Scandals and policy making: Failure and success in child protection reform

Karen Healy, University of Queensland

Juliet F. Gainsborough Scandalous Politics: Child Welfare Policy in the States, Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 2010 (216 pp). ISBN 9-78158901-707-8 (paperback) RRP $55.95.

Few issues capture media attention and spark public outrage as much as the abuse or, worse, the murder of children at the hands of their caregivers. In the immediate aftermath of child abuse tragedies, the public demands answers about who is responsible and how they are held to account. Media focus on the human interest angle of these tragedies fuels public fury by highlighting the defencelessness of the abused child and the culpability of the perpetrators and the public officials who failed to protect the children. What follows are often ugly and unforgettable scenes as families, neighbours, and community members turn on each other—as much an expression of powerlessness as of anger at how such a tragedy could have occurred in their midst. Markers of social disadvantage, such as the public housing apartment or caravan park where the child once lived and the parents or caregivers aged beyond their years, usually form the visible but unmentioned (and unmentionable) backdrop to these ostensibly classless tragedies.

More often than not, media and therefore public interest in the tragedies is short-lived and rarely sustained beyond the initial court hearings in which the perpetrator is charged. Sometimes child abuse tragedies lead to public inquiries and to policy change. Though, as Juliet Gainsborough points out in her fascinating and somewhat depressing book Scandalous Politics: Child Welfare Policy in the States, ‘questions remain about the extent to which any of the reforms enacted in response to scandal actually improve the child welfare system in ways that benefit children and families’ (p. 163). Indeed, Gainsborough, like other commentators, proposes that scandal driven reforms can make matters worse by, for example, directing resources away from preventative and supportive services towards bureaucratic regulation of services, and the investigation and removal of children as a risk minimisation strategy (Ferguson 2004; Healy 2009a). After all, as Gainsborough (p. 163) wryly observes ‘prevention does not come with compelling stories’.

Scandal driven policy making

Political scientist Juliet Gainsborough’s important book analyses the role of scandals in shaping child welfare policy. Gainsborough argues that social policy researchers do not recognise fully how unique the process of child welfare policy making is. Her quantitative and qualitative analyses build a sophisticated and disturbing account of the role that scandals play in this process. While her core concern is the way child welfare scandals shape policy making, her research also provides answers to other questions: why are child scandals so influential in policy making? Why do scandal driven reforms rarely achieve tangible improvements in the policy concern they are intended to address? What can those of us who want to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families do to affect constructive policy change? She draws on quantitative data related to analyse the relationships between public scandals and policy changes. She also presents case studies of child welfare policy making in the context of scandals in three states of America: Florida, Colorado, and New Jersey. She selected these states in part because their governance structures and policy environments differed at the time she undertook the research. Key differences included the level of centralisation in policy making and in the extent of privatisation of child welfare services.

Media and public interest in these tragedies is

Gainsborough’s account begins with an overview of the child welfare policy context in the United States. She draws attention to the fundamental contradiction underpinning child welfare policy in a liberal, free market economy like the United States (and Australia). The contradiction lies in the incompatible policy objectives of keeping children safe while maintaining low public expenditure on programs to improve the economic security and social inclusion of disadvantaged and impoverished families. This contradiction is rendered invisible by the myth that child abuse and neglect is a classless problem. Gainsborough argues this myth receives bi-partisan support. Liberals deploy it to build popular support for child protection interventions while Conservatives see it ‘as a way to lay blame squarely on the shoulders of deviant individuals, rather than looking for the structural or social roots to the problem’ (p. 8). Among other effects, the myth of classlessness detracts attention from the reality that in the United States, like Australia, the primary reason children enter the child welfare system is neglect. This is a form of abuse linked to poverty.

Gainsborough presents a quantitative analysis of the association between scandals and changes in child welfare service expenditure and legislation. Her analysis reveals that, contrary to public opinion in the United States, child welfare scandals are not statistically significantly associated with higher levels of public expenditure on child welfare services. Her definition of child welfare services expenditure includes spending on preventative, investigative and out-of-home care services. Certainly public expenditure may increase after a scandal but, her analysis suggests, this does not mean that states with low levels of expenditure achieve parity with higher spending states. The two factors significantly associated with higher levels of child welfare service expenditure were a devolved (or ‘county-administered’) decision making structure for child welfare services and the liberalism of the state, with Democratic states spending more on child welfare services than those with Republican leadership. Despite (or perhaps because) of the over-representation of African-American children in the American child welfare system, her analysis shows that states with larger African-American populations spend significantly less per child than other states on child-welfare services.

Gainsborough also found that ‘experiencing a child welfare scandal is positively and statistically significantly related to legislation’ (p. 63), meaning that a state which has experienced a child welfare scandal is more likely to enact new child welfare legislation than one that has not. This is consistent with the finding of Harry Ferguson (2004, p. 10), who in commenting on child welfare policy making in the United Kingdom observed that:

The overwhelming response by welfare states to child deaths and other system failures has been to seek bureaucratic solutions by introducing more and more laws, procedures and guidelines. The more risk and uncertainty have been exposed, the greater the attempts to close up the gaps through administrative means.

The resulting administrative infrastructure often leads to a focus on monitoring negative outcomes and to reducing risks—not only risks of child maltreatment, but also exposure to political risks for politicians and administrators leading these services.

The primary reason children enter the child welfare system is neglect.

Gainsborough draws on the case studies to explore how child welfare scandals intersect with different institutional structures in states and with local political factors (such as the local electoral cycle and the presence of advocacy groups for clients and for workers) to create different policy outcomes. She contends that child welfare scandals act as focusing events that provide opportunities for politicians and policy makers to implement preferred policy solutions, no matter how ill-fitting these solutions are to the particular context. The case study of child welfare reform in Florida demonstrates how government responses to the tragic case of Rilya Wilson formed part of the platform of Governor Jeb Bush’s bid for re-election. Rilya Wilson was a five-year old child in foster care, missing for fifteen months before child protection authorities (or anyone else) noticed. Rilya’s body was never found and her foster mother was charged with her murder. A review of the Wilson case by the Governor Bush’s ‘blue-ribbon panel’ lay responsibility for the tragic outcome with the poor practice of the Rilya Wilson’s caseworker, who had falsified case records about home visits she had never made to the child and to the ‘old’ and, allegedly, out-dated government centric system of child welfare. With this diagnosis, the solution seemed obvious: to introduce legislation for holding case workers more accountable for their practice and to speed up the privatisation of child welfare services. No matter that the heavy caseloads of the Floridian caseworkers compromised their capacity to make the legally mandated monthly visits to children in care. No matter that the privatisation reforms proposed as the solution were implicated in child protection scandals in other states, such as Colorado.

Scandal driven child protection policy in Australia

Gainsborough’s argument that scandals enable the implementation of politically driven and ill-conceived policy solutions seems plausible in the Australian context also. In 2004 in Queensland, for example, following a highly critical Inquiry concerning child abuse in the state’s foster care system (Crime and Misconduct Commission 2004), Premier Beattie identified child protection reform as a central plank of his re-election bid. Premier Beattie promised (and delivered) dramatic reforms, primarily through the creation of a ‘stand alone’ department focused on tertiary child protection services (Queensland Government 2004). In 2008, Premier Bligh (Beattie’s successor) opted to re-integrate the child protection agency into a large community services department (the Department of Community Services). The primary justification for this policy u-turn was to provide seamless service delivery to vulnerable children and families though other factors, such as questions about the effectiveness of the agency and costs of maintaining a separate child protection authority, are likely to have contributed to Premier Bligh’s decision.

Similarly, child protection issues were a factor in the 2007 federal election. Less than five months before the election, Prime Minister Howard introduced the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, which he claimed was focused on reducing the high rates of child sexual abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory identified in the Little Children are Sacred Report (Northern Territory Government 2007). Although the Intervention received bi-partisan support, many of those associated with the report, such as the authors and the Northern Territory Government (who published it) opposed aspects of the intervention, particularly its reliance on exemptions from the Racial Discrimination Act.

Scandals enable politically driven and ill-conceived policy solutions.

Gainsborough’s analysis suggests it was not coincidence that the Australian child protection policy interventions I have discussed occurred alongside, and featured in, government campaigns for re-election at federal and state levels, as was the case in Jeb Bush’s bid for re-election as Governor of Florida. As we know, Governor Bush was re-elected, as was Premier Beattie; Prime Minister Howard lost, though aspects of his Northern Territory ‘intervention’ survived. One insight from Gainsborough’s study is that while child welfare reform is not a sure fire political strategy, it seems to have been integral to fortunes of political leaders at least at the state level (where jurisdiction for child welfare lies in both Australia and the United States). All too often, however, the impact of these reforms on the safety and well-being of vulnerable children is, at best, questionable.

In her painstaking analysis, Gainsborough portrays child welfare policy as a field that is highly reactive to scandal and in which policy making lurches from crisis to crisis. According to Gainsborough, this approach favours a focus on

a relatively narrow view of what is at stake in child welfare policymaking. Through the lens of scandal, child welfare policy is largely viewed in the context of how to protect children from extreme abuse at the hands of malevolent family members’ (p. 164).

This approach detracts attention from the need for policy makers to address the social and economic forces that so powerfully influence the well-being of vulnerable children and their families (Lindsey 2004, cited in Gainsborough, p. 164). Scandal driven policy making also creates an environment of blame-shifting away from political and administrative leaders to frontline service providers, who are held increasingly accountable to administrative rules and procedures. Little wonder that these conditions have been associated with decreased job satisfaction among child protection workers evident in an escalation of frontline workforce turnover in some states of Australia and the United States and a concomitant deterioration in the levels of professional experience in this workforce (Healy & Oltedal 2010).

Participation in policy making: A solution?

Child welfare reform has been integral to fortunes of state political leaders.

As depressing as Gainsborough’s account of child welfare policy making is, she also reveals strategies for challenging the scandal driven and individualistic approach to policy making that appears to pervade this field. The core lesson of Gainsborough’s study is that party political interests and agendas quickly dominate the child welfare policy making when the collective voices of children, families and practitioners are absent. This absence is facilitated in part by what Ferguson (2007, p. 138) has described as the ‘painfully low status’ of children and families involved in child welfare systems and by the lack of collective representative of practitioners’ voices in the policy making process. By contrast, the presence of legitimate and articulate stakeholder voices can act as a counter to the political imperatives of scandal avoidance and minimisation that Gainsborough shows all too often drive child welfare policy making. For example, her case-study of child protection reform in New Jersey shows that the strong presence of the Communication Workers Association (CWA) a union representing caseworkers, and the involvement of a well-established and credible children’s advocacy association, ensured that reform process focused on systemic issues (p. 161). By contrast in states such as Florida, where union representation of workers was weak and where there was no credible and independent advocacy voice for vulnerable children and families, reform processes failed to address issues of social and economic exclusion of vulnerable families and to promote improved workforce conditions in child welfare services.

Gainsborough’s study shows that separate and independent representation of stakeholders—service users and child protection workers—is needed to resist scandal driven policy making. Yet in Australia, we lack the separate and independent representative structures needed to create conditions for constructive child welfare policy making. In the past two decades we have witnessed the emergence of Children’s Commissions in the states and territories and the growth of a host of advocacy groups for children and families in the NGO sector. However, the capacity of these institutions to challenge scandal driven policy making is questionable. The Children’s Commissions are often nestled within government, even recruiting from within senior government ranks for their leadership. These factors may mean that these institutions are just as subject to scandal driven politics as government child welfare agencies. The advocacy agencies in the NGO sector are often heavily reliant on government funding, often from state or territory child welfare departments. This is a hardly a formula for fearless and independent advocacy.

The opportunities for independent representation of front-line workers appear little better. The public sector unions in each state represent both child protection case-workers and managerial staff. This structure appears to create a conflict of interests in the representation of case-workers concerns as separate, and sometimes opposed, to those of management. For despite substantial investment in child protection reform, the conditions of frontline practice continue to deteriorate. In some states we have witnessed a retreat from maintaining a professional qualification base among child protection workers; large and unmanageable caseloads; and inadequate professional development and support of child protection workers. Workforce turnover among child protection caseworkers continues to be much higher than in other comparable community service occupations.

Gainsborough also criticises the role of the media.

The lack of independent representative structures for workers and service users would seem to explain why child protection reforms in this country so often fail. A separate union representing the interests of caseworkers in child protection and perhaps also in other areas of government service provision is needed. Such a union could have as its core objective the defence of workforce conditions, including the defence of the professional knowledge and skills caseworkers need to practice effectively in this complex field of work. Currently, these standards are under threat and it seems that public sector unions are not doing enough to defend them (Healy 2009b). Similarly, advocacy bodies need independence from child welfare authorities and state governments if they are to represent fearlessly the interests of vulnerable children and families in the politically charged atmosphere of child welfare policy making. This independence could be achieved by ensuring that funding for these agencies is provided by the Commonwealth and perhaps other sectors (such as the private sector) rather than through the state government agencies responsible for most child welfare policy making. Finally, a commitment by child protection agencies to rigorously review the full range of practice outcomes, not only negative outcomes, is important to developing a sound, and scandal resistant, approach to policy making. Making this evidence available for independent analysis by, for example, researchers and policy analysts could also help to broaden the evidence base for policy making in this highly contentious field of human service delivery.

Gainsborough is critical also of the role of the media in fuelling scandal driven policy making. Gainsborough observes that media interest declines after individual culprits are identified and action is taken against these individuals. Gainsborough sees a role for the media for ensuring child welfare policy making serves the interests of vulnerable children and their families rather than the political self interest of politicians and policy makers. In her view this is possible if the media is able to move beyond the individual story of child welfare tragedy to sustained scrutiny of the impact of policy reforms on the lives of those whom these reforms are supposed to improve.

Juliet Gainsborough’s book deserves to be a classic text because it sheds light on an under-studied area of social policy. It provides a detailed account of the political realities about how child welfare policies are formed and outlines strategies for ensuring greater accountability of these processes to vulnerable children and their families. The book is not without its weaknesses. As a research monograph, it fails to provide sufficient detail about the qualitative methodology used, particularly with regard to the selection of the sample of case studies and to how interview data was collected, analysed and reported. Nevertheless Gainsborough offers a compelling study of social policy practice. Although focused on child welfare policy making in the United States, the issues raised and the solutions proposed are highly relevant in Australia. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the politics of social policy production and to anyone who wants to make a constructive difference to the lives of vulnerable children and their families.


Crime and Misconduct Commission, 2004, Protecting Children: An Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Foster Care, Brisbane, Crime and Misconduct Commission.

Ferguson, H. 2004, Protecting Children in Time: Child Abuse, Child Protection and the Consequences of Late Modernity, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Ferguson, H. 2007, ‘Abused and looked after children as ‘moral dirt’: Child abuse in institutional care in historical perspective’, Journal of Social Policy, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 123–139.

Healy, K., 2009a, ‘Critical questions about the quest for clarity in child protection regimes’, Communities, Children and Families Australia, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 50–56.

Healy, K. 2009b, ‘A case of mistaken identity: Social welfare professions and new public management’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 401–418.

Healy, K. & Oltedal, S., 2010, ‘Child protection systems in Australia and Norway: An institutional comparison focused on workforce retention’, Journal of Social Policy, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 255–274.

Lindsey, D., 2004, The Welfare of Children, 2nd edn, New York, Oxford University Press.

Northern Territory Government, 2007, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (“Little Children are Sacred”), Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, Darwin, Northern Territory Government.

Queensland Government, 2004, A Blueprint for Implementation the Recommendations of the January 2004 Crime and Misconduct Commission report, “Protecting Children: An Inquiry into Abuse in Foster Care”, Brisbane, Queensland Government.

Karen Healy is Professor of Social Work in the School of Social Work and Human Services at the University of Queensland. She has been a leading participant in child welfare policy, practice and research for more than two decades.

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