The website is designed for practitioners, policy makers and researchers working with or on behalf of children and families in social work, education, health and other sectors. The aim is to share some thoughts, ideas and materials that can help to change our thinking in relation to support for children and families, creating a shift from a deficit view of adverse childhoods to a broader, transformative understanding of hopeful childhoods.
Why is this important?
Children’s lives are increasingly being defined by adversity, injustice, poverty and the perceived need to be ‘resilient’ to these challenges. In both policy and practice, the possibilities of hope, strengths and social change are giving way to fear, vulnerability and individualism. There needs to be a realignment in childhood policy and practice towards a hopeful vision of social justice, love, care and solidarity.
What are the concerns?
At the time of writing, one in four children in Scotland are currently living in poverty, with this figure likely to increase in the future without significant policy changes. This places a huge burden on children, parents (mothers especially), families and communities. Lower socio-economic position is associated with a greater risk of adversity and maltreatment and people from Scotland’s most deprived communities are three times more likely to die before they reach their 25th birthday.
In education, the policy response has been centred around the poverty-related attainment gap, which risks holding schools responsible for correcting the impact of poverty on educational attainment. Other areas of policy and practice such as social work and health are looking towards the deficit model of childhood adversity, promoted by the enthusiastic uptake of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) approach. ACEs has received robust critique, mainly because the model itself and the underpinning research essentially ignores social and economic contexts, which is a significant blind spot in ACEs research (a systematic review found that only 6 out of 2825 papers attempts to explain ACEs using socio-economic positioning, one of which was a Scottish study showing that ACEs are highly correlated with socioeconomic disadvantage in the first year of life).
Policy developments that merely describe the impact of poverty while failing to address it directly risk positioning children and families as individually responsible for their own futures despite these overwhelming social challenges. These challenges are made worse by policy decisions such as austerity and cuts to public services. It is unjust to expect people to simply become ‘resilient’ to these circumstances, or to claim that kindness, compassion or relationships are the answers. While personal resilience and relationships are important, these narratives can obscure social, economic and political factors that are anything but kind, compassionate or conducive to healthy relationships, such as poverty, discrimination and other injustices.
Why move away from individualism?
There is no simple ‘either/or’ when it comes to personal or structural change. Services need to focus on the here and now, addressing the rights and presenting needs of children and families. Histories and ongoing circumstances of abuse, violence and trauma need to be recognised, respected and confronted with real opportunities for redress and justice. The structural causes of many of these challenges also need to be addressed. Instead of ending poverty and injustice, ensuring that children and families receive the right support, many of the burdens are currently being placed on individuals, families and communities. This obscures the root causes and encourages a pathologised story that suggests the problems are within people themselves, deep in their biology. The result is that this current model of individualism neglects to attend to the bigger picture of social justice and inequalities.
What can be done differently?
Together, practitioners, policy workers, researchers and others can:
- Challenge the deficit model described above by taking an affirmative and transformational stance: prioritising resistance over resilience, strengths over adversity, children’s human rights over individual responsibilities.
- Create a justice-oriented professional workforce. Workers can be trauma-informed while also being justice-oriented. This means being responsive to harm and abuse while also advocating for the rights of children and families, challenging the unjust structures of power that are making lives more difficult.
- Put more money in people’s pockets. Instead of funding crisis measures, we can look to alternative models, seeking to empower and trust people with a level of income that meets their needs, providing a secure future. Second best to eliminating poverty is increasing access to community resources such as transportation, which has been shown to mitigate the effects of poverty on ACE incidence.
- Adopt a Social Model of support for children and families. This means shifting from the current model of child protection to an approach that prioritises family support, social justice and human rights.
- Change public attitudes. Times of austerity and financial pressure can promote a ‘them and us’ attitude. We need to come together in solidarity, building a view of social justice that provides the greatest benefit for those who need it most.
What does this look like in practice?
What is a social model of support for children and families? Featherstone et al (2018) challenge the existing model of child protection. They explain the importance of acknowledging social and economic contexts, how the protective capacities within families and communities can be mobilised and how to place ethics and human rights at the centre of everyday conversations and practices.
…the key interrelated elements of reworking a social model: understanding and tackling root causes; rethinking the role of the state; developing relationship-based practice and co-production; and embedding a dialogic approach to ethics and human rights in policy and practice.Featherstone et al 2018: chapter 5
What is a justice-oriented workforce? Westheimer and Kahne (2004) describe three types of citizen: a) personally responsible, b) participatory, and c) justice oriented. The authors illustrate the various kinds of citizen by theorising how each might respond to a humanitarian crisis that involved victims experiencing hunger.
…if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.Westheimer and Kahne 2004:4
It is possible that justice-oriented practice could be promoted in Scotland, alongside current efforts to create a trauma-informed workforce, but there is work to be done to ensure that this happens. Adopting a social model of family support is one potential way of doing this, but first the focus needs a major shift.
There is a lot more to say and do. The content on this website will be updated by means of conversation, reflection and sharing. In particular, we hope to share relevant examples of practice. You can contribute to the conversation on social media using the #HopefulChildhoods hashtag.
All children have the right to a hopeful childhood and a hopeful future #HopefulChildhoodsTweet