Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Heather D'Cruz (2002) 'Constructing the Identities of 'Responsible Mothers, Invisible Men' in Child Protection Practice'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <>

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Received: 20/2/2002      Accepted: 31/5/2002      Published: 31/5/2002


Social constructionism offers valuable insights into the study of social problems for example, poverty, homelessness, crime and delinquency, including how social phenomena 'become' social problems, through social processes of interaction and interpretation. The social construction of child maltreatment has recently emerged as a site of scholarly inquiry and critique. This paper explores through three case studies how 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is constructed in child protection practice, with a specific focus on how 'responsibility' may also be gendered. In particular, how is gender associated with responsibility, such that the identity-pair, 'responsible mothers, invisible men', is a highly likely outcome as claimed in feminist literature? What other assumptions about 'identities of risk' or 'dangerousness' articulate with patriarchy and influence how responsibility is constructed? The case studies explore normally invisible processes by which social categories become 'fact', 'knowledge' and 'truth'. Furthermore, the social construction of 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is extended by a reflexive analysis of my own constructionist practices, as researcher/writer in claims making. The analysis offers an insight into the dynamic and dialectical relationship between professional and organisational knowledge and practice, allowing for a critique of knowledge itself, the basis for the claims made and possible alternative ways of knowing.

Child Maltreatment; Child Protection; Gender And Child Maltreatment; Perpetrators; Professional Knowledge; Reflexivity; Responsibility For Maltreatment; Social Construction


Social constructionism offers valuable insights into the study of social problems for example, poverty, homelessness, crime and delinquency, including how social phenomena 'become' social problems, through social processes of interaction and interpretation (Kitsuse & Spector 1973; Miller & Holstein 1993; Potter 1996). The social construction of child maltreatment has recently emerged as a site of scholarly inquiry and critique ( Hacking 1991; Thorpe 1994; Parton et al. 1997; Parton 1999; Hacking 1999), including how the identity of 'person believed responsible' (also known as 'perpetrator') is constructed ( Margolin 1990, 1992; Thorpe 1994; Scott 1995).

Margolin (1990) explored how practitioners in interaction with caretakers as 'accounters or deceivers', 'managed or neutralized the appearance of guilt' (1990: 375) in 'fatal child abuse' cases. Caretakers' 'vocabularies of motive' influenced how social workers constructed responsibility for family violence and children's deaths. Caretakers' identities, such as disability, that intersected with parenting, also influenced constructions of responsibility. Some caretakers were 'excused' whilst others were categorised as 'responsible'. Margolin (1992) also showed how the contentious and taken-for-granted identity of 'sexual abuse perpetrator' is not automatically shared by participants with an interest in the case and its outcomes, for example, victims or professionals. Instead, a professional and organisational image of sexual danger and risk and a presupposition of 'guilt' influenced how responsibility was constructed. Participants who had different views were considered to be wrong. Nor was the accused person interviewed, an exclusionary practice that Smith (1990) says is common when individuals are categorised as abnormals or deviants.

Thorpe (1994), in an Australian study, commented on how assumptions about 'normal' children, parents and families influenced practice processes and outcomes, including the over-representation of individuals and groups considered to breach cultural assumptions of 'normality'. For example, sole mothers living in poverty and Aboriginal mothers were over-represented in reports and as persons believed responsible. As such, their children were more likely to enter care. In general, as Scott (1995) discusses, identities of responsibility are constructed through 'debates about definitions and politics of prevalence'.

This paper explores how 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is constructed in child protection practice, with a specific focus on how 'responsibility' may also be gendered. Furthermore, the paper extends the analysis of the social construction of 'responsibility for child maltreatment' by a reflexive analysis of my own constructionist activity, as researcher/writer in claims-making. There is an insight into the dynamic and dialectical relationship between professional and organisational knowledge and practice, allowing for a critique of knowledge itself, the basis for the claims made and possibilities for alternative ways of knowing.

Child protection intervention in the UK, Australia and the USA[1], normally requires the identification of a 'person believed responsible for maltreatment' (also known as 'perpetrator'). This identity, recorded as a statistical category, aggregates all individuals seen as 'responsible', constructing a profile of 'dangerous individuals' (Hearn 1990)[2]. The profile includes the numerical extent and dispersion, associated behaviours and 'types of maltreatment', and identity 'characteristics' as features of 'risk', including gender, social class, age, race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality (Finkelhor et al. 1990; Eckenrode et al. 1988; Finkelhor 1994). It operates as professional and organisational knowledge by which 'protective' and 'preventive' responses may be justified. Feminist critics claim that patriarchal assumptions influence an almost taken-for-granted outcome by which women as mothers 'become responsible', whilst their male associates may be actually culpable and yet 'become invisible' from public scrutiny. This outcome is represented as an identity pair, 'responsible mothers, invisible men' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Korbin 1989; Milner 1993).

I explore this phenomenon through three case studies with specific reference to the gendered constructions of 'responsibility for child maltreatment'[3]. I also explore how other assumptions about 'identities of risk' or 'dangerousness' articulate with patriarchy and influence how responsibility is constructed. The case studies explore the normally invisible processes by which social (and statistical) categories become 'fact', 'knowledge' and 'truth'.

Due consideration should be given to my own processes of construction and my positioning in relation to 'literature' ('theory') and 'cases' ('practice'). As a 'positioned investigator' (Riessman 1994) it is necessary to acknowledge how 'the literature' and my own subjectivity position me in relation to the topic and related processes. These include my engagement with practitioners during interviews[4], the transcribed interviews later, the case files, and my notes of the participant observation I conducted to understand practice cultures (D'Cruz 1999, 2000, 2001). As with my claims that practitioners make meaning from material and social 'facts', so too, I have constructed my claims about child protection practice (Miller & Holstein 1993).

Claims of objectivity and subjectivity are also problematic. A fundamental assumption of social constructionism is of 'positioned subjectivity' (Riessman 1994). Meaning is made in relation to how we are positioned in relation to the social and material world. However, in my engagement with the data from this research, I have commented previously on versions of 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity' in relation to my own constructionist processes (D'Cruz 1999: 154-5; D'Cruz 2000: paragraph 8.17).

This paper is based on research conducted during the middle 1990s. The total sample was 20 cases, involving 15 practitioners who were interviewed. Participant observation was also conducted at two practice sites where the practitioners were located. For this paper, I have selected three cases from which to argue for how the identity of 'person believed responsible' is constructed, and how gendered identities of responsibility, articulating with other identities specific to each case, may be the outcomes of practical constructions.

The twenty cases were categorised[5] as follows

Table 1

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

For this paper, I particularly wanted to focus on cases categorised as 'sexual abuse' or 'physical abuse'. It is in these cases that men are most often associated with actual harm to children (Hearn 1990; Forbes 1993), and where patriarchal practices and outcomes claimed by feminist critics are most explicit (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Korbin 1989; Milner 1993). Twelve cases fit these criteria. From these the three cases[6] were selected because they offered some variety, and could be presented within the word limits of the paper. The complexity of the other cases prevented their selection.

* Reading the Literature: 'Persons Believed Responsible for Child Maltreatment'

In this section, I re-present the main contours of how 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is understood in contemporary child protection policy and practice, as a dominant discourse. The official statistical category, 'person believed responsible' is associated with 'types of maltreatment', 'direct' and 'indirect' responsibility, and identities of 'risk' and 'dangerousness'. Feminist perspectives associated with the identity-pair 'responsible mothers, invisible men' are also discussed, as a critique of the dominant and contemporary version of 'responsibility for child maltreatment'.

Dominant and contemporary constructions of 'responsibility for child maltreatment'

'Persons believed responsible' for 'types of maltreatment'

'Responsibility' for 'neglect' or 'emotional abuse' is overwhelmingly associated with women who are judged according to norms of 'the mundane tasks of mothering' (Rose 1989: 156-7). Men are rarely represented in such statistics. Women who are held 'responsible' are often sole parents, living in poverty, perhaps exacerbated by racism (Janko 1994; Thorpe 1994; Minty & Pattinson 1994, Swift 1995; Gordon 1985, 1986).

However, men are over represented and women under represented in statistics of 'responsibility' for (as 'cause of') 'sexual abuse'. 'Dangerous' men may be profiled statistically and identified individually, making them visible and controllable through risk management strategies (Hearn 1990; Parton et al. 1997). The under representation of women as 'persons believed responsible' in 'sexual abuse' cases is argued by some to be a social or methodological artefact: 'overlooked' (Kaufman et al. 1995) or 'underreported' (Lawson 1993).

The 'underreporting' of women's responsibility for sexual abuse is explained as cultural resistance to asking about 'maternal sexual abuse and neglect' in research surveys (Lawson 1993), or as 'the ultimate taboo' (Elliott 1993) associated with fear of being accused of being 'anti-female' or 'get[ting] male abusers off the hook' (Elliott 1993: 1-2). The statistical prevalence of women's responsibility for child sexual abuse is 'sizeable', yet 'overlooked' (Kaufman et al. 1995). They cite the following: females commit between 3% and 13% of all sexual abuse (Kaufman et al. 1995: 322), they are perpetrators in 1% to 24% of cases against boys, and 6% to 17% against girls (Kaufman et al. 1995: 322-323). However, simple calculation would show that despite the 'sizeable' representation of women in these statistics, that men are still over represented in each of the categories discussed.

There is some debate about the representation of men and women's responsibility for 'physical abuse'. Carlson (1992) and Hearn (1990) for example, claim that men are statistically over represented as 'persons believed responsible for physical abuse' as 'direct cause', particularly if the time spent by children in their fathers' care is taken into account. Others claim equivalence, arguing that both men and women are equally represented in statistics of responsibility for physical abuse (Creighton 1987, in Hearn 1990: 65).

'Direct' and 'indirect' responsibility

'Responsibility' is associated with direct 'cause' of particular 'effects' as 'non accidental' abnormalities manifested in a child's body (Thorpe 1994; Parton et al. 1997; D'Cruz 1999), linking a particular 'person believed responsible' to a 'child'. Indirect responsibility may also be attributed, overwhelmingly to mothers, if they fail to protect their children from physically violent male associates, by either preventing or stopping the violence (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Campion 1995: 33).

Another aspect of indirect responsibility that is typically associated with women/mothers is the connection between women's victimisation as children and the potential or actual maltreatment of their own children by their male associates. This is known as the 'intergenerational transmission of abuse' and is manifested by their 'choice' of male partners and/or their 'collusion' with them (Bagley 1991). Women who have been victimised as children 'enter a cycle of "learned helplessness"' (Bagley 1991: 20). Their 'escape' from childhood abuse is often by marriage to partners who are physically and sexually abusive to the woman and the children. In their 'helpless or powerless adult state ... women ['unprotective mothers'] are unable to protect their own children ...' (Bagley 1991: 18).

A special version of responsibility is associated with mothers in sexual abuse cases. They are indirectly 'responsible for sexual abuse' to children by male partners, because of their socioeconomic 'dependency' (Faller 1988a, 1988b), or through their 'non-fulfillment of role as wife' including 'sexual frigidity' (Herman 1981, in Breckenridge & Berreen 1992: 101).

Women as mothers are also
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).

'Persons believed responsible' as identities of 'dangerousness' and 'risk'

Identification of individuals as 'persons believed responsible' and as part of a collective profile is central to the 'politics of "dangerousness" ... as individual, localized, and particular', represented by the 'particular case' (Hearn 1990: 64). The identification of 'dangerous individuals' is a common strategy by which protection of the particular child and potentially all children may be achieved through surveillance of dangerous individuals, their normalisation through therapies and legally sanctioned punishment of those 'responsible'.

There are also other identities of risk (Parton et al. 1997). For example, parental (usually maternal) physical and mental disabilities are considered to be categories of 'risk' to children (Hugman & Phillips 1992/1993; McMahon et al. 1996; Fleming et al. 1997), and women in lower socio-economic groups are also over represented amongst persons believed responsible for harm to children (Janko 1994; Thorpe 1994; Thorpe 1996). Homosexuality is a further category of risk, with lesbians being considered as bad mothers (Carabine 1996) and gay men as paedophiles (Cameron & Cameron 1998; Hicks 1996). Predominantly, these identities of risk share a common feature, that of being associated primarily with women as carers of children.

Feminist critiques of the dominant construction and alternative constructions of responsibility

'Responsible mothers, invisible men'

Feminist critics do not deny women's propensity and direct responsibility for physical and sexual violence to children (Graham 1981; Ong 1985; Wise 1985; Featherstone 1996, 1997; FitzRoy 1999). However, there are debates about (statistical) prevalence and the meaning of 'statistical equivalence' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Carlson 1992; Forbes 1993; Featherstone 1996, 1997), the latter being seen as an 'anti-woman' political strategy to deflect attention from men's over representation in violence to children and to women.

Women are often 'held responsible [in law, social service practice and psychological theory] for child abuse, even when the mother and child are being battered by an identifiable man.' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988: 98, 101). This is known as 'patriarchal mothering' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988).

Women's responsibility for sexual abuse, as 'co- offenders' and 'accomplices of men', 'allowing exploitation by others' (Kaufman et al. 1995: 330) is explained as the consequences of gender inequality. Women as both 'victims' and 'villains' (Featherstone 1996) may be violently coerced by men into sexual practices with, or exploitation of, children (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Forbes 1993).

'Responsibility' constructed as direct 'cause', may be associated with both men and women and represented as the official statistical category, 'person believed responsible'. However, 'responsibility' is also constructed as indirect 'failure of protective function' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988: 102), which is primarily associated with women. In both these constructions of 'responsibility', mothers are more likely to be regulated by surveillance and normalisation, even when they have not been identified as 'responsible' as direct 'cause' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Korbin 1989; Milner 1993; D'Cruz 1998). Where an individual man is officially identified as 'person believed responsible', his responsibility may be minimised by his 'disappearance' (Milner 1993) from public examination, with the re-direction of focus onto the woman's responsibility for his actions, as an unprotective mother. Thus the woman may be given some, equal or all responsibility for practices of male associates. In Korbin's (1989) study of 'fatal maltreatment by mothers', '[e]ven if the father, stepfather or mother's boyfriend inflicted the fatal injuries, these women were charged and convicted with the rationale that [their] nonprotectiveness reflected complicity in the crime.' (Korbin 1989: 483).

Women are expected to choose between male partners and their children to demonstrate their 'protective function' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988). However, this does not address potential ambivalence, the 'inconsistencies and complex allegiances' Doane and Hodges 1992: 79, in Featherstone 1996: 185) associated with both abhorring the violence perpetrated on the children and simultaneously valuing an intimate relationship with the man. Furthermore, women's apparent 'unprotectiveness' may be associated with fear of violent repercussions (Gary 1991; Forbes 1993) and/or the loss of their children into care (Stark & Flitcraft 1988: 110-1). The complexities of gendered identities of responsibility must allow a more fluid understanding of power within and outside 'the family', to re- position women as active agents (Pengelly 1991) rather than eternal victims (Wise 1985; Featherstone 1996, 1997). Further, much feminist critique of the dominant image of the family takes for granted the heterosexuality of relations between adults. Thus there is limited theorising about violence in same-sex relationships, in which children may also be involved (Renzetti 1992).

* Making my Case by Re-writing the Cases

Workers' practical constructions of identities of responsibility in the three cases are set out below. The discussion above sets out how 'responsibility' for child maltreatment is understood and locates practitioners, and myself as researcher/writer, within particular knowledge, assumptions and perspectives (Manning & Cullum- Swan 1994). Practitioners in each case constructed as 'official facts' the particular identities of responsibility (Potter 1996), 'responsible mothers, invisible men'.

I argue that the case studies show how the processes of construction differ in each case, yet the consequences are the gendered identities of responsibility discussed in the literature as almost predetermined outcomes of child protection practice. However, the cases are not simply practical constructions of patriarchy but also show overtly the articulation of identities related to class and/or sexuality. They also show the silences associated with race and ethnicity in practice.

The three cases selected were categorised as 'substantiated' 'physical' or 'sexual abuse'. The 'person believed responsible' as an official category and an outcome of the investigation, varied between the cases. Men were reported as solely 'responsible' for 'physical abuse' (Case A) and 'sexual abuse' (Case C). In Case B, both parents were reported as 'responsible for physical abuse'. In Cases A and C, the men reported as 'responsible' were formally categorised as such, following the investigation. However, in Case B, although both parents were reported for 'hitting' their daughter, only the mother was identified/categorised as 'person believed responsible' for 'physical abuse'. Beyond the official categorisation as 'persons believed responsible', the cases also show the subtleties of responsibility associated with women. In all the cases, the mothers bore the full force of official surveillance and judgement of their competence as mothers. The men on the other hand, 'disappeared' in various ways from immediate public scrutiny. It is unclear to what extent their official categorisation as 'persons believed responsible' would operate as a profile of their dangerousness and risk beyond the immediate investigation.

The organisational context was an Australian child and family welfare department mandated to respond to reports of child maltreatment. Practitioners were interviewed about their practices in relation to the case. A male welfare officer[7] and female social worker jointly investigated Case A. Cases B and C were the responsibility of female and male social workers, respectively. The case data presented combines file extracts and interview transcripts. Intake reports are set out in detail to contextualise the child protection practices that followed. All names have been changed and other identifying details have been suppressed.

Case A: 'substantiated physical Abuse' '(excess corporal punishment)': Person believed responsible: 'Parent' '(Male)'; Ethnicity: 'Non Aboriginal'[8]

Case context: A school social worker noticed that the fifteen-year-old girl, the subject of this case, seemed 'tearful at school' and 'walking strangely'[9]. She discussed her observations with the girl and discovered the reason for her distress, which she reported as child maltreatment. An investigation was conducted and concluded on the same day. Child protection workers interviewed the girl, and then visited her home where she and both her parents and her sister were present. They were interviewed together.

This case shows two articulating, although not necessarily related, processes in constructing gendered identities of 'responsibility'. The first is the father's strategic engagement with workers, to repair and minimise his identity as 'person believed responsible for physical abuse'. The second process is the construction by workers of the mother's 'responsibility' associated with her perceived 'unprotectiveness'.

Making a case for child protection: intake - the father as 'directly responsible', possibly 'dangerous' and 'high risk'[10]

The intake report on file links the father's actions towards his daughter [1], therefore identifying him as 'directly responsible':
[Judith] had visible bruising on inner thighs [pink and raised [2], from electric cord] [3] ... caused by ... father [1], ... during argument last night when [Judith] returned home 2 hours late from her boyfriend's.

The extreme nature [2] and cause [3] of the injuries were of significant concern to child protection workers who initially considered the possibility of 'sexual abuse', given the bodily location of the injuries and also that the father was 'responsible'. However the explanation given at intake and then by the girl was constructed as 'physical', rather than 'sexual' abuse[11].

Making a case for child protection: investigation - transforming the father's visibility and responsibility

The workers visited the family to investigate further the injuries to Judith and the explanations that her father was 'responsible' for them. The father immediately sought to minimise his visibility from public scrutiny and therefore responsibility, by actively reconstructing and repairing his identity from 'physical abuser' to 'concerned parent'.

As soon as the workers arrived at the front door of the home, the father immediately began an active reconstruction of himself as 'compliant' and a 'concerned parent'. This was so explicit and different from their usual experience as to be remarked on by both workers when I interviewed them about the case process[12]. The extract below is taken from the male worker's comments.
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 [4] ... (emphasis added).

The apparent willingness of 'the family' to allow official entry into the home [1a-b] set the scene for a generally compliant surface engagement, strategically managed by the father to ensure official recognition of 'his version' [4]. His self-presentation as compliant (and simultaneously 'concerned parent') was achieved by taking control of the interview. He prevented the workers from questioning him [3a] by instead immediately volunteering the basic information that was uncontested by all participants: making explicit the reason for official contact [2a-c], and also acknowledging his transgressions [2b-c]. This minimised (Potter 1996) a potentially adversarial, inquisitorial relationship with him positioned as 'defendant', and defused professional power. His strategic engagement impressed the workers as 'co-operativeness', a characteristic that is valued in child protection assessment as an indicator of 'low risk' (DePanfilis & Scannapieco 1994: 238).

Through telling 'his version', the father simultaneously 'acknowledged' his 'hitting', but reconstructed it as 'punishment'. He re-presented his identity as 'concerned parent' - 'he would have contacted the department [for help]', and 'there is no way he would choose that form of punishment again'. His self-presentation as compliant and concerned parent, relied on undermining the daughter's identities as 'victim' and 'vulnerable child'. His concerns were expressed as: his daughter's boyfriend, her associations with drug dealers, and 'smoking dope', identifying her as 'the black sheep'. 'I've brought up six children ... and most of them have all done quite well, except for this one'.

Making a case for child protection: investigation - the mother emerges as 'responsible'

Whether or not the father had managed to minimise his 'responsibility', the mother emerged as equally responsible, being seen as 'unprotective' of her children. The female worker commented that she asked Judith about her relationship with her mother and 'why didn't mum intervene [to stop dad hitting her]?' Positioned within the literature, I asked about the possible connection between the allegations by Judith of violence by her father to her mother and the limits on her intervention[13].

The female worker said that they 'asked about the relationship between the couple' and that 'they described it as being OK'. I then asked about the mother's acknowledgement of 'physical violence between herself and her husband'. The female worker said that 'she actually denied that ... she said that occasionally they argued ... about the kids ...'. The workers did not consider that alleged violence suggested an unequal and oppressive heterosexual partnership. Nor was the possibility of inequality due to race or ethnicity considered, despite an incidental remark about the mother's ethnicity inserted into a description of the family's circumstances: 'Mum is actually Aboriginal'[14]. (The father was 'non Aboriginal'). Instead they positioned both parents/partners as 'equals'. The mother's 'denial' was not recognised as possibly the only reasonable response she could make in the presence of her allegedly violent husband. Furthermore, the mother's seeming inability to criticise in his presence, her husband's methods of 'punishment' and his self- presentation as 'concerned parent' also suggested some ambivalence by a woman who was struggling with 'discipline' of the children, and relying on her husband as the 'reinforcer of rules'. However, these complexities of mothering/partnering were constructed by workers as evidence of the mother's 'unprotectiveness' and therefore, indirect responsibility.

The equalisation of gendered identities of 'husband' and 'wife', 'father' and 'mother' reconstructed both as 'concerned parents'[15]. Gendered identities of 'responsibility' positioned the father solely as 'responsible for hitting'. However, the mother's 'responsibility' was more complex, seen by the female and male workers respectively as set out below.

Table 2

Female workerMale worker
Not preventing it, not stopping himSaying 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 viewNot trying to protect her daughter [and] almost approving of the punishment

'Responsible mothers, invisible men' in practice

The intersection of the father's strategic dominance and the workers' engagement within an egalitarian construction of 'the family', maintained the oppressive relations and father's domination. His prior, not previously reported, 'history' of similar incidents of 'punishment' did not undermine his self-constructed identity as a 'concerned parent'.

Workers observed his practices of domination of family members [1] in their presence, but reconstructed his identity as central to the family [2], in particular in maintaining control [3]:
Issues of control ... dad talked over other members of the family and both [workers] [1] ... I think he has got a pivotal role in the family [2] and ... the discipline [3].

Instead, perceptions that he was 'very judgemental ... quite domineering in some things', were contrasted with (Potter 1996) '... at the same time also quite concerned about his daughter', thus minimising his responsibility for oppression of the female members of his family. Yet, his 'control' and 'dominance' even over public officials did not construct the single reported incident in the family, as a glimpse of private acts of oppression associated with gender and generation.

Constructing 'responsibility' in Case A

The reconstruction and repair of the father's identity from 'abuser' to 'concerned parent' influenced the immediate withdrawal of public surveillance of the family and instead achieved an agreement for 'family counselling'. 'Person believed responsible' represented an identity that linked particular actions by an individual to particular effects for a child. Thus the father was categorised officially as 'person believed responsible' and it seemed, his 'responsibility' ended there. The mother's 'responsibility' was more complex. She was seen as 'unprotective' and therefore 'responsible', by not intervening when her husband physically punished the children, because she was seen as 'equal' to her husband in their family relations, rather than possibly limited in her responses due to his alleged violence. Furthermore, potential inequality due to race or ethnicity in the heterosexual partnership went unremarked. Finally, the mother's 'responsibility' was also complicated by her apparent ambivalence in regard to how best to 'discipline' her daughter who seemed to break family rules[16]. In this, the husband's 'reinforcement' of the mother's rules through violence was possibly accepted at some level by the mother in helping to achieve what was socially expected of her in regard to mothering.

Case B 'substantiated physical abuse - risk acceptable' '(excess corporal punishment)'; Person believed responsible: 'parent' '(female)', Ethnicity: not stated

Case context: A teenage girl reported to a child protection worker that her parents had hit her. The worker contacted the girl's mother that day. The investigation was conducted and concluded the same day, with the substantiation of physical abuse and the mother categorised as person believed responsible. This case shows how patriarchal mothering as a daily practice and a public expectation positions women/mothers as sites of surveillance and normalisation and influences child protection practical constructions of the identities, 'responsible mothers, invisible men'.

Making a case for child protection: intake - both parents 'directly responsible'

Intake details on file show that both parents were directly responsible [1-3] by linking actions by particular individuals to a child. A fourteen-year-old girl reported
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 [1]. [Night before the most recent incident] hit by mum [2] 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 [3] with a strap across her face ... (emphasis added)

Making a case for child protection: investigation - the mother becomes 'responsible'

The child protection worker interviewed the mother about the daughter's 'allegations that mum hit her', which the mother complied with,
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.

According to the file, the mother contextualised the 'hitting', in relation to her other mothering responsibilities[17]. She was 'tired', caring for a 'newborn baby awake during the night', with 'household jobs' and '[seven other] children to care for during the day'. She was also responsible for controlling the 'conflict' between the girl, described as 'particularly difficult', and her sister. Nevertheless, she had tried some 'solutions', including 'paying more attention to Laurel ... and less to [her sister]', and 'telling Laurel ... to talk to her [about problems].' However, as the girl's behaviour became worse, the mother resorted to 'discipline', which escalated from 'screams and yells', to 'swearing', 'frustration' and 'hitting'.

The mother's 'confirmation of hitting' was translated as her concurrence with the official meaning of her actions as 'physical abuse' and was substantiated as such, with only the mother categorised as 'person believed responsible'.

'Responsible mothers, invisible men' in practice

I was curious to understand why only the mother was the focus of the investigation. Positioned as I was within the literature, this seemed to be a practical construction of 'responsible mothers, invisible men'.
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?[18]
Worker: ... in terms of dad, I don't remember [1] 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 [6]. ... 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 [7]. (emphasis added)

This extract shows how patriarchal mothering assumptions played out in mundane detail, intersected with the basic expectation that a 'type of maltreatment' and a 'person believed responsible' are identified, (the mother confirmed hitting her daughter), constructing identities of 'responsible mothers, invisible men' (Stark & Flitcraft 1988; Milner 1993). The father's disconnection from child-care maintained his invisibility from public surveillance, suggested by his apparent disappearance from the worker's consciousness [1], colloquially, 'out of sight, out of mind'. The mother's 'place' at home [2a] and as gatekeeper [2b], and assumptions that she was primarily responsible for the daily child care and responding to family conflicts [6, 7], also increased her visibility to public examination as 'person believed responsible' for 'hitting' her daughter. The immediacy of the incident with the mother [5a], unsurprising as she had most responsibility for the children (Carlson 1992), contrasted (Potter 1996) with the father's 'issue' [4c] as 'not current' [5b]. The more generalised descriptions (Potter 1996) of the father's actions, as 'stuff' [4a, 4b] and 'issue' [4c], contrasts with specific vocabulary (Potter 1996) for the mother's actions [3a-c]: 'concerns', 'cross', 'conflict'.

Constructing 'responsibility' in Case B

This case has shown how the practical circumstances of parenting which legitimates women's location in 'the home', and as primarily 'responsible' for the care, protection and control of children, intersected with assumptions of patriarchal mothering, producing gendered identities of 'responsible mothers, invisible men'. Although both parents were identified by their daughter as 'equally responsible', gendered roles and responsibilities associated with patriarchal mothering increased the mother's accessibility and public visibility, with consequences for her official identity construction as solely 'responsible for physical abuse', and the father as 'invisible'. Furthermore, 'the family's' ethnicity as 'Aboriginal' was only identified to me during the interview with the worker, as a sort of incidental statement: 'Do you know that this is an Aboriginal family?' [19]This suggests a lack of knowledge of the importance of awareness of race or ethnicity as ways of minimising ethnocentric or racist practices.

Case C 'substantiated sexual abuse - penetration'; Person believed responsible: 'defacto' '(male)', Ethnicity: 'Non Aboriginal'

Case context: This case was referred through a rather convoluted process, involving third parties and conflictual relationships. There was no investigation of the referral, partly because of concerns about its validity and also because the man identified as 'responsible' could not be located. Nonetheless, these aspects did not deter the worker from constructing gendered identities of responsibility as will be shown below.

This case shows the articulations between social class, patriarchal mothering and monogamous heterosexuality, in constructing the identity of the 'unprotective' mother. Particular male identities of 'dangerousness' (sexual predators) are positioned in relation to 'unprotective' mothers, who are 'responsible' for giving these men access to their children. Judgements of the mother's responsibility in this case were associated with her identities as social security recipient, heterosexually promiscuous and financially profligate. These identities were taken for granted as articulating with the identity of the identified man as 'person believed responsible for sexual abuse'. The man identified remained invisible from official investigation, although not escaping an official, yet nominal identity of 'person believed responsible'.

Making a case for child protection: intake - the male is 'directly responsible', 'dangerous' and placing children 'at risk'

The intake record on file shows the rather complicated reporting process for this case, which nonetheless identified a particular male as directly responsible, dangerous and placing children at risk [1-3].

The Police
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. [1] [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' [2]. [Steven's mother] said that the children had recently been to hospital for treatment for oral [sic] herpes. [3] [...] (emphasis added)

Doubts about the legitimacy of this report were documented on file. First, Police saw it as 'third hand', through a 'friend of a friend' (Potter 1996). Secondly, the conflictual context of reporting suggested 'self- interest' (Potter 1996). Thirdly, there was doubt whether 'herpes' necessarily represented 'sexual abuse'. The worker received medical clarification that 'herpes' was not a conclusive indicator of sexual abuse. Despite the formally expressed doubts about the report, he considered there was significant likelihood the children had been sexually abused by their mother's male friend. This he attributed to the consequences of the mother being 'unprotective' and therefore 'responsible' for her male associate's suspected sexual abuse of the children.

'Responsible mothers, invisible men' in practice

What follows is my reconstruction of a lengthy interview with the worker, shown by the line numbers from the transcript. In the process of 'talking through the process of the case' as I had requested[20], he interwove what I 'discovered' as 'responsible mothers, invisible men'.

His construction of the mother's abnormal identity of 'unprotectiveness' and therefore, 'responsibility' was related to her compliance with monogamous heterosexuality, marked by the paternity of the four children [1, 2].
... She's got four children. They were all by the same father [1]
[...] I've asked her ... whether the children were all her ex-partner's [2], she was actually married to this fellow. She said yes [2]. They all look the same ...

Her perceived transgressions of heterosexual monogamy through her association with 'a number of fellows, various fellows', gave access to the children by these 'many males' [3a], who would 'prey upon' them [4]. However, the identity of heterosexually promiscuous woman intersects with male/female relations as material exchange [5, 5a]. In this case, she is financially (and sexually) attractive to 'predatory males'.
... 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 [4] who see her as a source of income [5] with the kids. She gets reasonable money ... from Social Security [5a].

Furthermore, the 'unprotective' mother as Social Security recipient, was one of 'those women'. Her image of socioeconomic dependency is painted through 'cheap accommodation' [6a], associating material deprivation as 'welfare mothers' with (hetero)sexual [6b] and financial [7] profligacy and a lack of sobriety [6c]. Although this mother 'doesn't drink alcohol', she is guilty by association with those that do.
[...] 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 [7] [...]

The worker then made a direct association between the many 'transient [males]' [8a, 8b] as 'uninvolved users' [9], and their 'sexual abuse' of the children [8c].
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 [8] [...] 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 [9].

However, the mother's attractiveness to 'transient males' as an 'income source' is transformed into a sordid material 'dependency' [12] on these males as 'fools' or 'users', in exchange for material and possibly sexual favours [11a, 11b, 11c1-11c3].
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 [12] ... she's just stuck in that cycle ...

The sub-text of the relationship(s) between the mother and the man/men involved was a commentary on her/their transgressions of monogamous heterosexuality as material exchange. The mother's 'protectiveness' of the children was judged according to unspoken images of 'the normal (heterosexual) mother', polarised against 'the (heterosexual) welfare mother'. Thus judgements of the mother's (ab)normality constructed her as 'irresponsible', and simultaneously 'responsible' for the practices of abnormal heterosexual men.

In constructing the 'protective mother' as contingent upon monogamous heterosexuality, the image of the 'normal man' emerged in relation to 'wife': 'she was actually married to this fellow'. The normal monogamous heterosexual man as 'father' would not 'prey upon' the woman or children. The mother's perceived transgressions through her association with 'a number of fellows, various fellows' and therefore, 'being open to being preyed upon by them', identified her as 'unprotective mother', whose children were 'sitting ducks' to be 'sexually abused'.

The worker did not interview the man alleged to be 'doing things' to the children ('contact was not possible'), thus maintaining the man's official invisibility. However, the combination of his assumptions about the mother's 'responsibility' and 'unprotectiveness' through her particular 'life style' and her male associates, influenced his categorisation of the particular male as 'person believed responsible'.

Constructing 'responsibility' in Case C

This case shows how women as mothers become 'responsible' for maltreatment attributed to men, through the intersection of patriarchal mothering assumptions that conflate biological and social constructions of 'normal heterosexual women'. This is exacerbated by women's positioning as economic dependants either of individual men or on the state. The mother's perceived transgressions of cultural expectations of normal heterosexual women allowed for the man identified to acquire a nominal official identity of 'person believed responsible', as part of an abnormal gendered identity pair, whilst simultaneously maintaining his invisibility from surveillance and regulation. The taken for granted normality of 'Non Aboriginal' ethnicity in child protection practice is maintained in this case, where being 'non Aboriginal' appears to be a neutral descriptor of identity and is silenced.

* Reflections

This paper has explored how 'responsibility for child maltreatment' is constructed in child protection practice, with a specific focus on how 'responsibility' may also be gendered. Hence the conclusions address these two aspects: how the identities of 'responsible mothers, invisible men' were constructed in child protection practice, as an interplay between my own constructionist activity and those of practitioners, in relation to various texts: 'literature', 'theory', 'files' and 'transcripts'.

From the social constructionist position in which I have problematised my own constructionist practices, is there any validity in my conclusions or is the whole argument merely a consequence of my positioned subjectivity? Have I only seen what I want to see because of 'bias' or is there any possibility of a version of an 'objective truth' that also accounts for positioned subjectivity? What can I say to criticism that I have imposed my own categories and disregarded emergent practical constructions? What can I say to criticism that I have presented a simplistic analysis that treats gender as a homogeneous category and have not analysed the embeddedness of child protection practice in racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, disabling practices and class?

I have shown through various devices how my interpretation moved between my own readings and the writing of the claims. This 'movement' between texts suggests a process that combines versions of 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity', as 'objectivity/subjectivity', connected by reflexivity. Furthermore, the tensions between practitioners' 'emergent' theories and the researcher/writer's 'positioned subjectivity' also are an expression of the tension between 'objectivity/subjectivity'. I certainly did not know in advance which cases I would select for my total sample (for the larger project). I have explained the selection of cases for this paper.

So, what can be concluded about how the identities of responsible mothers, invisible men are constructed in child protection practice? Three cases were re- presented as particular examples of the gendering of responsibility cited in feminist critiques of contemporary child protection policy and practice. All three cases, singly and as a 'three-part list', are 'text book examples' of the practical construction of 'responsible mothers, invisible men'. In all three cases, men were reported as solely (Cases A and C) or equally (Case B) 'responsible' for practices categorised as 'physical' or 'sexual maltreatment'. And, in all three cases, women as mothers 'became responsible': equally (Cases A and C) or solely (Case B), while the men's 'invisibility' varied between partial (Case A) to complete (Cases B and C). Furthermore, Case C showed a particular version of the gendering of responsibility, by the (invisible) man's official categorisation as 'person believed responsible for sexual abuse' constructed entirely from assumptions about the mother's perceived '(ir)responsibility'.

Beyond the apparent 'text-book' compliance in each case, there is potential for expanded theorising about gender and responsibility for maltreatment. In regard to 'physical abuse', the circumstances of each family in Cases A and B, particularly in relation to mothering/parenting argue for a more complex understanding of gendered responsibility. In particular, it must be made explicit that parenting, primarily 'mothering', also includes discipline/control/regulation of children, in addition to the more palatable aspects of care and protection. Furthermore, mothering/parenting as shown in these cases is an interactive relationship that may include some degree of conflict, expressed in various ways (e.g. 'disobedient' or 'difficult' children, 'concerned' or 'frustrated' parents), and sometimes escalating into 'hitting', 'assault' or 'violence'. It also raises the question of when 'hitting' is 'punishment', and when it is 'violence', and when/if it is excusable and when/if it is not. These issues are important for child protection and feminist critiques, but for different reasons.

The disregard in child protection policy and practice of the practical problems of parenting/mothering that increasingly occurs in isolation as a 'private' problem, over emphasises the expectation of care and protection, ignoring the 'discipline' that may be sometimes necessary for achieving care and protection. Whilst official identities of responsibility are known through publicised profiles, less public is the pervasiveness of 'responsibility' and associated surveillance of women as mothers. The lack of official categorisation of such practices, which are also case outcomes, maintains an official silence about the gendering of responsibility and ways of addressing it. At least partly, this silence contributes to an absence of knowledge about child protection policy and practice.

Feminist critiques of patriarchal mothering also need to take account of the practical problems of mothering beyond seeing women as nurturers. Women sometimes may rely ambivalently on the violence of male partners/fathers to discipline children for whom they (mothers) are concerned.

Other identities of 'dangerousness' and 'risk' seem to have emerged through the relatively unstructured interviews with practitioners. First, because practitioners were invited to tell the cases in their own way, they did not necessarily comment upon 'identities of dangerousness or risk' in all cases. Instead, they highlighted the identities that transgressed what was implicitly considered 'normal'. Hence, the comment in Case C about the mother's sexual and financial practices as transgressive of 'normal' mothers' behaviour. Silences therefore I read as constructions of the 'normal', for example, the lack of commentary on the ethnicity of the family in Case C ('non Aboriginal'). However, awareness of ethnicity as 'other' i.e. 'Aboriginal', and transgressive of the 'normal' 'non Aboriginal' identity, as in Cases A and B did attract some comment that was no more than an incidental feature of the cases. However a more political understanding of race and ethnicity beyond organisational categorisation requirements was absent. Similarly, the transgressions in each family of 'normal' gendered 'parenting' practices foregrounded the patriarchal assumptions influencing practical constructions of identities of responsibility. However the silence associated with sexuality suggests the taken for granted assumption that 'parenting' implies 'heterosexuality' which was not transgressed in any of the selected cases.

Within my reconstruction and re-presentation of what I read/heard as child protection workers' practical constructions, I have shown how these assumptions regarding 'responsible mothers, invisible men' operate. Finally, irrespective of the gendering of responsibility in child protection practice, I believe this paper has given an insight into how claims- making processes operate in practice.


1This paper focuses only on policies and practices in these three countries to take some account of context and also the sharing of knowledge across national boundaries. The processes and analysis discussed in this paper may differ significantly if focusing on say, countries in Asia or Africa.

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 the case':
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 ...


I am grateful to the management and staff of 'the Department', for allowing me access to key informants, documents and sites for this research, and to those practitioners who willingly engaged with me as key informants.

My sincere thanks to my colleague, Karen Lane, Deakin University, for her feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.


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