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October 14, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

It seems that many of the problems U.S. parents experience when dealing with child welfare agencies aren’t unique to this country.  Norway is now reporting some of the same difficulties (Science Nordic, 10/1/18).

There as here, it’s mostly the poor who find themselves confronted by child welfare caseworkers.

The researchers found that unemployed parents or parents with no steady income were overrepresented in the study: Nearly a third of all mothers in the project were not in work.
They also found that parents reported very different experiences depending on their level or education or type of employment.

We see that frequently in the U.S.  Indeed, reading between the lines, it’s possible to conclude that caseworkers spend so much time dealing with the poor and poorly-educated that it doesn’t occur to them that a given case might involve different types of parents. 

The Meitiv case in Montgomery County, Maryland is a good example.  There CPS clearly believed they could run roughshod over the parent’s civil and parental rights, the way they so often do with poorer parents.  But the Meitivs are both highly educated and scrupulous parents.  They understood their rights as citizens and as parents and quickly turned the tables on the agency, not only preventing their children being taken from them, but suing CPS for their high-handed and extra-legal tactics.

What rights parents have in Norway vis-à-vis child welfare authorities, I don’t know, but the dynamic appears the same – it’s the poor who bear the brunt of agency power, whether appropriately exercised or not.

Parents who are out of work or hold 'working class' jobs have far more negative experiences with child welfare than parents of a higher level of education and income. Working class parents often feel unseen, unheard, and do not feel that they are taken seriously.
"These parents often feel that child welfare isn’t being transparent and that information is withheld from them," says Kojan.

That’s no surprise and it’s likely more than simply “feeling” that they’re treated less well and condescended to.  Child welfare agencies are arms of government and they exercise one of the most awesome powers anywhere – the power to take children from parents.  Often we see them exercising that power arbitrarily and in some cases threateningly.  That’s easier to do when the parents aren’t able to know their rights or understand how to fight back.

Understandably then,

People who are out of work are less likely to initiate contact with child welfare services. They more often tend to disagree that child welfare services should intervene and they have less confidence in public authorities. Many of them may also be afraid of child welfare.

One way those feelings are engendered by caseworkers is through their use of language.

Even though only sixteen per cent of participants in the survey were not native Norwegian speakers, many more, including native speakers, reported that the language used by child welfare was unfamiliar.
Previous research has shown that the language used in child welfare records has become more academic, says Kojan. Frequently used terms come from the field of psychology an neuroscience.
"But most people don’t understand these words. This creates a knowledge gap – and that breaks down trust,” Kojan says.

To some extent, that’s understandable.  Necessarily, every professional discipline creates its own terminology and slang.  Medical terms, legal terms, engineering terms simply aren’t part of everyday use and many of them aren’t known to people outside the discipline.  That specialized language also tends to create a sense of in-group identity among those who practice the specialty.  And in so doing it creates within the in-group and those on the outside a sort of “us-versus-them” mind set.  Those who speak the language become a sort of club that excludes those who don’t.  Unsurprisingly, those on the outside feel the effects.

Of course, as most responsible professionals understand, that all creates the requirement on their part to develop the ability to speak to those outside the profession in plain language.  Sadly though, many of them don’t. 

Plus, in the U.S. at least, CPS agencies often actively cultivate that “us-versus-them” mentality.  The secrecy in which all of them operate naturally enhances the tendency as does use of their specialized language.  Many’s the time I’ve read CPS caseworkers protesting that the public and the press simply don’t understand what their job entails.  My guess is that we understand far better than they think, but even if they’re right, perhaps the solution to the problem is to open up the agency and let us know what it does and how.

It’s a radical concept, I know, but a useful one.

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