Quickening steps: an ethnography of pre-birth child protection
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date25/11/2020
Critchley-Morris, Ariane Ross
This thesis is a study of pre-birth child protection practice in the Scottish context. The ‘quickening’ in the title refers not just to the movement in utero of the unborn babies at the centre of this research, but also to the intensification of UK policy activity aimed at protecting children more quickly and at an ever younger age. This study occurred in a period when the imperatives of both child protection and the ‘early years’ agenda were coming together in Scotland to produce highly interventionist possibilities for state involvement in the lives of young families. Yet the activities of pre-birth child protection and the way the work is understood by social workers and by expectant parents has remained largely unexamined by research. In order to explore pre-birth child protection practice, an ethnography was undertaken in an urban Scottish local authority. The fieldwork took place over one year and utilised mobile methods. Non-participant observations of Pre-Birth Child Protection Case Conferences and less formal social work meetings, including home visits, were undertaken. Observations were interspersed with interviews with key participants in these meetings: expectant parents, social work practitioners, and case conference chair persons. Three major themes emerged from this qualitative enquiry into social work practice: Temporalities, vulnerabilities and invisibilities. The temporalities and vulnerabilities of pre-birth child protection encouraged a narrow focus on the immediate physical safety of the unborn baby and constrained the articulations of both parents and practitioners. Mothers were at once treated as ‘vulnerable’ and simultaneously invulnerable. Fathers struggled to access a ‘vulnerable’ identity and were ascribed a ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous’ role. The invisibility of the unborn babies functioned so as to greatly intensify the professional gaze on the mothers, particularly in child protection case conference settings. Yet the fathers remained in the shadows of the child protection activity and were often ‘written out’ by practice. Although highly visible in pre-birth child protection fora, the mothers were paradoxically silenced by a singular focus on the safety of the child. Parental distress and the emotional content of the work for social work practitioners were sifted out by the processes of pre-birth child protection. These findings do not sit easily with the aspirations of child welfare to be found in Scottish law and social work policy. This thesis argues for a refocusing of pre-birth child protection activities on the relational aspects of working with unborn babies: the relational nature of the baby within the family and within kinship networks, and the relational nature of social work as a profession.