D'Cruz (2002) 'Constructing the Identities of 'Responsible
Mothers, Invisible Men' in Child Protection Practice'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/1/dcruz.html>
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Received: 20/2/2002 Accepted: 31/5/2002 Published: 31/5/2002
|Emotional abuse or neglect or at risk (mothers responsible)||N = 4|
|Neglect and physical abuse (male adult responsible)||N = 1|
|Physical abuse or sexual abuse (adult carers in various identities of responsibility)||N = 12|
|At risk (heterosexual parents)||N = 1|
|Sexual abuse (six and eight year old boys responsible)||N = 2|
|TOTAL CASES||N = 20|
weak, subtly hostile toward their victimized daughters, immature, and irresponsible [...] overtly or covertly 'collud[ing] with father/perpetrators ... or ... permit[ting] or ... promot[ing] their children's abuse [...] (Smith & Saunders 1995: 608).
[Judith] had visible bruising on inner thighs [pink and raised , from electric cord]  ... caused by ... father , ... during argument last night when [Judith] returned home 2 hours late from her boyfriend's.
They greeted [1a] us, let us in [1b], and the father said he was aware of why we were there [2a]; it was because he had hit [daughter] last night and he said he knew he should not have done it [2b], and he would have contacted the department but he didn't do it [2c]. [...] we didn't even have to present ourselves ... he said it all before we got through the door [3a] ... which is an acknowledgement [3b] and good that at least he's not denying he's done it [3c] ... the first thing really is that you acknowledge you have done something before you can actually make some changes. He was willing to talk about it ... we said that people would listen to his version  ... (emphasis added).
|Female worker||Male worker|
|Not preventing it, not stopping him||Saying nothing|
|[Whilst she] did not like it when her husband took physical action ... she could not work out ... another way of getting daughter to see their point of view||Not trying to protect her daughter [and] almost approving of the punishment|
Issues of control ... dad talked over other members of the family and both [workers]  ... I think he has got a pivotal role in the family  and ... the discipline .
that she is being hit at home: [Day before the report] she was hit with the wooden handle of the broom across the arm, back and behind her right ear ... by mum . [Night before the most recent incident] hit by mum  across her face as mum thought she had hit her sister across her face [in keeping with the [family] rule [...]. A week after the last school holidays ended, dad hit her  with a strap across her face ... (emphasis added)
confirm[ing] hitting Laurel with the broom. She had intended to hit Laurel on the legs, but [she] squatted and put up her left arm when Sarah [mother] hit her. Sarah said she felt bad about this.
HD: the girl ... identified three separate incidents where she was hit by both her parents. [...] So is it the most recent incident that you would investigate in terms of person responsible?
Worker: ... in terms of dad, I don't remember  what I did with dad. I suppose I focused primarily on ... the incidents with mum [...]When I phoned, mum was home [2a]. ... Mum answered the phone [2b] and she agreed to come in. ... I suppose I could have got side tracked in that the focus of [the girl's] concerns [3a] were mum. This stuff [4a] to do with dad was not the primary thing she talked about ... and there was an incident ... that day [5a] ... mum had been cross [3b] with her ... the stuff [4b] to do with dad got lost in the conflict [3c] with mum. [...] the conflict between the two children, the pressure that puts on mum and how she responds . ... The issue [4c] with dad was not a current concern [5b] and it got lost.
HD: ... maybe mum was the person ... primarily responsible for the daily care of the children?
Worker: certainly [...] I suppose my assessment was that the [family] conflict [was] ... parent teen stuff ... the primary issue ... that was the thrust of the intervention with mother and child . (emphasis added)
called with concerns over Pam's 4 children.Constable Care said that [when] issuing a restraining order against Pam's ex-[male] partner, Steven, he spoke to Steven's mother, [who] informed him that there was a possibility that Pam's children were being sexually abused by [her] current partner, a 19 y.o. man known only as Claude.  [Steven's mother] said that she had also spoken with a neighbour of Pam's who claimed that the children had told her that 'Claude is doing things to us' . [Steven's mother] said that the children had recently been to hospital for treatment for oral [sic] herpes.  [...] (emphasis added)
... She's got four children. They were all by the same father 
[...] I've asked her ... whether the children were all her ex-partner's , she was actually married to this fellow. She said yes . They all look the same ...
... I would be very surprised if Carol [four-year-old daughter] hasn't been sexually abused. ... There has [sic] been so many males [3a] in the family's life and because of [mother's] life style [3b] and the environment she lives on [3c], she's quite open to being preyed upon by various males  who see her as a source of income  with the kids. She gets reasonable money ... from Social Security [5a].
[...] When you are on Social Security ... you live in cheap accommodation [6a] and a certain number of those women like to have a man around [6b]; probably drink alcohol [6c], drugs [6c] ... I don't think she drinks alcohol, but ... I don't know where her money goes. She's got lots and lots of minor debts ... the money just trickles through her fingers  [...]
She has a lot of transient people ... going into her house [8a] [...] I've been around there and there's been two or three males in the house [8b]. [...] There is a high likelihood because of the number of people going in and out of the house, the children will possibly be abused, because of the transient population [8c].
HD: most of the transient people are males?
Worker: yeah  [...] they look upon [mother's] place as somewhere to crash for the night [...] There's no involvement or anything, the place is just used as a flop house .
I was really quite concerned that there seemed to be a lot of money being spent by her and she's still in debt [10a] ... A lot of transient males [11a], no washing machine [10b], ... never any food in the place [10c] [...]. She picks up drongo ['fool, simpleton' (Australian Oxford Dictionary 1988)] fellows who ... are not doing anything [11b] and are virtually using her [11c]; somewhere to sleep [11c1] and someone to sleep with perhaps [11c2]; someone who's got a roof over their heads [11c3] and might toss her a bit of money ... to buy food  ... she's just stuck in that cycle ...
2Hearn (1990: 64) refers to the 'politics of dangerousness' as a key feature of how 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is understood in contemporary child protection practice. Such a perspective focuses on the 'particular case' which also involves a search for 'abnormal individuals' who may be placed under surveillance and punished if necessary. However, the politics of the dangerous individual maintains an apolitical analysis that disregards children's lack of social and political rights (Freeman 1983; Franklin 1986; Jenks 1996), and also maintains a focus on 'private' events, excluding the 'public' treatment of children from consideration as 'maltreatment' also. For example, in Australia, the significantly higher mortality rate for the babies of indigenous Australians due to extreme poverty and disadvantage, the mandatory detention of asylum seeking children (with or without parents or guardians), and the mandatory imprisonment laws for offenders that overwhelmingly target indigenous youth.
3The larger research of which this paper is a small part explored how meanings and identities are constructed in child protection practice. This included the practical construction of categories of 'maltreatment', 'identities of responsibility', and the identities of 'child' and 'parent'.
4In D'Cruz (2000: paragraphs 8.12-8.13) I discuss my positioning in relation to practitioners in the interviews.
5At the completion of the investigation of the referral, each case was categorised according to 'type of maltreatment' and 'responsibility' by practitioners within organisationally defined categories. These structured how I saw 'what sorts of cases these were' initially.
6 Potter (1996) claims that 'three-part lists' are rhetorical devices by which a plausible argument is made for the typicality of a phenomenon being considered. Is this what is happening here, with my selection/presentation of three cases? Intuitively, presenting one or two cases seemed 'incomplete' and more than three was 'too much'.
7This worker's qualifications from a northern European country were not recognised in Australia as 'social work'. He was known as a 'welfare officer.
8 The details provided at the start of each case study are taken from the official categories at the conclusion of the investigation. The categories included here are 'type of maltreatment', 'person believed responsible' and ethnicity of the child. This organisation tended to use the general categorisation of ethnicity in Australia as 'Aboriginal', 'Non Aboriginal' or 'Unknown'. The main policy reason for this categorisation is to monitor the overrepresentation of 'Aboriginal' children and families in social control services like child protection (Thorpe 1994, 1997), seen to be a legacy of colonialism and racism. The problems of simplification of ethnicity to a few categories are many but will not be expanded here.
9This information was provided during my interview with the female caseworker.
10 The 'high risk' that the father represented at intake and before he was interviewed was referred to as 'priority one'.
11This is an extract of the verbatim transcript that I reconstructed into the main text/argument: HD: It is a bit of an odd place for the father to hit the girl ... Worker: I am [sic] (was?) curious to know that ... HD: You would expect the girl to have bruises on the shoulders and the legs ... Worker: It is probably why it was a priority one, yes there were concerns that there was some sexual abuse possibly going on. What other behaviours that were going on that a kid would have inner thighs badly injured? [...] Do you want me to explain? HD: yeah Worker: We asked her how this had happened and she said that he got the two hard ends of the cord and that he hit her and that as she moved away the thing caught each leg in turn. She had a skirt on and the skirt just flew up, and as he hit her, it wrapped between her legs ... Had she kept her legs together and had not tried to move away then it would not have got between her legs [...] HD: she was escaping.
12Workers are not normally made so welcome (an experience with which I could identify, having once been a child welfare practitioner), given the nature of the work. A more usual and expected response is of anger or other forms of resistance, rather than compliance.
13This is a verbatim extract taken from the transcript that shows how the worker and I got talking about the connections between alleged family violence and the mother's ability to protect her daughters: HD: This thing you said on file, whether the mother has ... that there is conflict between the parents ... Was that an issue in terms of the mother herself? Has she actually been physically assaulted to the point of injury and whether that affected how she intervened or how she didn't intervene in what was happening with the kid? Did that ever come out? Worker: I asked about the relationship between the couple when we took Judith home ... they described it as being OK ... HD: ... So mum did not acknowledge that there was any physical violence between herself and her husband? Worker: No, in fact she actually denied that there was any physical violence, she said that occasionally they argued and they had been arguing a lot about the kids in recent years.
14This is a verbatim extract from the transcript in which the female worker is describing the couple's relationship and family's circumstances: Worker: I asked about the relationship between the couple ...and they described it as being OK. [...] they had both worked in meat factories or abattoirs ... and ... had both been injured in the process of working. But I think they had worked quite hard to support their family, Mum is actually Aboriginal ... HD: Initially it had New Zealand on the file ... Worker: it was coded, yeah, it was thought that she was Maori.
15This is a verbatim extract from the transcript regarding how the categories of 'couple' and 'parents' were part of the female worker's construction of 'equality' in the particular heterosexual relationship: Worker: They talked in terms of 'we', they talked in terms of 'we' ... both of them contributed to the discussion, neither contradicted the other. Dad did talk over mum, and mum did quieten down and let dad take over the story, but she did bring up other points and he agreed with her ... They talked about having successfully raised five other children ... and their sense of frustration that the sixth child is causing them so much distress and that was kind of like them as parents rather than him and her as individuals. ... They were wanting to deal with this ... as a couple, concerned as a couple for their daughter.
16Donzelot (1980) discussed by Hirst (1981: 69) argues that women have been 'selected ... as the partner and collaborator of various forms of disciplinary, medical and educative intervention ... as agent of socialisation and moralisation of [the] family [including] over men.' This focus on women as the representative of the 'domestic' space and relations tends to have repressive implications for women who are held responsible for the transgressions of children as 'delinquents' (Rose 1989) or men as 'perpetrators of violence' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988).
17endnote 16 also applies here.
18Note that the worker's response to this question took 305 lines which I interpreted as her extreme discomfort with the question about an aspect of her practice which she had taken for granted. However, here I have only included the 'relevant' lines, not the 'digressions'.
19The worker's acknowledgement that she 'didn't tick it on the [intake form]' and her intent to do so immediately (i.e. during her conversation with me), because 'people need to know that if they come back', suggests that ethnicity may be only incidental to child protection practice. It does not overtly appear to influence ethnocentric or racist assumptions integral to policy and practice. Nor did the mother claim any particular ethnicity when she was engaged within the child protection investigation. From my reading of the family circumstances on the file, I constructed them as 'Non Aboriginal'. They appeared to conform at least on paper to urbanised, Westernised images of 'normal, heterosexual families'.
20This is a verbatim extract of my preliminary comments inviting the caseworker to 'talk through the process of
HD: ... Basically, it's just ... letting you talk through the process of a case coming in and what actually happened. I know you pointed out to me that this case [is] where the woman moved away and there wasn't a chance to do an investigation. You probably want to tell me a bit about the history as well because it's quite a big case. It goes back quite a way, by the look of the file. Worker: This is the third volume. I understand, yeah. All right ...
My sincere thanks to my colleague, Karen Lane, Deakin University, for her feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.
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