Child Protection, “Dirty Work,” and Interagency Collaboration

Child Protection, “Dirty Work,” and Interagency Collaboration

Annette Flaherty (Centre for Remote Health, Flinders University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7036-3.ch027
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Working in partnership is considered a key mechanism for effective delivery of services to children and families. However, child protection system inquiries in Australia and internationally repeatedly highlight strained relationships and poor collaboration within the child protection service system. Despite organisational, technological, legislative, and procedural changes to enhance and facilitate interagency working, these interventions have generally failed to realise this goal. Trust and shared values are considered integral to effective interagency working. Developing trust and thus effective working relationships is fraught when one group of workers in the service system is perceived to be “dirty workers.” This chapter explores the concept of “dirty work.” It suggests that the way in which failure to attend to belief systems at the organisational, professional, and community level, particularly as they relate to the professional stigma which attaches to the practice of child protection work, inhibits the ability of agencies to work successfully together.
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Child protection work necessarily involves “examining a family’s private habits” (Morris, 2005, p. 135) and it holds up to scrutiny secrets and practices that someone has assessed as harmful to children. It is perhaps about airing a family’s “dirty laundry”. The work challenges norms about the privacy and autonomy of the family and exposes family members to shame, humiliation and, at times, criminal proceedings. Child protection work also attracts considerable media attention, typically when things go wrong. In such cases, the workers are perceived to have either failed in their mandate to protect children or used their coercive powers to intervene in a family inappropriately.

In order to go about their work of investigating and ensuring the safety and well-being of children, child protection workers perform what might be called “necessary evils”, that is, they “must knowingly and intentionally” risk causing harm to another “in the service of achieving some greater good or purpose” (Margolis & Molinsky, 2008, p. 847). The harm may result to the adults through the exposure of “private” family business or to the children; for example, removing children, whilst necessary to ensure their safety, will also cause them distress.

Performing necessary evils can result in powerful and disruptive emotions in the person undertaking such tasks (Margolis & Molinsky, 2008), in part because such activities pose a threat to the person’s self-assessment that they are moral and just. Failing to perform such activities when required may threaten their assessment of themselves as a responsible professional (Margolis & Molinsky, 2008). As well as these potential threats to the child protection worker’s personal and professional identity, child protection work can be understood as “dirty work”: work that is important but physically, socially, or morally tainted (Hughes, 1951, 1962).

The performance of dirty work impacts on occupational identity; ineffectively dealing with the stigma of job related taint is thought to result in lower job commitment and performance and to influence high turnover of workers engaged in such work (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). It can also affect the relationships which dirty workers have with others. Internal strategies to manage taint and enhance professional self-esteem may result in dirty workers growing cautious in their dealing with others and relationships can be marked by hostility and defensiveness (Ashforth & Krenier, 1999). This has important consequences for multi-agency working which requires relationships of professional trust and respect to be effective (Freeth & Reeves, 2004; Newell & Swan, 2000).

This chapter explores the impact of the dirty work label on the achievement of effective interagency working in child and family work. In doing so, it draws on the findings from a research study which involved in-depth interviews with child protection workers in the Northern Territory. The study found that these workers were aware of their dirty work label and that this had a negative impact on the development of strong inter-agency collaborations. The chapter will, firstly, describe what is meant by dirty work and consider whether child protection work is dirty work. Secondly, the chapter will explore issues relating to interagency collaboration. The chapter will then consider a case study of child protection practice in the Northern Territory which found that practitioners were aware of their stigmatised professional identity and that this identity had a negative impact on their ability to develop trusting relationships with other workers. Finally, the chapter makes recommendations for education, practice, and future research.

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