I have an honours degree in sociology and a Master’s degree in social work. I have written high quality assignments on all aspects of these subjects and dissertations on postmodernism and youth culture and anorexia and feminism. I have ten years experience of social care work. I have worked with a diverse range of service-user groups; young people on remand, looked after children, the homeless, mentally, physical and learning disabled adults and children and victims of all kinds of abuse. I was employed by a local authority, based in a hospital, as a social work practitioner on a children’s mental health team with a specialist role in learning disability and autism spectrum conditions. There I supported and educated parents, carried out mental health risk assessments and developmental assessments. I worked therapeutically with children and young people. I am currently pursuing a career in academic research and writing.
Critically explore the care context in which social work operates, demonstrating an understanding of sociological and social policy concepts, drawing on examples from practice.
This assignment examines the ‘care / control dilemma’ at the core of Youth Justice practice. It examines the effects of recent changes in legislation and the political context in which these changes took place. The welfare versus justice argument is well versed and in preparation for this assignment I found that there was a wealth of social theories that were relevant to this topic. It was interesting to see the way in which young offenders are perceived by society and how these children or young people can be thought of as a threat to the social order.
I begin the assignment by applying the work of Stanley Cohen to the political context in which legislative changes took place. Cohen’s work Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, first published in 1972 provided a theoretical interpretation of a prevalent youth subculture of that time. Cohen uses the Deviancy Amplification Theory to describe how deviant acts are perceived by the public. Through a process of social reactions, through media, the public and various ‘experts’, the deviant act is amplified to a stage where the government are required to react through policy changes.
I will then go on to discuss the substantial changes that have taken place in government legislation and the effects that this has had for social workers in the field of youth justice. I evaluate the welfare versus justice argument; critically examining arguments that the government has not taken the necessary steps to eradicate the root cause of youth crime; poverty. I have chosen Michel Foucault’s 1991 work Discipline and Punish and his work on power and knowledge (ed. Gordon, 1980) to argue that post-structuralist theory provides a useful grounding on which to understand the control element of social work in the field of youth justice.
The children that are brought to the attention of social workers are the children that societies have anxieties about. In the case of young offenders, society is often anxious to ‘control’ these children as they see the problem as being an absence of control from parents. The issues of juvenile crime seem to encapsulate many of the anxieties about the state and about society in general. It brings into question ideas of childhood, adolescence, of gender roles, the proper socialisation of children and more generally, people’s sense of safety, community and moral values (Hill & Tidsdall 1997). Crimes committed by children, although more rare, offer the potential for sensationalism. Media reporting often relies heavily on ‘simplistic generalisations’ with children represented as ‘objects of concern’ or ‘threats to the social order’ (Scraton 1997).
‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests. Its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media: moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’. (Cohen 2001).
The circumstances in which moral panics are created are said to be affected by the prevailing political climate. The election of the Conservatives in 1979, with their pre-election promise of social authoritarianism under the Thatcherite New Rights agenda, transformed the social, political and economic landscape. Closely related to a ‘crisis’ in law and order, rising crime, militant unions, declining moral standards was the powerful rhetoric ‘the decline of the family’. One of the socially constructed ‘enemies within’ of the time was those dependent on the state. Mass unemployment caused high levels of impoverishment, ‘those assigned to the social margins were condemned roundly for their own misfortunes’ (Davis & Bourhill 1997:31). The alleged ‘folk devils’ of the time became those said to be bereft of personal responsibility; the children and young people from families that lacked traditional family values.
In February 1993, the abduction, suffering and murder of two year-old, James Bulger, by two 10-year-old boys; Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, unleashed moral outrage unprecedented in its emotive force (Davis & Bourhill 1997). Although this crime was an ‘exception’ it became symbolic of a society in social and moral decline and more specifically, symbolic of a juvenile crime wave.
Cohen’s classic work, first published in 1972, was just one of the sub-cultural theories of delinquency established by the Birmingham School. Their work was of value for theorising the problems associated with youth. Indicating why these might give way to moral panics and in developing ways of decoding youth subcultures.
Cohen states that in the social construction of ‘folk devils’ or the deviant ‘other,’ the initial problem is, in fact, the structural and cultural position of the working class adolescent and not the deviant act. The deviant act is merely an ‘initial solution’ displayed through the action and style of the young person. From this then follows society’s reaction at which the mass media is pivotal, providing sensitisation, dramatisation and escalation of the ‘initial solution’. This Cohen described as a ‘deviancy amplification spiral’.
‘The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right: even if they are not self-consciously involved in crusading or muck-raking, their reporting of certain ‘facts’ can be sufficient to generate concern, anxiety, indignation or panic. When such feelings coincide with a perception that particular values need to be protected, the preconditions for new rule creation or social problem definition are present.’ (Cohen 2002:7)
The Bulger case and the public’s sheer abhorrence to the alleged ‘juvenile crime wave’ gave the Government the opportunity to use child offenders as a ‘political tool’ in the creation of the ‘new rules’. Tony Blair, shadow home secretary at the time, described it as being a time of a ‘moral vacuum’ which required the challenge of policies ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.
Within months, James Bulger’s death had become a catalyst for the consolidation of an authoritarian shift in youth justice………replicated throughout all institutional responses to children and young people. It carried media approval and popular (adult) consent’. (Haydon & Scraton 2000).
The speed at which the changes were made to legislation, policy formation and social work practice developments in response to children and crime were unprecedented. The Crime and Disorder Act (1998); the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (1999); the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act (2000); the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act (2000); the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001) and the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (200£) each introduced new punitive measures. The entire youth justice system, at both national and local level, was subjected to a major overhaul.
At national level the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act ushered in a new non-departmental public body, the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. At a local level, the same Act imposed new duties on local authorities to establish multi agency youth offending teams. With the emphasis on offending in the very title, it comprised of representatives from the local authority social services and education departments, police, probation service and local health authorities.
This reconfiguration of the youth justice system brought about new powers and practices situated on a continuum ranging from preventative measures for those children deemed to be at risk of offending to correctional interventionist measures. These measures also began to address the issue of the responsibility of the family of the troublesome child. Here, the Child Safety Order, Child Curfews, the Parenting Orders and the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders were intended to be applied whether or not the child (some as young as ten years old) had been prosecuted or had committed an offence. This is significant for those who highlight the controlling nature of the legislation. With Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, being the only civil order, no criminal charges need to have been brought against them.
At the other end of the continuum: Final Warnings, Referral Orders, Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Orders. As ‘a last resort there were custodial sentences in Secure Units provided by the Local Authority for those aged 14 and under, and Young Offenders Institutions from the age of 15 years (Goldson 2002b). Therefore, a new punitive emphasis to youth crime was adopted by the Government which ‘responsibilised’ the child and the family. This ‘hardening ideology,’ according to Goldson (2002a) represented a ‘politically engineered schism’ thatI believe can be related to Cohen’s theory. Goldson claims that ‘such a shift represents the deeper ideological current within which children in trouble are increasingly regarded, and thus treated as ‘offenders’ and not children, or more specifically; ‘children in need’ (2002a:691).
What Goldson fails to acknowledge is the more nurturing services that may be available within the Youth Justice Team and the notion that these workers may view the children as ‘victims of circumstance’ however correctional or punative their intervention may have to be. He also does not acknowledge the wealth of services available to the young person through the Youth Offending Team. On referral to the youth offending team, the young person would be assessed and appropriate services offered from a number of disciplines; counselling, mentoring, alcohol and drug programmes and educative work which would encourage the young person to reflect on their behaviour. If safeguarding the young person were a priority them a referral to the local authorities Safeguarding Team would be made. If there were concerns about the young person’s mental state, a referral to the local Children’s mental health service would be made for assessment. All of these services would vary slightly according to the locality and their effectiveness would be dependent on the willingness of the young person and their family to engage.
Arguments for welfare-oriented services for children in trouble tend to focus on two concerns; the incompatibility and contradiction with other policies that provide guidance in working with children, and the disadvantagement and social exclusion which many face. As social workers we must ask ourselves, what do we consider to be ‘justice’ for the child in trouble, themselves?
Welfare-oriented approaches to social work with children in trouble would aim to promote social inclusion by tackling the ‘root causes’ of crime, poverty and disadvantagement.
‘When children of the poor behave in such a way as to disturb moral sensibilities, or worse still, transgress the law, the humane logic of progressive welfare-oriented, anti-poverty responses are eclipsed by disciplinary measures encoded within an increasingly responsibilising correctionalism. In this way, a children’s structural context; a context invariably characterised by multiple and interacting expressions of poverty disadvantagement and inequality; conveniently substituted with a conceptual emphasis on moral agency and individual responsibility.’ (Goldson 2002a:202).
Setting aside the questionable political motivation and the correctional imperatives behind the changes in the youth justice field, New Labour made steadfast promises to tackle the issue of child poverty. With a strong emphasis on generalised and targeted services (Smith 2005), policies written with the common objective of unified structures and shared approaches to intervention, it was the claim of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2003 that ‘we want to put children at the heart of our policies’ (Smith 2005:7). Goldson dismisses this as ‘benign child-centredness’’ (2002a:394). Yet the government took steps to indirectly tackle the issue of the social exclusion of marginalised families through programmes such as Sure Start and Connexions, devised to tackle broad problems such as parental poverty and educational disadvantagement.
Despite these efforts, it would seem that for some writers and campaigners, these are not enough. Craig (2002) highlights how New Labour avoids the questions of what basic needs are and claims that there is an absence of any serious debate about benefit levels. What Craig fails to acknowledge is that benefit levels are kept to a minimum whilst the Government invests in programmes to encourage people to return to work and rewards those who do through the Tax Credit system.
Foucault (1975) claimed that in his work examining the power relationships within institutions, surveillance was one method by which disciplinary power functioned. Foucault focused upon technologies of disciplinary power that were developed as new rationalities for punishment. Disciplinary power, he stated, aimed at the ‘soul training’ of criminals and delinquents developed in new prisons where human existence through time and space became subject to processes of classification, surveillance and routinisation. Underpinning these mechanisms of control was the exercise of ‘normalising judgement’ (Coleman 2004) carried out by emergent professional groups.
This ‘normalising judgement’ is still evident in that the developmental road to adulthood is mapped by adult professional experts who manage the process of children becoming adults, providing directives and classifying the ‘functional’ and the ‘dysfunctional’ (Davis & Bourhill 1997). The discourse approach that Foucault advocated for, when applied to youth justice social work would examine the micro-behaviour; gestures, speech, actions and narrative of the child. The standard assessments of social workers tend to be organised around ‘traditional structures’ such as education, family and health. Social workers taking guidance from Foucault’s work would need to use the standard assessments in a more creative way by ‘hearing the narrative’ rather than focusing on structural components of the child / family’s lives.
Post-structuralism provides a more useful theoretical background for youth justice work in that it sees identities as being fluid and relational rather than fixed. In contrast, labelling theory, for instance, focussed upon the ‘socially- created definitions’ (Young 1999:39) of the deviant and the deviant act. Post structural analyses enable a child to move on from the label of ‘offender’ and see the child as the ‘whole being’ that they are. For Foucault, control processes are bound up with the power to label, classify, segregate and rehabilitate. Also the power which is held by men over women, parents over children and psychiatrists over the mentally ill. Seeing children in trouble as a homogenous group is not beneficial, in fact it is oppressive; more effective practice stems from working with each one as individuals.
Marxist analyses see social workers as ‘simply and solely the unconscious agents of state repression’ (Coleman 2004). But for Foucault, power is exercised through forms of knowledge and expertise. Such theories are important to social workers and can lead to practice that is more effective, reflective and anti-oppressive. Foucault also challenged the notion that social control develops in line with prevailing and established political and economics. This is an opposing view to Cohen’s ‘deviancy amplification spiral’.
Having applied Cohen’s theoretical inspiration to the political and social context in which the legislative changes took place in the field of youth justice, it is possible to see how a particular event can be assumed to stand for a range of social ills that require to be ‘remedied’. The way in which children, whom we would expect to come into contact with in this field, are subjected to essentialism that responsibilises them to a status of adulthood deprives them of the childhood that they deserve. It is important as a social worker to recognise the stereotypical perceptions society holds, to some extent as a result of the political agenda and reporting in the media.
The Bulger case and the alleged ‘juvenile crime wave’ were a useful political tool that aided Labour in their return to power. A form of ‘electoral anxiety’ generated by the party undoubtedly created the propensity by which legislative changes were passed through parliament. For social workers as ‘unconscious agents of the state’ this could be seen as being ‘ethically suspect’ as they question the political motivation behind the changes.
On the other hand, Labour took steps to tackle social exclusion and child poverty through the creation of new services such as Sure Start and Connexions. Sceptics criticise the government for their failure to address the material elements of poverty; i.e., benefit levels, thus denying that the government’s indirect efforts are of value to the marginalised. However, it would appear that the government’s efforts attempt to increase individual and community responsibility.
Post-structuralist theory provides a theoretical understanding of power relationship between social worker and service-user. It aids us in our understanding of how power operates. Foucault’s work described how power is exercised rather than possessed and can be used by social workers creatively rather than oppressively.
To conclude; setting aside the questionable political motivation surrounding the changes in youth justice legislation, some positive changes have taken place for children and young people. Bold steps have been taken to tackle social exclusion and poverty that may prevent further intervention and a decrease of those at risk of offending. For those who have already offended, a range of correctional measures are justifiably available to the Youth Offending Teams. Through a balance of care, nurture and control, social workers are now better armed to break the cycle of offending and child poverty.
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