• Podsoc #54

Moral panic and claims making:

In conversation with Gary Clapton

[Transcript of this podcast is found in the tab below]

What is moral panic and claims making? Gary Clapton fills us in and fixes a sceptical eye on how it plays out in child protection.

Gary Clapton is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He qualified as social worker in 1977 and has worked as a practitioner in London and Edinburgh in the statutory and voluntary sector. Gary gained his doctorate in 2000. Three years later he took up a post as lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.

Gary specialises in adoption and fostering and developing good practice with fathers. He is interested in all things quizzical and recently has joined with other academics in taking a sceptical view of the panics and alarms that beset social work. A number of publications have been produced in the process, the principal ones look at Child Protection, The question of Historic Abuse and Child Trafficking. The most recent paper explores the role of children’s charities in the creation and fuelling of alarms.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, July 12). Moral panic and claims making: In conversation with Gary Clapton [Episode 54]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/moral-panic-and-claims-making/.

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  2. References
  3. Transcript

Clapton, G., Cree, V., & Smith, M. (2013). Moral Panics, Claims-Making and Child Protection in the UK. British Journal of Social Work, 43(4), 803-812.

Transcription Podsocs 54: Moral panic and claims making: In conversation with Gary Clapton.

Thank you to Sue Brooke-Roberton for this transcription

[Music Intro to: 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Welcome to Podsocs everybody, today we’ll be speaking with Gary Clapton from the University of Edinburgh about moral panic and claims making, particularly how it relates to child protection. But first of all I’m going to make a couple of announcements. The first one is for international social work, “crossing borders and building bridges”, now this conference will be on the 5th to the 8th of November in 2013 in Kerala, India. So that’s the 5th to 8th of November in Kerala, India. And back to Australia, on the 3rd and 4th of October at Curtin University in Perth, there’s the annual AASWWE’s symposium; “Imagining futures for social work education and research.” So this symposium invites all social work and human service educators, researchers and field supervisors and practitioners to participate. So that’s Kerala, India the 5th to the 8th November, and the AASWWE’s symposium the 3rd and 4th of October. Now we’re going to have a new page on the website soon that will list our sponsored conferences and you’ll be able to look them up. But in the meantime, just google both conferences and you’ll find them, and if you want to advertise your conference with us, please contact us at, [email protected] and that email address is on our website too.

Tricia: So welcome to Podsocs Gary.

Gary: Hello, hello, and welcome to yourselves, and is it good evening on your side of the world?

Tricia:Yes, it is. It’s twelve minutes past six, and it’s pouring down rain here at the Gold Coast
Gary: Yeah, it’s pouring down rain here in Edinburgh here too.

Tricia: (laughs).

Gary: The thing is it’s the middle of our summer.

Tricia:Haha, we’re in the middle of winter, which is probably still pretty warm for you
I suspect. Gary today we’re going to talk about moral panic and claims making, particularly how it relates to child protection in the U.K. What is moral panic and claims making?

Gary: Ok. I’ll try and be brief. First of all, can you hear me all right?

Tricia: Very well.

Gary: Ok. I’ll try and be brief about this, because ah.. It’s a subject that’s been uh, resulted in a lot of books, a lot of discussion. In fact, the issue or the question of moral panic theory has never really gone away. It’s something that began, or the phrase was coined in 1972. Now I’m not going to give you 40 years of moral panic theory, but mostly it has been a result of the work of a guy called, Stanley Cohen, and he wrote about moral panic surrounding a set of events that took place in the U.K. which was called “mods & rockers riots.” And they were fights on the beaches in the early 1960s and he observed these. He was a young PhD student. He watched what went on there and he noticed a number of things, and he wrote the book about it, “Foot devils and moral panics.” And, um… he noticed that the events that were being talked up, if you like, in the media, were actually quite minor…a couple of hundred quids worth of damage; a few broken deck chairs and some scaffolds on the beach fronts. But the events came to be exaggerated and a variety of other people, jump on board. Such as local (…), clerics, magistrates, maybe the police, chamber of commerce and so on, and started complaining call for action, and then the media would pick up on this and ah, the events would become further exaggerated and police would step in and he called this, “the amplification of deviance”. So that one thing led to another, but the root of the whole thing was that what resulted was a disproportionate reaction, ah.., Folk got long sentences, people were sentenced to custodial sentences, and a disproportionate reaction was set in train, basically a panic. There would be headlines they would be, “flying in police”, for instance. There was mobilization, or suggested mobilization of the army, and all for a few scuffles with these mods and rockers. So um, this theory has been around for a while now, 40 years or so, and as I say, it has never really gone away. But it has been the preserve of sociologists and criminologists, in our view for quite a long time. And my colleague, Mark Smith and my other colleague, Viv Cree, and I began to think about how it could be applied to other areas, particularly in social work, and our field exactly in child protection, about a couple of years ago.

Tricia: Because children really create a lot of anxiety for people don’t they? Children, and their safety.

Gary: Yes, that’s true and what we have done, in terms of our research is look at, basically, I suppose we come from…it underpins moral panic theory, but we also come from I would say probably a skeptical view because all of us in our different ways…I wrote about something called, “the satanic abuse controversy” a few years back. Mark Smith’s written about historic abuse issues, and Viv Cree’s written about trafficking, and all of those angles that we’ve taken have been quite skeptical, in a way. Asking questions about, well, where’s the evidence for some of these panics, where is the evidence for the alarms and is what we’re seeing akin to a moral panic? Are we seeing a disproportionate reaction? To things like (for instance) childhood obesity, which for a while, like two or three years ago was uh you know, headline news. And it did follow the exact contours of the classic moral panic, with some information coming out, our experts jumping onboard, with the media getting a hold of it, headline news, and then suddenly there was a debate about whether childhood obesity was going to be a child protection issue. So, um, that has kind of ebbed, and it’s one of the classic features of moral panics, that they come and they go. I mean it’s one of the classic signs of a moral panic. I mean who talks about satanic abuse anymore? I mean that certainly came and went in the late 80s, early 90s, and to a certain extent childhood obesity has died down somewhat. But we have one around the internet, and we have had one around the internet for a few years now, but that kinda ebbs and flows as well. Um, it’s around cyber-bullying at the moment, it could be around what they call sexting, which is sending sexually explicit messages and images by text, and then there’s your classic folk devil, which is the pedophile that hangs out in the dark corners of the internet. All of which, on the face of it, can create alarm and panic amongst the public.

Tricia: So it isn’t that these things aren’t of concern, it’s more the degree of elevated emotion around it. Is that right?

Gary: I think that is exactly right. It’s not that there’s nothing there, there’s often a handy trope, particularly in the newspapers when somethings called a moral panic it’s done so in order to discredit it. It’s not that there is nothing there in moral panic it’s just that the reaction is disproportionate to what we know. Now what also comes into this mix is the activities of what we’ve called claims makers, which was in Stanley Cohen’s day, chambers of commerce, perhaps the clergy, maybe editors of newspapers, local interest groups. But today, in child protection, there are a variety of organizations, and we can come back to why they do it. There are a variety of organizations that issue press statement after press statement often on a weekly basis, that usually take the form of concentrating on an event and then saying, well, this event is actually the tip of the iceberg. In fact the phrase, “the tip of the iceberg” is a very common one and an indicator, we think, that there is something going on there. Usually, the way it’s put is that, “well, we don’t know anything about, or we don’t know very much about this new threat to children except it must be very large.”

Tricia: So is about who is making those claims? Is about politics? Is about ideology? Is it about people that don’t have the facts and figures and research to back up their claims?

Gary: No, I think that of some of the big child protection charities, we have them here; I think you’ve probably got an Aussie version of the NSPCC. I’m sure you have in fact, the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children, I’m sure you have other ones like Barnardo’s or smaller ones called ‘Beat bullying’ or ‘Stop it now’. There’s a whole variety of charities who all it takes really is to have like some survey, and send out a press statement picked up by the press, and ah, can then see what we wouldn’t call (immediately) a panic, but the beginnings perhaps of an alarm. And we think, that in terms of child protection, anyway, that some of the larger child protection agencies, not so much local government, they don’t really have a role to play in terms of press statements and influence. But perhaps it’s about competition for influence or even fundraising, and money and government grants and so on. But many of the big childhood charities are certainly something we’ve looked at in the last year are certainly in the business of (what shall we say), lurid, luridly written press statements, to catch the eye, I guess. They are a form of propaganda to catch the eye of folk in the media and then have the press statement recycled and become headlines. And, um there’s a bit of a loop starts to be created there. Attention, influence and so on, is then boosted.

Tricia: So there might be some unintended consequences, connected to a concern becoming a moral panic, so it gets bigger than perhaps it was first intended. Is that right?

Gary: Well I think, that to be fair, um, many of the sort of agencies that we were talking about you know would say that it’s not so much claims making as communicating concern. Now, I think that there’s a line that’s walked and I’m not saying that every press statement is false or badly evidenced and so on, but, there’s a real line to be walked between catching the headlines and writing in lurid terms and making claims about numbers. I mean there is one other one, I don’t want to baffle everyone with science but there is something about the number of times children run away from care homes and so on. And, um it transforms into the number of children who run away, and often the number of times children run away is really about maybe one child running away many times. But the way that that is kind of transformed becomes; one child goes missing every five minutes. So there’s a process goes on there, some of its unwitting, I think. Other parts of it are about making claims for an influence perhaps, as I say, a competition for government grants.

Tricia: And is about who jumps on that because I imagine politicians might jump on certain claims than might have some influence on social work practice.

Gary: Well, I think that there are always consequences and as Stan Cohen points out, “the possibilities of new laws being brought in”. I mean to go completely off (?)..I mean there was one here in the UK in the 90s and it was about dangerous dogs, and uh, there were a couple of tragic events and these things always start with a tragic event. Clearly, they do. There were a couple of tragic events where dogs assaulted and badly hurt, and in one case or two killed children, and uh, various things start to happen around these events. And eventually it comes up, questions are asked in the house, um, parliament takes notice and laws are passed, often in haste. And the dangerous dogs act was passed in haste within about six weeks or so, and then immediately got into trouble about how you define what was, a dangerous dog; was it a type, was it a breed and so on. Eventually, they amended the laws. Now, I think that um, in the case of child protection but particularly around the internet there’s often cause for um, often calls for legislation, but I think it’s probably impossible in terms of trying to police the internet. For there are real consequences, I believe and first of all, perhaps calling for laws that are unworkable but also I think that something that we’ve said in our article that there’s a little bit of an undercurrent here that suggests that professionals are the ones that you should go to, rather than parents taking to do with their kid in what they’re doing in their bedroom on their laptop. There’s ah, there’s an organization here in the UK called the CEOP, that’s the Centre for Child Exploitation and Online Protection, and uh, they’ve been company for a while on what they call a ‘panic button’ and on facebook and various other social media, and they suggest that basically the child hit the panic button if there’s trouble. And we would say, there’s a kind of underlying, we couldn’t, I wouldn’t say it’s huge and a big emphasis that might be suggesting in fact it’s the morals of parents by omission that is not looking after their kids that are at stake here.

Tricia: So how has this impacted on direct child protection work?

Gary: I think that’s a great, a very good question because I’m not certain what the position here in Australia is now, but I think that the position of Child Protection in the UK has reached somewhat of an impasse. I think the wheels have come off it in terms of its ability to um, stand up and say we’re doing something that’s valuable, and doing something that’s empowering and we’re doing something that’s ethically just. I think there are major problems in child protection and we had something called the Munro review, a couple of years ago that pointed to some of the consequences and that was burnout and cynicism, and social workers going off with stress and so on. Now I think they kind of missed their trick, in the sense that they, um were suggesting that if all you needed to do was to provide social work with extra resources, more manpower, more money, and so on, and that things would be hunky dory. Now we think that there’s something else going on and that adds this pressure, and basically that’s what we’ve been arguing. That is, that social work particularly child protection over the last thirty years has been buffeted by a series of moral panics that requires child protection workers to perhaps drop what they’re doing and concentrate on the next big thing, for instance childhood obesity. It’s not to say that they do it, it’s just to say that the influences and the pressure on them, to perhaps downgrade preventative work, and uh concentrate only on surveillance, monitoring and er.., protection. And that’s to the detriment of families. Those pressures are quite intolerable really, and as I say, you get hierarchies of abuse. The latest form of abuse: - at one point, satanic abuse, trumping all the other ones. You know you’ve got this now hierarchy, where basically for abuse, nowadays we read sexual abuse. And, (ah), so physical abuse and neglect come a lot lower down. The blue lights in this are like the attention, the urgency doesn’t really come any more when it’s just your basic common or garden neglect, and that is a serious problem for all children and family social workers.

Tricia: Because when something goes wrong, it’s often social workers who are blamed in the media.

Gary: That’s true. That’s very true, but on the other hand the, that backlash often forces social work to become quite risk adverse really. And it’s a kind of no win situation really because the more we are subject to those backlashes then the less we can do of any real good. I’m not decrying the pressure that social workers come under. They need to develop good practice and intervene when they can and seek to protect. What we’re saying on a wider scale is that the practice of child protection is one that is coming under pressure, and from various (let’s say) alarms that they should be turning their attention to, and we argue in our latest paper that there’s a certain amount of ‘us and them’ developing in child protection. That there’s a possibility of cautioning attitudes developing in the profession, whereby, what we always argue on our training courses that we should be seeking partnership, we want alliances with parents. These, in child protection today tend not to happen anymore.

Tricia: And there’s the whole organizational focus, isn’t it, that the whole organization is expecting social workers to respond in a way that’s perhaps different to our training sometimes.

Gary: Yes I think that’s right, as well, and that’s about expectations, and that debate will go on about how social workers frame what they do. I mean that, our view has been that one of the other, what shall I say, less discussed pressures has been simply the media looking for scapegoats. One of the less discussed issues has been exactly the consequences of claims making about what the latest alarms surrounding childhood might be.

Tricia: What was really, I found quite frightening in your paper, are some of the training sessions going on; that really alienate and “other”, the clients, is something really dangerous and terrible.

Gary: Yeah, well I mean, there was a debate a couple of years ago where in the UK a professional press about whether you could sort of ‘kid on’ if you’re in somebody’s house, kid on and say could you have a glass of water, and basically invite the client to leave the room while you could inspect behind the sofas or go to the toilet, or check the cupboards, and so on. And, it harks back to what I was saying earlier about the development of I suppose suspicion and an ‘us and them’ attitude. But we’ve also seen these conferences now where you have, what we’ve called, the uh, um not so much a rule of optimism but a kind of rule of pessimism, that parents…, and maybe that’s what we engage with all the time, but we need to take a breather and a step back from this, that parents are out to do their children wrong. But we would say from where we sit, well ok we’re academics but um, social workers perhaps need to get in touch with that sense that parents, and perhaps 99% of parents want to do well by their children and struggle under pressure. One of the messages of Stanley Cohen was that moral panics and alarms and so on, in this case surrounding children have the effect of making us look in one direction and turning our heads away from others. The others that we may be turning our heads away from is this increase in the commiseration and poverty of large sections of the population.

Tricia: Hmm, and it’s also about what is good parenting about? Good parents can have messy houses, can’t they?

Gary: Absolutely, of course they can. In fact, let’s be clear, good parents sometimes hit their kids and these are the things that probably most social workers working in child protection would subscribe to. And, as I said to you earlier it’s what hangs in the air really around child protection, it’s virtually become another branch, and now a branch attracts the most funds, another branch is children and families work, so that children and families work preventive work. Working with families, particularly as a group, we don’t teach that any more. I can’t remember when we last run group sessions about how you engage with a family as a whole. Usually what happens is folk end up working with mum and kid, and um, evidence tells us that that’s got its limitations, and so when it comes to children and families work, and let’s say preventative work and be, clear about it. That as I’ve said earlier, is very much less of a priority now, and I’ve seen our students go out on practice now, it’s very rare. Well, let’s put it another way, a lot of the student cases are kind of like that the low tariff stuff and it’s very rare that you’ll be witnessing your employed social worker working in a collegiate way with a family, and they just won’t actually come on the radar and, when things get worse, often beyond repair, then that’s the point when child protection gets involved.

Tricia: So, the resources are going in at the wrong end, they’re going in at a policing, surveilling end, rather than at the protection end, or beg-your-pardon or rather at the Prevention end that has the longer term benefits.

Gary: Yes, I think that people over here, and my apologies for using the Brit example, but people over here, like Nigel Parton have been writing about this problem for a long time. I think that, you know writers like that sometimes write from within a paradigm that sees a child protection and child welfare on a spectrum and maybe they are but like the Munro report I referred to earlier, it seems to us, it doesn’t ask a big more querulous question, the sociological one that we’ve raised really. I’ll let, be a lot more skeptical about what child protection is really doing, is it really protecting children?

Tricia: And is about an individual child? Can you separate an individual child from his or her family?

Gary: Yeah well, that’s right, then we’re into another discussion about the social workers who make those interventions and ah, it’s seen almost if the removal of the child is the end of the process. They then, time and care for instance, one that comes second is a sigh of relief once they’ve taken the kid away, but the consequences of removal from the family, we know very little about long term outcomes of children in care. We still and we’ve been doing this for fifty, sixty, a hundred years now. We know very little about that. But the consequences of doing that are often seen in adulthood in some of the populations in prisons and so on, homeless folk on the streets. You can count amongst those folk of having been removed and you know, having child protection interventions. I think that one of the problems about the removal, and I’ve looked at this in fostering and adoption. Is that the removal part of it there is a sigh of relief, and then what happens is that the resources follow the child and they go into fostering, adoption, post-adoption and so on, and at a certain point, the so-called twin-tracking stops working. Nobody works with the birth family about rehabilitation, and the birth family comes along, and the child is put back there and it doesn’t work. It breaks down again.

Tricia: There’s been no work done. There’s been no work done and no (..).

Gary: And there’s been no work done right, and no wonder that you can turn around and say well it didn’t work out, well it proves that we were right all along in removing this kid. But we, I think we need to take a step back when things like that happen, inject a little bit more, well it’s not so much skepticism on this particular point, a little bit more of interrogation of what we do in a big way.

Tricia: And it’s stepping back and looking at that broader picture because there’s also a discourse around that adoptions going to cure it all anyway.

Gary: Yes, I know. It’s a model that I’m interested in particular, an intervention, because I don’t know over by you, what’s not kept in any central fashion is the number of adoption breakdowns that take place. And, there’s no (in the UK anyway), central collection of the numbers of adoption disruptions they call them, or breakdowns; there’s a debate about the terminology here. But there often seen as a way through, and we’ve got a guy here called Martin Nairy, and he used to run the prisons, and he is now kind of the adoption tzar for the UK government, and he’s been banging the drum about “get them out, and get them away early”. And ah, very recently said, “if necessary, lets split up siblings”. I know this goes against a whole evidence base and social work that we’ve built up over the last thirty or forty years, that we’ve been taking kids away from so called neglectful parents. But uh, again on the other hand, again the UK government about twenty years ago had a kind of campaign to increase adoptions and it didn’t really work, I think what happens on the ground is that couples who would like to adopt are probably confronted with the reality of the kids that come up for adoption. For want of a better phrase, and there’s a bit of a, dis-connect, a mismatch, and I don’t think we’re going to see a huge increase in adoption. What we will see is an increase about people talking about its importance. We’ll see a huge increase you’ve probably got this already, of folk coming along and showing you scans of baby’s brains, with what are red bits and green bits. Some of this is quite dodgy science, and a lot of it I think kind of underpins a new push for adoption.

Tricia: Gary, how much is this new frontline, education of social workers to do with the moral panic?

Gary: Right ok, that’s…I don’t know a lot about this actually, but is this there is a kind of panic around about social workers but let’s be clear I don’t think it’s a moral panic, because it’s quite hard to find what their morals will be, whereas in child protection and panics in child protection, I think that the morals rather than the morals of pedophiles on the internet, the morals at stake here are the morals of the parents. And, that is I’m sure, one of the more subtle targets of moral panics in child protection. But when it comes to training every so often there has been an alarm about either the importance of increasing training or fast-tracking. We had some, what they call, ‘fast-tracking’ where you try and get full way through the standard course in a year and a half. We did that about ten years ago and it worked ok, there are graduates from that course out there doing the business. I think that the new, and it’s a UK one remember in the UK we have a kind of devolved administration, so in Scotland remember, there is no plans to introduce some new stuff here, but in England it looks as though planning on introducing, tinkering around with a program. But every so often you’ll get folk come along and say, “oh, you’re not doing enough on drugs”, or “you’re not doing enough on domestic violence” or “you’re not doing enough on mental health”, and kind of governments have this odd way of approaching training where they think it’s the opposite of salami slicing, you can add bits on. Like bolting on, anti-discriminatory practice, or something else, whereas, our view (and this is not just Mark and Viv and I), our view here in Edinburgh is that you need to go for cross-cutting skills and knowledge, rather than filling student social workers heads with the latest thing that they need to be boned up about.

Tricia: Hmm…because, it’s about core skills and how we actually work with people.

Gary: Absolutely, and those are cross-cutting, they’re generic and you learn them, and one of the things that we’ve always said as social work educationalists is that when you go on placement it’s about transferrable skills that you are landing, rather than if you are in a placement say in an old people’s home and you come away thinking that all you’ve learned is about care for the elderly well then, you’ve kind of approached your placement wrong. The placement is about developing skills that will be transferred into working with kids for instance.

Tricia: Gary, how should social workers think about moral panic and claims making or deal with it or approach it or understand it differently?

Gary: I think that they should just think twice really, and it’s not about thinking twice over an individual action, I mean they have a case in front of them and there’s a need to act and often you need to think afterwards. I suppose what we are trying to do with the work we’re doing, is to inject as to what’s what a criticality that social workers think critically about the profession, and talk to each other in other forums, to talk to each other beyond the sort of bread and butter stuff like wages and these are important. They start to think about the ethics of what we’re doing and some of the pressures that they might be coming under and why, to encourage people to think again and to raise their eyes, if they can, to raise their eyes above the parapet and start thinking about the work that we’re all engaged in and for the benefit of the families and the children.

Tricia: Thank you so much Gary, for being on Podsocs.

Gary: ok, I…

Tricia: Thank you.

[Music outro 32.16]