Blackboard: Child Welfare Research

Dissertation sketch blackboard art research-art project and photo by Zlatana Knezevic

Updated 2021/08/10

Below, you will find fragments of my PhD thesis Child (Bio)Welfare and Beyond: Intersecting Injustices in Child­hoods and Swedish Child Welfare (2020).

My doctoral dissertation examines Swedish child welfare policy and practice. It consists of studies of some guiding documents for child welfare practice, BBIC (Barns Behov i Centrum, Swedish abbreviation for “Children’s Needs in Focus”). I also analyse child welfare assessment reports that are guided by BBIC. Several publications deal with the knowledge that underpins BBIC.

A central question has been how this foundational knowledge, in terms of theoretical legacies, theories of knowledge and research used, enables and constrains recognition of and responses to various social justice issues in childhoods. The following themes cover the possibilities and limitations of recognising what I refer to as intersecting injustices in childhoods such as racism, gendered inequalities and inequalities, including lack of participation, related to children’s age. Class and health are also discussed as relations of power and inequality.

De/gendering violence and racialising blame – what has childhood got to do with it?

My very first draft as a doctoral student was based on an analysis of BBIC documents and about the knowledge and theoretical legacies that underpin BBIC. This is carried further in the co-written “De/gendering violence and racialising blame in Swedish child welfare: what has childhood got to do with it?”.

It is widely known that there are multiple theoretical models out there to use that provide different explanations to what this work refers to as gender-based violence (also called interpersonal violence, domestic violence, etc.). These models may give explanations that target the individual level, psychosocial level, or structural level. Feminist violence research has discussed the implications of gender-neutral understanding of violence and how these understandings tend to blame victims of violence for the violence they are exposed to. This article discusses theoretical models of violence not only in terms of whether violence is seen as a gender-based problem or not, but also in terms of the implication different constructions of violence have on how childhoods figure in these models and how children are viewed when exposed to violence.

We juxtapose socialisation theory, developmental psychology theories and the discourse of intergenerational transmission with feminist theories on gender-based violence. Our most interesting finding is that different theories are applied to different forms of gender-based violence. Overall, violence figures as a degendered problem, that is, as a problem that has nothing to do with gender inequality. However, the so-called “honor-related violence” is a form of violence that in the documents studied appears to be a structural gender- and power-related problem that also links to sexuality and a cultural discourse.

Depending on the theoretical model used, children are constructed differently, in the same document. Simply put, violence in racialised children’s homes is considered to be a problem that has to do with gender relations and inequality (structural and primarily cultural problem) while in other children’s homes, it is more linked to certain dynamics that may occur between men/fathers and women/mothers as seemingly equal individuals or by adults that have been socialised into this kind of behavior (individual and psychosocial models).

It raises broader issues about the selective use of feminist perspectives on violence in social work that are limited to violence of the racial Other. The issue here is not that violence in racialised childhoods becomes linked to a discourse of power and social justice. The issue is the differentiation of childhoods and that only some children’s childhoods are understood in this way. Thus, the violence that can affect any child (the general child that does not belong to a racialised ethnic minority group), lacks similar gendered and power-related connotations. Instead, it appear as a disease (epidemiological discourse) that spreads from adult to adult, from child to chid, or (in the intergenerational transmission discourse) from generation to generation.

Childhoods – past, present and future – occupy a central place in understanding violence as a social problem in theories on violence yet childhoods are often overlooked when discussing and problematising the practical implication of theory.

copyright 2020 Zlatana Knezevic research-art the philosophy of roots rotternas filosofi
“Root-philosophy” Research-Artwork (blackboard art)
Socialisation theory, developmental psychology theories and the discourse of intergenerational transmission are recurring theoretical elements in the material we analysed. They affect views on children, childhoods as well as social problems. Other theoretical influences are also included, for instance from feminist theory. However, these are discussed only in relation to some childhoods, not the general child.

Source: Knezevic, Z., Eriksson, M., och Heikkilä, M. (2021) “De/gendering violence and racialising blame in Swedish child welfare: what has childhood got to do with it?”Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 5(2): 199-214.

Children’s Moral Status

I address children’s moral status as a critical response to the dominant participation rights discourse, which is based on the idea of the knowledgeable child. Critical childhood studies has been important in shifting the perspective from children as developing not-yet subjects to knowledgeable subjects who participate in their surroundings as social actors. Discussions concerning children’s status as knowers was, thus, not new. Yet, my argument is that analyses of children’s status must take into consideration that social hierarchies and relations of power are closely linked to morality and not only knowledge.

In “Amoral, im/moral and dis/loyal: Children’s moral status in child welfare” (freely accessible for downloading), I therefore ask: what about morality? I do so because morality is central for child welfare assessments. I argue that assessments of children and their parents are moral assessments. Not only is this so because assessments often include issues that clash with societal norms and laws (for example violence) but there is also moralising (patronising) of people, for instance when social workers state that a client is not trustworthy, irresponsible, not caring, lacks empathy, holds (or fails to show) a potential to change for the better, etc. 

The focus is on how children are constructed as moral beings in policy documents that child welfare social workers in Sweden are expected to consider in practice, for instance before consulting children about their situation. 

This summary of the article does not do justice to the complex moral positions found due to the many ambivalences between the positions amoral, im/moral and dis/loyal, as well as within them. The amoral child position is assumed to become a copy of her parents; hence it is assumed that the parents determine the child’s behaviour and attitudes. Another example is the dis/loyal child position – the child who is loyal to parents. This loyalty, however, is overturned when considering children as clients who due to their loyalty are assumed to conceal information, hence are loyal to misbehaving parents but disloyal to social workers. A very worrisome position is the im/moral child who, it is believed, may cooperate less not because of their loyalty to someone but simply because they have been discriminated against and may therefore distrust the society. This is worrisome because it puts many children who are discriminated against on the lower/problematic scales of morality. There is also the defiant and disobedient (anti-social) child who goes against the parents. This position makes it very difficult to recognise young people’s resistance in ways other than problematic. 

With this somewhat simplified summary, it becomes obvious that there is not one moral position ascribed to “the child” but, instead, that children are differentiated in moral terms. It also suggests that children’s moral status hinders children’s participation. In several cases, the underlying idea is that what children may be saying does not differ from what their parents will tell (thus, open for the interpretation that there is no need to ask). Because these documents are primarily underpinned by the idea that children are formed by their closest surrounding, in this case, their home/parents, some children fall in the grey zone, in particular children without the presence of their biological parents (for example adopted children, orphans, and young refugees who enter the country without guardians).

This image/poster is from a Swedish anti-violence campaign (Operation Kvinnofrid, 2000). Below the depicted child, it says “I will never be like dad!. This challenges the idea of intergenerational transmission, children’s gender socialisation (example: boys will be like their dads) and gives another perspective on resistances in childhoods (example: boys may refuse to become like their dads).
The poster has helped to articulate why children’s moral status and agency is important to look at as well as why we need to problematise the moral status of children in socialisation theory, developmental psychology theories and the discourse of intergenerational transmission. This image has been central during my writing process. Therefore, an illustration of the child is also visible on my PhD image cover.

Source: Knezevic, Z. (2017) Amoral, im/moral and dis/loyal: Children’s moral status in child welfare. Childhood 24(4): 470–84.

The Moral Economy of Child Welfare

Social work is generally linked to the idea of helping others. What does this mean i practice? From an analysis of the construction of potential clients’ moral status in policy documents, I wanted to address child welfare itself in moral terms. In “A Cry for Care But not Justice: Embodied Vulnerabilities and the Moral Economy of Child Welfare”, I discuss child welfare from the perspective of anthropological re-readings of the concept of moral economy, feminist theory of embodiment and intersectionality, and critical childhood studies. This work addresses injustices in childhoods that remain unrecognised and not responded to in child welfare practice.

I primarily identify a moral economy of care (see Watters, 2007) which translates this “will to help” into the will to care. I discuss how such a moral economy downplays rights discourses, social justice issues and “embodied vulnerabilities” like exposure to racism, sexual and gender-based violence in childhoods and other violations of children’s bodily integrity.

Moral responses is a phrase often used in this study, which tries to capture that which is worthy of a response and, at the same time, how to respond to it. There are some examples of the moral positions discussed above where disadvantaged and agentic children are problematised and helped in ways that make the child into the very problem that should be resolved. A child who “cries for help”, thus, may be responded to with medical, psychological and otherwise individual care, at best. While care (medicalisation) underpins the moral economy studied, the article also gives examples of how social justice issues and care are mobilised differently in relation to different families. 

An article titled “A Cry for Care, But not for Justice” does not mean that I want to replace care with justice. Justice, when mobilised in the analysed material, is punitive rather than considering social justice issues. This is what I in the dissertation refer to as “unjust justice”. Others would perhaps stress the need of another kind of moral economy of care – from a health-and therapy-oriented care (omvårdnad) to care as social support (omsorg). However, this study calls for a recognition of power relations, and therefore towards a moral economy of social justice.

Source: Knezevic, Z (2020b) A Cry for Care But not Justice: Embodied Vulnerabilities and the Moral Economy of Child Welfare. Affilia, 35(2): 231-245.

See also:

Watters, C (2007) Refugees at Europe’s Borders: The Moral Economy of Care. Transcultural Psychiatry, 44: 394-417.

Speaking Bodies – Silenced Voices

During one of my presentations of the above article, I addressed child welfare as a moral economy of care and discussed critically the downplaying of social justice issues and “embodied vulnerabilities”. One of the participants at the seminar commented on my findings by pointing out that these issues may be related to the difficult task of providing evidence in child welfare. The study “Speaking Bodies – Silenced Voices: Child Protection and the Knowledge Culture of ‘Evidencing’” (freely accessible for downloading) was written as a response to this comment – a “write back”. It is also employing a different approach compared to the previous article. Instead of looking at child welfare assessments reports that end without a measure or end with a measure that does not solve the issue the child raises, here I only focus on those cases that were leading to out-of-home placements.

Instead of viewing evidence and evidencing as difficult or easy, “Speaking Bodies – Silenced Voices” pays attention to who is supposed to provide the evidence and who is not, and how research (and which research) is used to validate it. I discuss how different knowledge cultures generate different ideas about what evidence is, how it is to be achieved, and who should provide it. The downplaying of issues such as racism or what children say is not always a matter of the difficulty of providing proof. Instead, the problem is that this kind of proof is not always considered the most important one in child welfare and child protection. Another issue relates to the status of the child and their parent(s), as discussed above, which creates differentiations with regards to who can be trusted and whose problems are seen as severe (see also Knezevic, 2017, 2020b, 2020c). 

My main argument in this study is that the contemporary knowledge culture in child welfare is not well aligned with children’s participation rights “as we know them” (voice). If children participate, they are primarily “heard” as “speaking bodies” because in this context, it is assumed that the “evidence” can be inscribed onto their bodies – seen, measured, etc.

copyright 2020 Zlatana Knezevic research-art blackboard art evidencing bevisning
Evidencing in (Bio)Welfare”
Research-Artwork (blackboard art)

The knowledge culture that gives the impression of “speaking bodies” – bodies that “speak” in distinct ways, that is, of developmental and psychosomatic harm – is closely related to what I refer to as a moral economy of care (see above). An illustration of this parallel can be seen below. It depicts an ear and it is written in Swedish “listen to the ear?”. I had a particular case in mind when illustrating this, a young girl that I have given the pseudonym Bell in another study.

“Speaking bodies”
Research-Artwork (blackboard art)

The case of Bell is interesting because it shows how a child, who gives indications of sexual abuse, is reduced to her ear-related medical condition. And yet, even though Bell is medicalised, her case is not medicalised in those particular ways evidencing requires to be responded to as a severe case. This is because Bell’s body does not “speak” of developmental and psychosomatic harm. Given that it is this type of harm – symptoms of violence as neglect and absence of care, not sexual violence nor medical enforced care/violence – that becomes “evincible” and is taken seriously, Bell’s indications about abuse are not taken seriously.

There are often several testimonies to consider when assessing children in this context: the testimony of the child, the parent(s), the professionals. In this case, child welfare shows a difficulty in hearing Bell, not because she does not raise her voice, but because the parent(s), the professionals and her medicalised body (but not necessarily her bodily language) do not support her testimony.


Knezevic, Z (2021) Speaking bodies – silenced voices: Child protection and the knowledge culture of ‘evidencing’. Global Studies of Childhood, 11(3): 252-264.

To read more on child welfare, please read:

Protective Solutions in Child Welfare? (blog post)

Social change in developmental times? (blog post)

Dissertation review (blog post)

Turning a Dissertation into Art (image post)

Barns röst? (image and blog post in Swedish)

Barn, epistemiska orättvisor och moralisk status (blog post in Swedish)

To see more of my blackboard artworks, please see:


Barns Röst?