The more deprived the area a child lives in, the greater their chances of being taken into care, with poverty and domestic abuse “key drivers” of demand for child protection services.
That is according to professor of social work at Huddersfield University, Bríd Featherstone, whose UK-based research — the Child Welfare Inequalities Project — has found that it is “primarily the poorest people in our society” that the child protection system is dealing with.
“In every country [England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales] we found a statistically significant link between deprivation and your chances of coming into care.”
Prof Featherstone, from the west of Ireland, who was addressing delegates at the sixth National Child Protection and Welfare Social Work conference at University College Cork (UCC), said poverty is “the backdrop, the wallpaper of our practice”.
“Every time we talk to people, particularly policymakers, they say ‘poverty isn’t the cause of child abuse’.
“In fact they say it’s very insulting to poor people to talk about it in this way because not all poor people abuse their children.
“To which our reply is ‘then why are we only intervening with the poor?’ That makes it even worse. If it’s right across society, why are we not distributing our activities?”
One delegate said it occurred to her that “wealth, in some subtle ways and some more overt ways, may have the ability to hide abuse”.
Prof Featherstone agreed that abuse is happening right across society “but our child protection system is intervening with the poorest”.
She said the best chance a child has of spending their childhood with their birth parents is “linked to how deprived their family is”.
“That is what our study is telling us — it is a postcode lottery but it’s a postcode lottery in relation to poverty.”
Prof Featherstone said domestic abuse is responsible for “75% of reasons why children are on our child protection plans; and while it happens across all sectors of society there is not “equal vulnerability”; that poorer women and poorer men are more likely to be involved in domestic abuse, linked to social and economic factors.
“And there’s a sort of moral squeamishness we’ve developed about saying this, maybe because we’re afraid it will deny the reality of domestic abuse across society... But it’s not either/or... It’s a reality to say it’s much more likely statistically in poorer communities.
“And there is a link between men’s inability to access the breadwinner role and to access a particular model of masculinity that’s valued in our society and their capacity to engage in violence and abuse.”
Sadhb Whelan — who presented a snapshot of findings from her PhD at Trinity College Dublin titled ‘At the Front Door: Child Protection Reports in a changing policy and legislative context’ — said that exposure to domestic violence and parental conflict is “the most frequently reported difficulty” for children referred to child protection services in one social work area of the country during the first quarter of 2015.
The most frequently reported difficulty for parents and families is a lack of parenting skills.
Of 794 intake records analysed concerning 547 families, domestic violence was reported for one in every seven children; while lack of parenting skills was reported for one in every four families.
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