Child care run like fast-food industry

January 20, 1995

Child welfare in the UK has adopted the style of the fast food industry, according to a leading social policy researcher.

David Thorpe, senior lecturer in applied social science at Lancaster University, told delegates at a conference "Rethinking Child Protection" last week, that care workers had standardised services so much that child welfare now came by production line.

"I call it the McDonaldisation of child welfare. There are a lot of striking parallels. As in McDonald's you stand in the queue and tell the person behind the till what you want and they press a button, so in child protection the skills of the worker in trying to identify individual family difficulties get reduced to searching for evidence of things that are alleged to have happened on a menu of one-liners.

"It triggers what we now call the forensic gaze, rather than a broad look at the family's circumstances and some proper discussion with them about formulating an individual agenda."

Dr Thorpe's was the keynote speech at the two-day conference, at Lancaster University, which involved researchers as well as policy makers and practitioners. He argues the urgent need for statistical analysis if governments are to cut widescale welfare waste.

Headline-grabbing child protection had attracted increased budgets to cope with rising case loads, he said. Yet more than half the reported cases of abuse were groundless, and only 10 per cent were serious, a figure which tended to be constant.

Child protectors were focussing on what amounted to little more than trivial deviations from white, middle-class, patriarchal norms -- the television image of the perfect family, he said. Pointless investigations left genuinely needy families without help, he said.

Like his recently published book, Evaluating Child Protection, the paper draws heavily on data collected from computer-based analysis of referrals in Australia.

Citing the state of Victoria as an example, he said that steep increases in the child protection budget from Aus$624,000 (Pounds 312,000) in 1981 to the current Aus$4 million were due to transfer of funds from traditional child welfare services, rather than fresh funding.

"Immediately we can see that half that money is wasted because half the cases are thrown out, and a further group get lost. What you end up with is resources being consumed by a kind of policing operation which is concerned with the standardisation of child rearing practices in conditions of poverty".

Labels like abuse should be consigned to the bin, he said, along with "juvenile delinquent" and "battered baby" on grounds that they over-simplify, and imply moral judgement.

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