Language and decisions in child welfare – what’s the connection?

Emily Keddell

This blog post is a summary of a recently published article called: Constructing Parental Problems: The Function of Mental Illness Discourses in a Child Welfare Context (Keddell, 2015). The article reports on a sub section of my PhD research into decision-making in an NGO child welfare setting (Keddell, 2013). It is based on a secondary analysis of interviews of eight social worker – parent pairs in cases where there had been serious concerns about children’s care. Children had entered care for at least short-term stays in seven out of these eight cases. In the eighth family situation, while the child had never entered care, the decision was in regards to which parent, if either, the child could live with following separation.


Photo credit UCB Language Centre

Removal decisions relate strongly to the negotiated understandings between social worker and parent, so this article examined the language each person used to explain the problems experienced by the family.

Why focus on language? Based on a social constructionist perspective, this study assumes that language is not simply a reflection of reality. Instead, it begins from the presumption that the kinds of language we choose to describe and explain things creates certain truths about those things that are not self –evident, but are contestable, and reflect the dominant discourses of the specific cultural, historical, policy and knowledge context.

Understanding the variety of possible explanations for family problems in the child welfare context is important, as the way we understand problems to ‘be’  – their nature, causes and consequences – leads directly to decisions about children’s care, as well as impacting on the social worker – client relationship. For example, if I use problem-focussed as opposed to strengths-based language to describe the same family, a very different picture of the family would be conveyed. A parent described as ‘struggling to cope but is reaching out to services, and is highly motivated to access supports’ is very different from ‘an inadequate parent who makes strident and manipulative demands on multiple services’. For the latter, it’s a small step to suggest intervention, and a parent who understands this is how they are perceived is, in turn, unlikely to engage with a worker who holds those views. I’ll bet as you read those descriptions, you also assumed the subject was a woman. Am I right? In child welfare social work, we are so used to the primary focus of intervention being the mother that it has become an assumed reality, and the combination of discourses relating to mothering, coping, and mental illness is a powerful mixture that is seldom examined in day to day practice.

In my research, I tried to explore how social workers and parents negotiated the meanings of the problems leading to concerns about children’s care, particularly when social workers are balancing the dual role of protection of children and empowering of parents, while also attempting to maintain their relationship with the parent. What a tough job! I also tried to remain open-minded about the use of particular discourses, beginning from a tentative belief that many discourses can have both empowering and oppressive consequences, often simultaneously.

Some discourses have got a bad ‘rap’, (particularly those relating to mental illness) but in the microcontexts of practice, they don’t necessarily play out in the ways that Foucault described years ago.

While the ‘psy’ discourses can be oppressive and patronising, a diagnosis of mental illness can also be a relief, a way to provide a pathway to ‘recovery’(Foucault, 1980). With all this in mind, what I found was that ‘mental illness (including substance abuse) and lack of supports’ were pragmatic explanations for prior poor parenting that contained pros and cons from a functional perspective. On the pro side, it allowed both parties to agree to a congruent narrative of ‘it was the mental illness not me’, that enabled a non-accusatory way to recognise harm to children while maintaining a supportive relationship. For example this pair stated that:

Interviewer: So in that case, how would you explain what was causing the family’s problems?

Social Worker Respondent: I think a lot of it was the mother was abused as a child, she was depressed as an adult, and she was depressed around the time of D’s birth, and since he was three and four, and I just think that that affected her ability to relate to D, and I think that he didn’t get his emotional and psychological needs met at that right stage, as a very young child, so he felt quite alienated (Social Worker, Case 5).

Parent Respondent: The decision to put him into full time care was—my depression I was living with got to the extreme where I couldn’t cope, I actually took myself up to the hospital, handed over my car keys … yeah, so for his safety and that…” (Parent, Case 5)

On the con side, the long history of the discourse of mental illness with its tendency to medicalise and individualise social problems did raise its ugly head in some cases. One parent acknowledged she was depressed, but stated the main problem in her view was her abusive and controlling partner, combined with significant poverty (not having enough to eat) not her lack of attention to her mental health. Her social worker, while also acknowledging the partner, placed more responsibility on the parent and her ‘mental illness’ for her situation. In this way, one could argue the ‘psy’ complex described by Foucault was being used to govern the parent’s subjectivities in a negative way, one that subtley imposed an ‘expert’ and individualised view of mental illness, while the client argues for a more relational-contextual explanation of her issues.

One take home message from this research for practice is ‘How do I interpret people’s behaviour? Does my choice of explanatory discourse help me meet my goals of child safety, parent empowerment and relationship maintenance? If not, are there any others that would be more functional? It’s not always possible, of course, but worth trying for (yes, I am an idealist).


Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge, Brighton, The Harvester Press.

Keddell, E. (2015) Constructing parental problems: The function of mental illness discourses in a child welfare context. British Journal of Social Work doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcv096. Accessed here:

Keddell, E. (2013) ‘Beyond care versus control: decision-making discourses and their functions in child protection social work.’, PhD thesis. Sociology, Gender and Social Work, Dunedin, New Zealand, University of Otago.




About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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