Social Work Radicalism Repels Childhood Adversity…

Davidson, G., Devaney, J., & Spratt, T. (2010). The Impact of Adversity in Childhood on Outcomes in Adulthood: Research Lessons and Limitations. Journal of Social Work.

Click here to open abstract…

I recently read an opinion piece by a social worker here in Sydney, who trumpeted the benefits of ‘early intervention’ with troubled kiddies on the basis that by pre-emptively diverting them into forced psychiatric care, that could forestall or stop their natural progression into forced incarceration. You could call that a choice less choice between bars and barbs, so to speak. A more clinically pessimistic, contra human rights and wholly non-holistic social work approach I could barely squeeze from my butt cheeks on this bright and sunny spring Saturday but this, this sort of plain wrap dog food is much loved amongst my decidedly conservative, middle-class profession. Alas, short of wearing blue jeans on the weekend, there has never been much more than a whiff of radicalism throughout the entire history of Australian social work.

So are things different in the United Kingdom?

The radical social work tradition flourished in the UK from the mid-1970s up until, perhaps, the early 1990s, breeding as it did critical, structural analyses of and concerted attacks upon the ugly ‘isms’: sexism, racism, ageism, classism, elitism, disability discrimination and homophobia. This was as much the politics of understanding the lived experiences of people within specific contexts as it was enabling those people to liberate themselves from the mire. Arguably, amongst many pertinent questions that needed resolution was, and remains, how do we talk about the shite in which certain people are temporarily stuck without casting those people down as shite themselves? This would seem to be one of the tensions evident in Davidson et al.’s (2010, pp.369 & 370). article, in which they query the strength of the assumption that childhood adversity leads to diminished life chances in adulthood.

In the UK, as in Australia, childhood adversity is fuzzy speak for child abuse and child abuse is the province of the child protection army. So much time and energy is chewed up by social workers trying to stop kiddies from being bashed, raped or killed in the moment that any attention to macro issues usually goes begging (2010, p.371). Rather than advocate, as they might, for presenting (micro) and causative (macro) child abuse issues to be addressed simultaneously (2010, p.372), Davidson et al. (2010) take the easy escape route by claiming ongoing inertia in lieu of finding out which particular harmful experiences in childhood are the most amenable to which particular (social work) interventions. To me, this reads like a snivelling professional cop out, since for more than a century now we have known what the antecedents of child abuse are, and what might best protect children from such abuse.

There is irrefutable evidence linking childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse to significant problems in adult functioning (psychosocial, somatic, etc.). The authors (2010) detail the mental, physical and other costs that child abuse survivors so often incur, including higher rates of mental disorder (p.373), poor physical health (p.374) and degraded ‘educational attainment’ (p.376). What Davidson et al. (2010, pp.378-383) would hope for are uniform definitions of childhood adversity, improved research design and more dedicated, large-scale research into this complex phenomenon. That sounds awfully like a scoping exercise of behemoth proportions to me. My contrary view is that while yes, there are some contentious issues about childhood adversity that need a good airing…

  • like, for example, the obsession that health and community welfare professionals have with childhood sexual abuse (2010, p.373) to the exclusion of all other forms of child abuse…

Trying to find ‘childhood adversity’ in any one child or cohort of children is as nebulous and implausible as trying to find ‘suicidal ideation’ in any man or cohort of men. Better me thinks, to concentrate on primary prevention strategies, strategies which uphold the radical tradition of social work in that they critically analyse structural factors that predate and perpetuate childhood adversity. I strongly believe that it can only be when all children are provided with optimal living conditions in which they are free from abuse and neglect and whereby they can access opportunities on par with all others, that childhood adversity can be overcome. As a profession, social work in the UK, Australia and elsewhere should seek to invigorate, or reinvigorate that much-missed radical tradition…

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