When a Twist in the tale is needed

The Welfare of Children
May 12, 1995

Duncan Lindsey's title is an ambitious one and, as the founder-editor of Children and Youth Services Review, he has earned the right to attempt a synthesis of such a continuingly important subject.

He joins a growing number of child welfare analysts concerned at the way in which the intense focus on child protection in past decades has deflected attention and services from the plight of the far greater numbers of children suffering from poverty and neglect.

Lindsey argues that the "residual" approach to child welfare, whereby services were targeted at a limited group of abandoned and neglected children, is no longer viable. Child welfare agencies have turned into organisations for child protection and adopted a largely policing role for which they are ill-equipped. Services for other groups of children, and even for those who have been identified as victims of abuse, have atrophied as a result. As a solution, he proposes that child abuse be removed from the purview of child welfare agencies, with the police and courts having sole jurisdiction and the child welfare worker providing counselling and support services only.

Varyingly ambitious approaches to ameliorating child poverty are examined, including a proposal for allocating money from the state into a fund for each child.

Lindsey's book lacks a subtitle and, in spite of the deliberately multi-ethnic group of children in the photograph on the dust-jacket, his account is of the welfare of children in the economically developed world who can already take much for granted. Some argument about why we should and can value the happiness of children, for their own sake, would have helped him gain a greater perspective. In writing about the exploitation of children in the labour market, Lindsey moves no farther in time or afield than 1921 with Grace Abbott and the American Children's Bureau.

At times, when he quotes the experiences of others, Lindsey uses them as interchangeable with his own: the British tabloid press supplies him with examples of media hysteria about child sexual abuse and The British Journal of Social Work with an article that appears to demonstrate how a systematic programme of child protection can be effective even in locations suffering increasing poverty and deprivation. Lindsey is appropriately sceptical. This is still an English-speaking territory, more or less familiar to him, but is he sure that what might apply in Manchester would also apply in Chicago? And since he rarely distinguishes between the needs of girls and boys, how would his analysis suit conditions in Eire or inner-city Bradford, let alone Asia? Without the contrasts of cultural differentiation, his approach, though reliably institutional and scholarly, is rather dull. I longed to find something written with the passion and diverse range of experience of a Bruno Bettelheim, however idiosyncratic that might now seem.

It could be argued that more was accomplished for children by Charles Dickens, catching the popular imagination with Oliver Twist and by his tireless attendance at reform committees and his impassioned speeches and articles, than by a whole generation of present-day scholars. It is in the individual detail of Oliver's life in Fagin's den or David Copperfield's in the blacking-factory that the imaginative realisation that individual children are of intrinsic importance and that something must and can be done for them is created.

Kate Wilson is senior lecturer in social work, University of York.

The Welfare of Children

Author - Duncan Lindsey
ISBN - 0 19 508518 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 404pp

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