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Discourses of care

Watch Graham McPheat as he considers how the way that we care for and respond to vulnerable children is becoming increasingly politicised.
The focus of our discussion today is thinking about discourses of care, political and social perspectives. So what do we mean by that? Well essentially, what we’re thinking about is some of the debates, be they located in the political world of just the population more in general that impact upon the way in which we think about children and the way in which we respond to children, but particularly children who are deemed to be at risk and vulnerable.
Now over the course of the six weeks we have touched on some of these debates that exist already. In previous weeks we’ve thought about risk aversion. Ian Milligan spoke about that in relation to childcare practitioners having to respond to, living, and working in an increasingly risk averse society and some of the challenges that that can present to adults and volunteers working alongside vulnerable children and young people, in terms of how they can creatively engage with those children and young people.
We’ve also touched on, in some of the material as well, the high priority certainly, in a Scottish and UK context, that is placed on family-based care and about the notion and the belief that if the state ever requires to step in and look after children and young people that our preferred model of care should always be family-based, in the first instance. And that anything of a residential nature should very much be second choice. And we’ve thought a bit– some of the consequences that that has for how we respond to children and young people. But there’s another debate and discourse which exists. And that’s just about the way we, as a society, view children more generally.
And in some ways, it’s a debate that continually ping pongs backwards and forwards. And on one hand we’ve got this notion of children as needy and requiring our protection and about children being vulnerable and at risk. But another side of that debate– there’s a discourse which exists about children being dangerous and presenting a risk to us, as a society, and how we should respond to them. And depending on a number of things at any given time, that debate moves backwards and forwards and has an impact on the way that we think about and respond to vulnerable children and young people.
And that’s probably most focused when we begin to think about youth crime, or certainly when the politicians and lawmakers begin to think about youth crime. Because when this becomes a political hot potato– and in some ways, it always is a political hot potato. But it becomes more of an issue at certain times, often on the back of one high profile specific incident, which gains a lot of traction within the media. And again, in previous weeks we’ve thought about the relationship between the media and risk and risk aversion.
When the media gets hold of a certain story, and politicians jump on the back of that, then we see ourself moving away from the notion of children being needy, vulnerable, and needing protected, and much more likely to see them portrayed as being dangerous and perpetrators of crime, rather than on the other end of that. And that has all sorts of implications, first and foremost for the children and young people and their families. But it has big implications for the adults and carers and professionals who are involved in the lives of children and those young people, because of impacts upon the agencies that they work for or volunteer for and the services that they try to provide.
And there’s perhaps an argument to be said that politicians will often use this debate for their own ends, to suit the political agenda of the day. And we should probably never forget or divorce ourself from the fact that politicians are always was looking to get reelect– or generally always looking to get reelected and responding to the social debate of the day as part of their agenda, so as they’re about constantly changing agendas and using them to their own needs. I’ve got a quote here just to read out. And this was a quote made by John Major, the Prime Minister of the UK, in 1993.
And it followed a very high profile case of a young two-year-old boy, James Bulger, who was murdered by two ten-year-old children, Robert Thompson and John Venables. And at the time, when the court case and the media circus was playing out in relation to this case, John Major– so this was the then prime minister– said “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”.
So when you’ve got the prime minister of your country making a statement which is about let’s worry less about what’s causing children to behave in this way and let’s actually just more focus on the acts that they’re carrying out, that is a very strong message in terms of that ever-constant debate about children at risk or children being the presenters of risk. And that certainly challenges some of the material that we thought about in previous weeks when we though about the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland, which would very much prioritise the needs of children and young people over and above any deeds that they might carry out, and certainly any offences that they might commit.
And historically– well, the politics of caring for vulnerable children, if we go back to the– in a UK context– the back end of World War II, we create the welfare state, buying into the notion of universalism, about we all put to the system. But those who need it most get out of the system. So in some ways it can be seen as an attempt to create a more equal society. But in recent times that has begun to get challenged more and more. And political– sorry, public attitudes have begun to change in relation to this, quite significantly.
And if you look at some of the most recent research, what it suggests is areas such as health and education within the welfare state still receive strong support from the public because– well, one conclusion is that it receives that strong support because the vast majority of the population benefit from it. But other parts of the welfare state, that only certain people benefit from, gets less support. So I’ve got examples here– social housing, single parent benefit, long term unemployed. But what we really need to think about what are the implications for vulnerable children. Because what do we know about the vulnerable children that we are trying to respond to and work with?
Well, we know that they are more likely to represented in groups that experience issues in relation to being part of families where they have poor social housing, where there’s single parent families, where there’s long term unemployment, and some of the other things that could be extended into this list. So this all has implications for the children and young people we are working with. And it perhaps provides us with some challenges as a society for us to reflect upon here in this final week of the course. We know that we do live in a society where there’s not only continued poverty but there’s an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
And that creates dilemmas for us, certainly as for the social work profession and for all professions working with children and young people who are vulnerable. And perhaps the dilemma is do we try to work within the system and respond to those children but knowing that those children will keep on appearing and keep on coming if we don’t change the system, or in some way is the bigger issue about us attempting to challenge the system and challenge the structures that constantly create the circumstances where young people are vulnerable and are at risk. Thank you.

In this talk Graham begins to consider some of the political and social perspectives that impact on how the task of caring for vulnerable children is constructed and delivered.

In previous weeks we have considered some of the different perspectives that we know to exist – the challenge of caring for vulnerable children and young people in an increasingly risk averse society as well the debates that exist around family based care versus group care.

There is another debate about how we view children more generally – at risk and in need of protection versus the children themselves posing risks to others. What is the dominant view at any point in time is often connected to issues and themes associated with youth crime and how this is portrayed by the media and responded to by politicians.

Historically, in the UK a Welfare State was created with the underpinning principle of universalism, an attempt to create a more equal society. In recent years public attitudes to the welfare state have begun to change quite significantly. This has implications for vulnerable children and young people who are more likely to be represented in the populations in receipt of services and poses questions as to how we think about services moving forward.

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Caring for Vulnerable Children

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