Forrester Versus Featherstone: A debate Part 1

By Richard Devine (14.12.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council


On 07th October 2020, we held a debate at Bath and North East Somerset Council between Brid Featherstone and Donald Forrester. This debate was inspired by an article each of them wrote for the COVID2020 online magazine. Very briefly, Forrester advocated for ‘Radical Non-Intervention’ whereas Featherstone and her colleagues, Gupta and  Morris  expressed caution  about  this, instead advocating for different and radical ways of working with children and families, such as collective strategies that promote community work, locality-based approaches and peer support. 

So, we decided to invite them to our social work conference to expand upon their perspective, underlying rationale, and explore areas of agreement and disagreement. The ensuing debate did not disappoint. 

This blog is divided into three. Firstly, I have provided an overview of Fox-Harding’s four value perspectives. I could have summarized what Forrester and Featherstone said about Fox-Harding, but I found her book fascinating and highly relevant (which I began reading in preparation for the conference), and so to facilitate my understanding I have summarized her work from the original text (Perspective in Child Care Policy, Fox Harding 1997: 2nd Edition). This will provide a useful primer for the debate, which I will detail in part two. In the third and final part, I will provide some thoughts and reflections on the debate between Forrester and Featherstone, who from here onwards I will refer to as Donald and Brid 

Part 1: Fox-Harding’s four-fold typology: 

Note: Part 1 is sourced entirely from Fox-Harding’s 1997 book, Perspectives in Child Care Policy. I have attempted to summarise her four value perspective but have focused on that which seems most relevant and important. In my opinion, Fox-Harding provides a fair and balanced overview of each approach, detailing the underlying rationale, advantages and disadvantages, without her personal preferences interfering with her characterization of the four value perspectives. I have tried to do the same. 

  1. Laissez-faire and patriarchy 

In this approach, there should be no intervention with the family unless in extreme circumstances. Where intervention is necessary, the children should be placed in alternative care, with pre-existing relations severed. That is, if state intervention is required, it should be minimal and tends to be authoritarian. No intervention is recommended for anything other than extreme and obvious forms of maltreatment. 

There are several values and beliefs that underpin this approach. Firstly, a fundamental mistrust of the state, and a concern about the state wielding power to unduly influence family life. Preservation of individual freedom and liberty is a central issue. Secondly, there is concern that the law is too blunt and slow to be effectively used in decision making for parents and children. Thirdly, state intervention is often ineffective in averting the ill-treatment of children, and examples of children being harmed in alternative care is used to illustrate this point. Related to this point is the difficulty in weighing up what will be best for children in the long term when considering removal to alternative care. Fourthly, social workers are vulnerable to psychological biases, and premature erroneous labelling may result in unfairness and injustices. Fifth, and finally, state intervention tends to reinforce structural inequalities, with the poor and marginalized being disproportionately targeted.   

It is recognized that this approach will mean leaving out some children who we require  protection, but the alternative, that is, the over inclusion of paternalistic state intervention means that social workers (actors of the state) have too much discretion, power and authority. ‘Harm is inherent in every violation of family integrity; so the preferred error is on the side of non intrusiveness’ (Fox-Harding 1997: 17). There may also be a financial argument, even though this isn’t made explicit by those who favour this approach, as ‘highly limited state intervention is consonant with lower levels of public expenditure’ (Fox-Harding 1997: 21).

2.    State Paternalism and child protection

In this school of thought, extensive state intervention is justified as necessary to protect children from parents’ harmful behaviour, and removal of children into good substitute care is favoured. The child’s needs and rights take precedence, and in contrast to the Laissez-faire approach, parents rights tend to be sacrificed, or at least, given much less weighting. There is a strong identification with the vulnerable and dependent child who requires protection from the state in the event the parents aren’t deemed to be providing this to a satisfactory level. 

Several presuppositions underpin this approach. Firstly, the state is seen as positive and beneficial. Social workers are deemed able to exercise professional judgement, undertake sound, valid, and predictive assessments of harm, and make informed, balanced decisions about what is in the best interest of children. Secondly, alternative care, such as fostering and adoption is construed positively. Combined, social workers can readily conceptualise themselves as rescuing vulnerable children from dangerous parents and placing them into substitute, safe, and loving homes. Embedded in this viewpoint is an idealisation of the benefits derived from alternative care and a diminishing or overlooking of the harms caused by severe state intervention and separation of children from their families.  This approach is justified on the basis that the child is too weak to protect themselves and didn’t choose the relationship with their parents, and thus the state has a special duty to intervene if mistreatment is evident and/or suspected. Research highlighting the effect of maltreatment on children and the effects on long-term outcomes reinforces this position. Parents’ difficulties are considered to reflect individual psychopathology, rather than a manifestation of social determinants, thus any intervention is focused on the parent and not the environment.   

Individual cases of extreme child abuse and death of children caused by their parents provide horrifying and compelling justification for the child protection approach. It is argued that attempting to avoid children being seriously harmed or killed justifies the development and maintenance of the child protection approach, even with the unintended negative consequences of such a system. In other words, even though the child protection approach disproportionately targets poor and marginalised groups, can worsen sometimes rather than improve the quality of children’s experiences and infringes upon parents’ rights and liberties, it is considered necessary and worthwhile. These disadvantages are tolerable if it can prevent such cases (extreme child abuse/death) from happening again. The assumptions that undermine a system designed and predicated on an attempt to prevent all child deaths is questioned. Firstly, such deaths, whilst influential in policy and practice are rare. Secondly, because human behaviour is unpredictable, it is misguided to presuppose that any system could be designed to eliminate severe child abuse and death. Thirdly, excessive vigilance to child abuse increases the likelihood of over-and-misidentifying risk, thus leading to unnecessary (and harmful) state intrusion into family life.   

3. The modern defence of the birth family and parents’ rights

Similar to ‘state paternalism and child protection’, this approach advocates for the role of the state, however, the focus on this involvement is to help and support families remain together, and removal of children is to be avoided at all costs. If the child needs to be removed as a last resort, then pro-active efforts should be made to maintain links and/or reunify the children to their family as soon as possible. In this perspective, the interests of parents and children are seen to be undifferentiated, and therefore to help parents is to help children. The parents are considered the best providers of care for children, and any difficultly in their ability to effectively fulfil this role should be considered in their historical and social context. State intervention should be supportive rather than ‘coercive, punitive or intrusive’ (Fox Harding 1997: 88)

This perspective considers poor parenting to be largely a consequence of social inequality and injustice. In contrast to ‘state paternalism and child protection’ which locates the problems of parenting within the psychological functioning of the individual parent, the ‘modern defence of birth family’ perspective favours the explanation that issues such as poverty, deprivation, unemployment, etc are the primary causes. Consequently, addressing these issues is central to remedying the issue of poor parenting and child abuse, instead of blaming parents and expecting them to resolve issues that are beyond their control.  It is pointed out that social work interventions are not distributed evenly among parents in society, rather tend to be disproportionately provided to poor, low skilled, unemployed, single parent, and ethnic minorities. This fact lends credence to the argument that social determinants are the main cause of child abuse and that parents should be provided tangible, material and practical help to avoid unnecessary punishment of suffering parents by too readily removing their children. In ‘state paternalism and child protection’, the deaths of children are used as justification for excessive and risk-averse state intervention, however, there is also a catalogue of horror stories relating to anguished parents who have been unfairly mistreated by social workers resulting in the unjust state intervention and/or removal of their children. 

Some limitations are identified with this school of thought. Firstly, the view of the state is conceptualised inconsistently. The state is responsible for the child protection approach, which is considered authoritarian and punitive and the lack of financial resources prevents a truly effective preventative strategy. Yet the state is also considered capable of remedying both issues. Secondly, large scale welfare initiatives are expensive, and achieving political support can be extremely difficult. Two additional related points. A. Families are unequal in distribution of power, and an increase in finances will not necessarily equate to beneficial outcomes for children as it may not be used to their advantage (One member of the family may keep the money for themselves). B.  Establishing and implementing an effective preventative approach is exceptionally difficult and does not always have the purported or intended effects. Thirdly, in pursuit of helping the parents, the child’s needs, wishes and feelings may be overlooked. Fourthly, if the class analysis provided within this approach is indeed accurate, then it is unlikely that social workers, or any other related professional, would be able to address this. In other words, the class divisions and concomitant effects are unlikely to change unless the class nature of society is itself changed. 

4. Children’s Rights and Child Liberation 

This perspective emphasises children’s wishes and feelings and children are considered as a separate entity with a right to freedom and autonomy, much like an adult. The fact that children are young, psychologically immature and dependant on their caregivers is not a justification to preclude them from having access to freedoms, participate in decision making, and importantly, have their thoughts and feelings acted upon.  

At the extreme, this position advocates for children to be able to vote, to opt-in or out of education, and decide where and whom to live with. An intriguing and provocative position to consider, if not lacking common sense and a basic grasp of developmental psychology. A moderate position emphasises the child’s perspective, and for their thoughts and feelings to take precedence and given special priority. Two underlying presuppositions of this approach. Firstly, adults are seen to underestimate the ability of children to reasonably articulate what they want and decide on the best course of action. The delineation between childhood and adulthood is considered a social construct, evidenced by the fact that the very notion of ‘childhood’ as a special phase has only existed for a few hundred years, and children are considered to possess many of the mental faculties of adults. Secondly, children are entitled to rights independent of their parents, partly because it is not assumed that their parents will necessarily act in their best interests. In fact, it is argued that children are subjugated by adults who impose their own needs and interests upon them. Children are thus unfairly treated, perhaps, in the same way feminism identified that unequal power relations characterised historical relations between men and women resulting in oppression and unjust treatment. The fact that children ‘can be hit with impunity’ (Freeman 1995: 76 cited Fox Harding 1997: 152) is considered blatant evidence of this. 

Such an approach has contributed to developments in childcare law and policy, such as the concept of separate advocacy, distinct from the parents and the Local Authority (i.e. guardian ad litem who would represent the child and instruct the child’s solicitor). However, there is ‘a more sinister side to the pursuit of ‘children’s rights’’ (Fox-Harding 1997: 156). The limitations of providing children rights and responsibilities, akin to what adults have is made evident when children encounter the criminal justice system, either as offenders or witnesses of their own abuse. Furthermore, attributing excessive responsibility to children may be used to abdicate the responsibility of caregivers and the Local Authority from providing necessary support.

Convergences and Divergences

All four typologies share a concern with the welfare of children, even if alternative motives influence their perspective at times. To remedy the concern for children, all consider there to be a role for the state to intervene and safeguard the rights of children. As such, none of them are in favour ‘for completely unfettered parental rights’ (Fox-Harding 1997:160). In other words, there is a consensus that children’s rights will need to be upheld by the state, and in doing so, an over-riding of the parents’ rights’ is necessary.

Although agreement is found in concern for children’s welfare, the definition of children’s welfare, and thus, the proposed response is vastly different. The first perspective (Laissez-faire) advocates for parenthood to be undisturbed by social work involvement, unless in extreme circumstances. Similarities can be found in the second perspective (child protection), albeit with a much lower threshold for compulsory intervention and a more pro-active readiness to terminate relationships and provide alternative substitute care. Both prefer alternative care to be final and consider that children do best when original parents are excluded. The third perspective (family support), like the first perspective (Laissez Faire), consider removal to be a final and extreme measure, but unlike the first (and second) perspective, envisage the state to provide a much more preventative, helpful and supportive role. The fourth perspective (child rights) considers child welfare to be found in maximising their freedom and autonomy, including the freedom to choose who they live with. Unlike the first three, the fourth perspective devalues the original parents and family, because it is children’s choice that matters the most.

There are also differences in how each perspective conceptualises the origins of problems for parents. In the first (Laissez-Faire) and second perspective (child protection), the problems are considered individual failures and defects of character. These difficulties are a manifestation of their own compromised developmental experiences. This explanation contributes to the view that removing children and placing them in alternative care prevents the intergenerational pattern of poor parenting. Not only is the child immediately being helped by being removed from damaged parents and placed with psychologically healthier ones, but the child will become a healthier parent when he/she becomes an adult, and this is indirectly helping the next generation. As problems are construed as personal problems, then the structural and political factors tend to be de-emphasised. ‘In attempting to be non-political’ however this only succeeds in ‘being politically naive’ (Fox-Harding 1997: 169). In contrast, the third school of thought (family support) considers parenting problems to be a consequence of material and social issues, such as poverty, poor housing, unemployment, and insufficient support services. Address these issues then concerns for parenting will be to a large extent be resolved. 

By Richard Devine (14.12.2020)

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Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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