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Performing child neglect in social work practice

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  • Law
  • Linguistics
  • Psychology


Informed by Foucauldian and feminist theoretical positions, the study explores how child neglect is 'performed' by social work professionals and service users. Specifically it focuses on definitions of neglect, discourses of responsibility, assessment, interventions and responses. It explores how 'normalising' judgements were central to practice conceptualisations of neglect in which judgements about families were made based on comparisons to the 'norm'. This encompassed the identification of an absence of physical care needs and emotional neglect, drawing upon legal, psychological and child development discourse and constructions of the domestic ideal. It identifies the subjectivities, specifically of the mother and child, and the consequences for evidencing and assessing neglect, deemed responsibility and interventions it produces and legitimises. The study explores how responsibility for neglect, embedded within neo-liberalist risk management, continues to be gendered. Dominant conceptions of responsibility were constructed through women's dichotomous relationship to dangerous and/or absent men. Further, in this context specific subjectivities were constructed about the responsible 'risky' neglectful mother drawing on personality, psychological and parenting characteristics. Through the dominance of this focus the structural and social context of child neglect and women's subjectivities fall from view, 'justifying' the neo-liberal position of self-governance and the rolling back of state support. It also identifies alternative discourses, encompassing women's subjectivities which link neglect to social, cultural and structural context. The study deconstructs discourses in assessments of neglect. Bureaucratic and managerial constraints to quality assessments are identified. Professional debates surrounding contested thresholds and perceptions of 'good enough' mothering are explored. Women expressed their feelings on their 'written', documented identities and labelling as the 'bad mother'. The study analyses how women conformed and resisted professional attempts to self-govern and empower. Dependent upon perceived levels of risk, responses encompassed coercive, empowering and normalising 're-parenting' interventions.

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