and vying for precedence in budgetary terms as the officers carve out careers for themselves in a highly heirarchical system and through legislation which keep lawyers in business. It is most important that there is a class, gender and race analysis as to who are called professionals and who are seen to not have expertise even though we know that education is the site of class and gender conflicts that produce disempowered women and consequently “child protection” as an invention of the industrialisation of family formation within capitalist society.

    We know where the “powerful” curriculum is designed for – what suburbs have access to powerful knowledge. It is easy now with “My school” to see how it is all determined from kindy. Bring on powerful curriculum for all Australians and place the professional / non-professional debate in a wider problem which is equity and access in representative democracy where one vote is not one value and social services are not universal but dependent on ability to apply for contracts. The political economy of child protection needs to be explored. And that is more complex than the problems facing families – in fact one could say it has accelerated complexity.

    April 6, 2011
  2. Great points Carolyn, about the systemic and economic factors, which certainly are complex and I’m not sure I would say “more complex than the problems facing families” since the systemic issues you raise are actually part of the lives and complexity of issues of vulnerable children, young people and their families – and indeed of all of us!

    I think its past time we address the critical gap between what we know (and research consistently evidences) are economic and workforce issues in our sector and the often competing needs of children, young people and families involved in whatever capacity, with the child protection system. Undoubtedly there is a legitimate question of what does the sector need; which raise issues of recruitment, retention, minimum standards of qualification, professional development, supervision, mentoring as well as funding and resource considerations and good ol’ politics and privilege as you have suggested.

    The other obviously equally compelling and by necessity, immediate question is, how do we ensure that the most vulnerable members of our society, receive the highest caliber of supports and services? This question is, on the surface, more compelling for me because of the ethical, moral, compassion driven need to ask it.

    Point taken – power, privilege, politics are so inherently entwined with the issues of child protection; education, policies, procedures, and practices as to virtually eclipse the question of quality services for vulnerable children and families. And therein is the tension of having to sit with uncertainty and paradox … to see the bigger picture or forest if you will, whilst also wrestling with the immediate and pragmatic issues of best practice and ethical and humane services for children and families.


    April 6, 2011
  3. Matt #

    Nice post! It’s concerning to hear that we are moving towards greater de-professionalisation. I look forward to reading more of your posts on these issues.

    April 14, 2011
  4. Mary Bush #

    Jolene Maloney, Boise ID
    this post is really a good type of post particularly when t regards to the protection of our children , . .

    July 20, 2011

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