Child & Family Social Work: Special Issue: Rediscovering Family and Kinship: new directions for social work theory, policy and practice
Current Issue: February 2013 edited by Susan White. Volume 18, Issue 1 Special Issue: Rediscovering Family and Kinship FREE to download until December 31st 2013.
This special issue of Child & Family Social Work focuses on a core concern of the journal, that is, family. Traditionally, within western societies, ‘the family’ has been conceptualized as a constellation of relationships defined on the basis of the biological connection between individuals (blood relatives) or their legal relationship (as in the case of marriage or adoption). More recently, social changes have exposed the inadequacies of such an approach to the study of families.
As well as focusing on theories of family in the issue, we also pay attention to the related concept of ‘kinship’. Within social work, the term ‘kinship’ has a very particular association, most frequently twinned with the term ‘care’ to describe both formal and informal arrangements, whereby relatives, other than a biological mother or father, take on responsibility for raising a child. Our focus in this special issue, though, is beyond the practice of kinship care. We focus more broadly on conceptualizations of kinship that have developed within the discipline of anthropology and have been influential within sociological thinking around families.
The 10 papers in this special issue engage in debates concerning family and kinship drawing on empirical, theoretical, interdisciplinary and practice perspectives. Whilst they are all concerned with social work policy and/or practice issues, most are informed by and draw on contemporary sociological theories of family and kinship. To this end, there is some theoretical overlap in the papers. This engagement with sociological theory allows for a broader understanding of the complex nature of families, relationships and kinship networks, and each paper offers insights into how such understandings can inform different aspects of social work practice with children and families. Three papers are entirely theoretical or conceptual in nature, whilst the remaining seven are based on empirical studies.
Two papers are specifically concerned with foster care, and potential tensions in the work/family divide. Sirriyeh's paper explores the interface of asylum systems and foster care delivery by examining the everyday family practices of foster care. Welcoming strangers and the perceived associated risks linked to negative discourses on asylum was a key challenge for foster carers when negotiating family life. She demonstrates how foster carers, by using ‘family practices’, were able to overcome these challenges to become ‘like family’. Schofield and colleagues' paper uses case examples and draws on role theory and family practices to illustrate the complexity of roles experienced by long-term foster carers as professionals and as parents, in the context of a professionalization agenda. Most foster carers in the study were successful in resolving any potential tensions at the interface between their work and family lives.
Moving on to social work practice in child protection, Saltiel's paper explores the struggles social workers have in assessing the complex and private nature of families' lived realities. He highlights how sociological theories of family practices can help social workers to understand the complex and unconventional nature of many families that they encounter in child protection work, and suggests that these theories could be used to inform assessments.
Whilst there is a growing body of literature on formal kinship care, much less is known about informal kinship care. Farmer and colleagues' paper addresses this gap by drawing on interviews with carers and young people whose living arrangements were made without involvement from Children's Services. There was little difference between the characteristics of the children and those who are supported by the state in formal kinship care, yet many of these informal arrangements were characterized by poverty, stigma and other forms of disadvantage. Despite considerable challenges, many of the families were not receiving help from Children's Services.
Drawing on life history interviews with young adults who are care leavers, Holland and Crowley's paper explores experiences and perceptions of family relationships. All of the young people had had multiple experiences of different families throughout their lives in care, yet a dominant theme was the continuing emotional presence of birth family, even after long-term separation. The authors conclude that insights from sociology of the family can serve to enhance understandings of their life stories, but this must be part of a holistic understanding that also embraces psychological perspectives.
Residential care has always been regarded as a poor alternative to other forms of substitute care for children who cannot remain with their birth families. Kendrick utilizes sociological and anthropological theory to examine practices in residential care and to explore young peoples' relations, relatedness and relationships with staff. Contrary to the negative image in much of the research and literature, he demonstrates how young people use the family metaphor to describe positive experiences of residential care, and how they were able to form meaningful relationships even in the face of adversity.
Four papers each consider adoption from very different perspectives. Logan's paper is a theoretical discussion of adoptive kinship, located in the context of current sociological and anthropological theory. By drawing on gay and lesbian families, families formed by new reproductive technologies and her own work on contact after adoption, she addresses the complex relationship between kinship, social parenting and biological parenting. She critiques the sanctity of blood ties and the notion of ‘fictive kinship’ in the context of ‘families of choice’. Whilst adoption as a family form has largely been neglected in sociological literature, she argues that the changing nature of adoptive kinship means that it has a valuable and significant contribution to make to contemporary kinship theory.
Two papers address different aspects of sibling contact after adoption. Cossar and Neil highlight how sibling contact exposes the complex constitution of kinship and connections and severances between multiple families. Their findings suggest that there can be differences in individuals' perceptions of who counts as family. Where direct contact occurs, infrequent meetings inhibit the doing of ‘family practices’ and can create barriers to feelings of kinship. The paper by MacDonald and McSherry is timely as they report on unplanned sibling contact occurring during adolescence through the use of social networking sites. Social media and post-adoption contact is a growing concern, yet, to date, there has been little empirical work on the subject. Cultural ideas about the importance of ‘blood ties’ meant that adopters did not wish to deny their child these renewed sibling relationships, but this was experienced as precipitating a transition in family life that they were not expecting until their child was much older and resulted in ‘constrained’ parenthood, undermining their parental identity and confidence.
Finally, Kirton offers a challenging perspective on UK adoption policy in the 21st century. Utilizing Herman's concept of kinship by design (KBD), he explores the changing face of KBD from the Labour government under Blair to the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. He presents a critical analysis of current adoption reforms suggesting that the evidence base for many of the reforms is limited and represents a ‘manufactured crisis’ used to justify radical change.
Together the papers within this special issue raise fundamental questions about the meaning of family and highlight some of the personal and structural challenges facing children and adults within the context of day-to-day family life. They expose implicit assumptions within social work policy and practice about what constitutes a ‘proper’ family and, therefore, inevitably create uncertainty concerning the ‘proper’ role of state intervention in family life.
We must, of course, also acknowledge the limitations of this special edition. The special issue contains only 10 papers and these papers are predominantly set within a UK context. In addition, there is greater focus on certain aspects of social work policy and practice than others, for example, adoption-related papers feature heavily but child protection-related papers less so. We leave it to others to fill these and other gaps. We also acknowledge that sociological and anthropological theories of family and kinship are just two possible sets of explanatory theories from which we can draw. Whilst we support the principle of a pluralistic approach to theorizing child and family social work, we also strongly advocate increased attention to sociological and anthropological theories of family and kinship.