Blackboard: Child Welfare Research

copyright 2020 Zlatana Knezevic research-art blackboard art dissertation sketch

Updated 2021/04/06

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

Children’s Moral Status

I chose to address children’s moral status as a response to the dominant discourse on children’s rights and participation, namely 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 have to 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 not only because this seems less prominent topic but also because morality, rather than knowledge, is the main focus of 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 a potential to change for the better, etc. 

This study focuses on how children are constructed as moral beings in policy documents that child welfare social workers in Sweden are expected to consider in practice. 

This summary of the articles does not do justice to the complex moral positions found. However, what can be said is that there are many ambivalences between the positions as well as within: amoral, im/moral, dis/loyal. The amoral child 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 – the child who is loyal to (misbehaving) parents. This loyalty, however, is overturned when considering children as clients who due to their loyalty are assumed to conceal information, hence are 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 or problematic scales of morality. There is also the (anti-social) child who is defiant and disobeying and go against their parents. This position makes it very difficult to recognise young people’s resistance in any other ways than as problematic. 

copyright 2020 Zlatana Knezevic research-art the philosophy of roots rotternas filosofi
Socialisation theory, developmental psychology theories and the discourse of intergenerational transmission make the amoral child prominent.

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, opens up for the interpretation that there is no need to ask). Also important to note is that disadvantaged and agentic children stand out in ways that are negative in moral terms. For instance, the moral status of the amoral child depends on its environment and the children who are loyal to their parents do not have to be disloyal to others if there is nothing to conceal. 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 in 2000, by Operation Kvinnofrid. Below the depicted child, it says “I will never be like dad!”. This challenges the idea of intergenerational transmission, children who are socialised into gender roles (boys will be like their dads) and gives another perspective on resistances in childhoods).
The poster has helped to articulate why children’s moral status and agency is important. 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

From an analysis of 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. Social work is generally linked to the idea of helping others. What does this mean? 

I primarily identify a moral economy of care (see Watters, 2007) which translates this will to help into will to care. I discuss how such a moral economy downplays rights discourses, social justice issues and “embodied vulnerabilities” like 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, is responded to with medical, psychological and otherwise individual care, at best. The analysis above on moral status applies to parents too because as I discuss in this article, in assessments of parents that are coded as non-Swedish, gender-based violence becomes more possible to imagine. 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 call 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 the downplaying of social justice issues and “embodied vulnerabilities” like racism, sexual and gender-based violence in childhoods and other violations of children’s bodily integrity. 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”.

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 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 BioWelfare
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)

Bell is responded to primarily as the “forcibly medicated” and “detained” body with “health problems” (ears) rather than a body that might have been subjected to violence and sexual abuse (“touched [. . .] bottom and genitals”). There are no words to explain why forced medication is not an issue nor why Bell does not resist receiving medication by her mother. The “will to health” (Rose, 2001, p. 6) of a parent, and here of professionals, is also in this case ruling out suspicions that the parent (or practitioners) violates the child’s bodily integrity. (Knezevic, 2020b: 236)

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, Bell’s body does not “speak” of developmental and psycho-somatic harm. Given that it is this type of harm – violence as neglect and absence of care but not sexual violence nor medical enforced care/violence – that becomes “evincible” and is taken seriously by the Social Services, 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.

Source: Speaking bodies – silenced voices: Child protection and the knowledge culture of ‘evidencing’. Global Studies of Childhood – Zlatana Knezevic, 2020

Download it here.

More on child welfare on this site

Social change in developmental times? (blog post)

Dissertation review by Charlotte Williams (blog post)

Turning a Dissertation into Art (image post)

Circulation of Knowledge (image post)