Problematizing Current Child Welfare Discourses in Ireland: How can Genealogy Help?
Skehill (2004) published an in-depth history of the present of child protection and welfare social work in Ireland. She used the genealogical method to usurp traditional assumptions about the development of child welfare and protection social work as a mere protracted, linear and non-problematized process. She used history to illuminate the present position of child protection and welfare social work as intrinsically linked to social work expertise. She problematized its protracted development in the professional sphere up to and beyond 1970 within the context of a dominant socio-spiritual discourse; a powerful and widely influential feature of the symbiotic relationship between Church and state in Ireland (Whyte 1980). How expertise emerged from this time onwards is interrogated and, notwithstanding reversals and stop-starts along the way, she found that child protection social work had, at the end of the twentieth century, achieved established and verified expertise and position. She concluded that while the discourse of child protection had gained momentum at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remained a reactive protection oriented system as a result of a complex historical journey (see also Skehill 2003).
In 2014, the landscape of child welfare is arguably transformed since her study due to a plethora of events surrounding the care and welfare of children in both the family home and in institutions in Ireland. The result is a brand new administrative structure to deliver child and family services independently of the traditional model within a wider Health Service Executive (DCYA 2012). The degree of discursive and material change is such that it is necessary to revisit the genealogical analysis of 2004 to re-problematize child welfare in Ireland in the current time and space. This is because some of the same 'history' has new implications for the present. A genealogical approach recognizes this fluidity of time and space implying that any discussion with the present is a fluid and fleeting event that must thus be revisited in the specific context of the selected moment.
While it is nearly 20 years since the first major child abuse inquiry in Ireland (McGuiness 1993), it has only been in the past few years that the impetus to seriously address and reform the child welfare and protection system has become pronounced (WHB 2010). Following an in-depth Task Force on Child and Family Support (DCYA 2012), which involved representation from a range of constituent
parties, plans, including a Child and Family Bill 2012, are now in place to create a new agency for child welfare in Ireland called the Child and Family Agency. Alongside this, there was a Constitutional Referendum in 2012 to include a stronger assertion of children's rights within the 1937 Constitution, which was passed though by a disappointing minority (Logan 2012). The impetus for what can be described as one of the most proactive attempts to reform child welfare and protection services in Ireland has been influenced most notably by the publication of the 'Ryan Report' by the Commission to Inquire into Child abuse (OMCYA 2009). This report provides gruesome and shocking detail of a litany of abuse and neglect experienced by children and young people in the care of the Church, through its industrial schools (institutional care) during the twentieth century, up to the point of their demise in the 1970s. In 2004, Skehill was able to offer a number of theses based around power and power relations as to the dominance of Institutional Care in Ireland. But at that time, the problem of abuse was exposed (e.g. Raftery and O'Sullivan 1999) but not known to be as widespread, systematic and institutionally hidden as emerged since then. As the Ryan Report shows, the State is also held culpable alongside the Church Institutions for its neglect of these children by proxy through lack of regulation (see Skehill 2011) and complacency in taking responsibility for ensuring their safe care in state-funded, even if Church run services.
In the present, many question how and why a system of institutionalized abuse was possible to uphold and defend for so long, even many years after the first expose of the problem. If we take the empirical findings from Skehill (2004) alone, we can argue the following with confidence. Culturally, the Church played a central role, not only in the social arena in Ireland but also the political (see Whyte 1980). Institutionally, the State played only a rudimentary role in the provision of services for children, keeping their duties limited up to 1970, for example, confined mostly to registration of children at nurse and monitoring of children in the workhouses and county homes (Skehill 2004). Voluntary organizations, mostly religious run, dominated the field of child welfare provision and institutional care was not only the dominant, but for many the preferred method of care and welfare of children in need of care and/or control (Skehill 2011). Socially, children of certain categories, such as illegitimate children, children of the poor, were treated more as objects than subjects in terms of their construction in social policy and social discourses and intellectually, the power of religious moral authority dominated secular professional care discourses through the mid-twentieth century and therefore the strong advocates for children's rights throughout the century occupied only minor discursive space (Skehill 2004).
Those 'facts' of history have not changed in the past decade but they have come to gain greater discursive political and social space because of the scandal of abuse alongside increased critical awareness of poor service to children by 'authorities' throughout the century and up to the present day. With this stronger political and cultural space, have come material changes to practice of organizational delivery of services (the planned New Agency) and the explicit introduction of children's
rights and child-centred discourse in the policy and practice of child welfare (e.g. National Strategy for Children 2000).
So this leads to the question: how can a genealogical approach critically inform present day child welfare developments? Genealogical analysis offers two particular mechanisms to allow for a greater understanding of relations between discourses and practices for this particular problem. Firstly, we can analyze in depth the nature of power relations, which led to practices becoming discourses and discourses, practices. Alongside this, we can map relations of power between the subject, the object, the organization, the law, the policy, theory and so on. Genealogy helps to emphasize that practices did not just follow a linear route of liberation or brutality; differences existed within and between institutions; within and between families based foster care and home based care. Genealogy also unearths the dominance of certain discourse, in this instance the discourse of objectification of the child in care; the power of the authority of the 'carer' and 'educator'; and the impact of the surrounding social environment. When one draws the analysis specifically around relations between discourses, power and the subject, the picture emerges which helps to comprehend, albeit never defend, the nature and form of the system of power, which enabled institutionalized abuse to exist and persist for decades. In summary, a genealogical interrogation of the history of child welfare in Ireland, from a present viewpoint is illuminating.
Firstly, it becomes near impossible to defend the revisionist view 'that was then, this is now' because we have strong evidence that while a dominant discourse of objectification of the institutionalized child was upheld, there were many advocates for home based care, promotion of children's and unmarried mothers and greater attention to the subjective needs of children. Secondly, one must challenge the assumption that children were commonly objectified during the period in question. Skehill (2004) unearthed a number of examples of promotion of subjectivity of children through promoters of family care; lobby groups for children's rights and interests, which existed from the early twentieth century. Thirdly, the assumption that the wider policy and legal mechanisms were not available to protect children is dislodged; we know that legislation was in place from the late nineteenth century to protect children from the kinds of abuse and brutality detailed in the recent Inquiry reports so it was not the lack of legal discourse in itself but rather the will to exercise it vis-à-vis the more powerful socio-spiritual forces (Skehill 2011).
Let us elaborate a little further here: it would seem in light of our current understanding of the history of child welfare that what we had was a 'hidden' or 'thinly concealed' discourse and practice which existed in parallel to the 'official' legal and government led discourse. This social, cultural or institutional discourse was powerful enough to subjugate the accepted legal discourse of the 1908 Children Act that was operated in other domains such as the National or Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (Ferguson 1996) and the inspectors of Boarded Out Children responsible for children in the care of family homes. Such power was possible not only because of internal power of a strong religious institution, but also by the exercise of power by successive government to do little
or nothing to regulate, bring to account or question even the possibility of such practice. The dominant genealogical context was such that such power relations were sustained and supported despite some efforts to challenge this.
So how has this history informed the present where there is literally a goal of 'transforming' the institutional, intellectual and organizational discourse of child protection and welfare; purging the terrible past and turning the discourse on its head from residual to proactive and child centred? The Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency (DCYA 2012) have set out new structures, processes, models of practice and organizational arrangements for supporting families and protection children. This development is not only due to the findings of the Ryan Report and other recent inquiries into care and welfare of children (it would be far too linear to make such a supposition) but the impetus for reform is powerfully influenced by an attempt to make recompense for the past and prevent its repetition. A separate agency, independent for the first time from the health executive, has become responsible for the full continuum of child welfare, family support and child protection services from the beginning of 2014. The underpinning intellectual discourse is that of prevention, family support, interdisciplinary working and aligned child protection and welfare procedures. All of the 'words' 'theories; organizational plans and so on – the 'discourses' – are consistent in this new perceived dawn of integrated, supportive, family-oriented practice (see UNESCO Child and Family Centre 2013). As we literally observe discourses becoming practice as the new agency is set up, a genealogical analysis can help to raise some important questions that should be to the fore as this practice is developed and implemented.
The first question that can be raised, drawing from Garland's perspective on history of the present in particular (see also Castel 1994; Dean 1994), is the extent to which the fairly clearly asserted 'intellectual' discourses, based on research evidence and theory construction, relate to the wider cultural, social, institutional, political discourses that will influence the nature and form of practice within this 'New Agency'. Culturally, for example via media, the theme of children's rights has occupied greater discursive space than at any other time in modern Irish child welfare history, though the Constitutional Referendum on Children's Rights (2012) showed the extent to which debates still ensue about the extent to which citizens are committed to promoting children's' rights and the extent to which the 'state' should intervene in family privacy (see Logan, 2012). Institutionally, the mechanisms for delivery of child welfare and family support is being transformed into a separate independent agency, yet questions remain as to the extent to which the practices of governance will transform in this new structure. Socially, Ireland is in the throes of a recession where those families most in need are arguably suffering the greatest so the question of how discourses of family support/children's rights sit alongside practices of resource cuts and retrenchment of support are contested and contradictory.
The outcome of the current transformation is not yet visible. As the changes develop, we need to observe and analyze them. In so doing, it would appear
convincing that genealogy offers a method that can capture that change in a way that positions the dominant discourses, gives voice to the minority and ad hoc; critically examine relations of discourse to practice and actively campaign against simplistic deductions about the relationship between past and present. This project will remain an ongoing one as the aspirational discourse of the 'New Agency' becomes translated into the murkier and more complex context of practice that is no more disaggregated from its past than it is merely a linear product of it.