Child welfare
across borders
  Session 3 - A social justice framework



3.4 - Social justice framework and other discourses

In this section we want to move on to present a Social Justice Framework as a key analytical tool to be used in this course and briefly present this in the context of other discourses that are often used in relation to child welfare including: Jigsaw


Paternalism and protection

This strand of thinking perceives children as vulnerable, in need of protection and at risk. Adults are tasked with making decisions 'for their own good'. Arguably, whilst in younger children these perceptions apply to both sexes, with adolescence it takes on more explicitly gendered overtones with young women becoming the focus of risk, for example in relation to sexual activity (Griffin, 1997).


Innocence and dependency

One might argue that associated with paternalism and protection is another construct of children as innocent and dependent, a construct that allows for adult protectionism to flourish. Children in this construct are vessels unsullied by the corruption of adult experience, knowledge and outlook. Childhood is a phase in which children are perceived to need shielding from physical, moral and emotional contamination. Exposure to events or activities that may contaminate their innocence is perceived as damaging to healthy development. Intrinsic to this is the view that children are dependent on adults for protection and 'gatekeeping' to social interaction. It presents as another strand of patriarchial perceptions of women and children as weak and in need of protection and control.

Such a view can also be regarded as a Northern, middle class construct and one that holds a relatively short history. The industrial revolution of Northern countries led to laws limiting the activity and involvement of children in dangerous factory work. Children historically had been part of the economic functioning of households as they continue to be today in many households of southern countries. The economic and familial roles of children are frequently linked to wider perceptions of their dependency on adults to meet their needs. The involvement of older siblings in the care of their younger sisters and brothers is a child care model that is based on very different sets of assumptions about children than that in which children need adults to be present at all times. The debates about 'latch key children' in the eighties in the UK and North America highlighted the ways in which issues of social class and wealth cut across the development of a dominant moral agenda in which notions of independence and safety for children became blurred and muddled.

A double standard about the age of independence has been witnessed in the public care system. England and Canada have come late to the realisation that expecting children who have been in the public care system to look after themselves at 16 or 18 years or age is applying double standards to parental responsibility in the public and private domains.

A specific and separate contentious strand to the discourse around innocence concerns sexual understanding, awareness and identities of children. This is acknowledged but not expanded here in relation to social justice.


Adultism and autonomy

In essence adultism is discrimination by adults of children and young people as a consequence of the prejudiced attitudes and assumptions they may hold about them which translate into behaviours and actions. Adultism may take a number of forms including:

  • withholding information and access to entitlements on the basis that children are too immature or incapable or using them 'properly'
  • acting 'on behalf of a child or young person' using the same rationale
  • making decisions about a child or young person based on generalised representations of children and young people rather than consulting with or treating situations on their individual merits
  • acting as a barrier to the autonomy, independence, and empowerment of children and young people individually or collectively

A perspective based on autonomy allows for children to be seen as smaller versions of adults with the same rights to participate and be involved in decisions affecting them. This moves us away from the objectification of children and from parental control as paramount. A child-centred approach that emphasises children's capabilities rather than their limitations is one favoured in Sweden in public and private life.


Youth as deviant and to be controlled

Another strand of discourse that often runs alongside the previous one concerns the construction of normalised patterns of development and behaviour for children and adolescents. Rooted in the relationship between science, academia and social policy, Griffin (1997) cites the work of G.Stanley Hall as crucial in establishing the 'storm and stress' model of adolescence. Allied to this has been the continuing attention of the health professions, educationalists and other child welfare professions on developing measures of normal childhood development. From babies onwards all the countries involved in this course use measurement tools designed to assess and judge the progress of children against 'objective' measures.

This creates arguably narrow bands of 'normal' within which children and young people must fit. Behaviours and actions falling outside these bands have commonly been labelled deviant and services have too often been geared to controlling and working on children to attain measures that bring them inside the bands of 'normal'. The rise of the numbers of children being labelled as having Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD or ADD) is an example of certain behaviours acquiring a 'not normal' category from which a range of services and interventions are developed around this perceived deviation.


Antiracist, feminist and anti-oppressive approaches

A corollary to the two discourses mentioned above has been the development of critiques based on oppression and discrimination of different groups in society. These critiques enabled the questioning of the accuracy and relevance of the assumptions and expectations built around young people based on arguably white, middle class, male, northern constructs of normality. A deconstruction of norms and measures exposed the way theories and discourses have promoted and sustained racist, sexist, heterosexist and ableist systems and contributed to the continued oppression of different groups of children. Pringle (1998:17) contends that:

  • In the context of lived experience, oppressive power relations associated with gender and 'race' (along with ethnicity, nationalism and religion) often interreact with one another in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.
  • Privileging one form of oppression over another is therefore unhelpful if we want to understand and analyse their impact on children and child welfare systems and practices.
  • This should not be at the expense, however, of oversimplifying the nature of particular combinations and forms of oppression.

Social Justice Framework

Topic 3.3 identified that the history of the children's rights movements encompassed different adult concerns and priorities for the well-being and development of children. From a history of children as property and the consequential objectification of their needs has emerged a number of perspectives on the status and role of children in society across and within national boundaries.

A construct of children as smaller adults and the implication of this in terms of status and citizenship in society extends to social and political relations. Session 2 iterated the importance of perceiving children as existing within a range of social systems and this view can help in trying to understand and manage the ambiguities and inconsistencies in child welfare that impact on our personal and professional relationships with children.

A view of children as People First requires us to shift beyond a protectionist position towards, in the first instance, facing up to the discriminatory way in which most, if not all societies, perceive and treat children.

If children are seen as autonomous persons they become more that an appendage or added weight in the fight for social justice, for example for women experiencing domestic violence or families needing decent social housing. Children's needs and entitlements move to stand alongside the needs of adults in these circumstances. These needs must be addressed separately to those of adults as they carry not only equal weight but they are likely to be different to adult needs and require specific and/or additional responses.

For this reason, with the assistance of the Rights and Anti-Oppressive discourses, this course uses a Social Justice Framework to inform the setting out and critique of key issues in the field of child welfare in Canada, England, Netherlands and Sweden.


Now go to topic 3.5 unless you have yet to do Exercise 3.2.