Stigma-by-association: understanding its consequences for Australia’s dysfunctional child protection systems


Sharynne Hamilton, Deb Cleland and Valerie Braithwaite explain how their research shows that courtesy stigma against community workers who work with child protection officials may be a significant barrier to effectively helping children and families.

We are most familiar with the term “stigma” when it is used to describe someone who is discriminated against, or socially excluded or treated in an unfair way. The idea is that some visible characteristic they have – be it a disability, an illness, ethnicity or gender – excludes them from consideration or opportunity to participate in social life like everyone else. The marginalised group we are interested in are those who are viewed and labelled as ‘bad parents’ because their children are involved in the child protection system.

Courtesy stigma or stigma by association is a variety of stigma that is not as widely recognised. This kind of stigma belittles and marginalises those who spend time with a stigmatised person, whether the relationship be one that is defined by kinship, friendship, or profession. In some situations, courtesy stigma may not be such a surprise. You may have heard how the families of prisoners are stigmatised, or of how families suffer when one member gains notoriety and public disapproval of their actions.

Courtesy stigma can also apply to professionals who have taken on the role of advocate for marginalised and vulnerable people. One group that fits this description are social support workers who help “bad parents.” We are not talking about defence lawyers here. We are talking about community workers who on a daily basis try to help families who are struggling with a range of problems, such as addiction, domestic and family violence, homelessness, imprisonment, poverty, illness and disability. World-wide, most families having contact with child protection authorities also have other social problems. The goal of community workers is to help these families overcome their difficulties and care for each other to the point where every member of the family is leading as safe, stable, fulfilling and meaningful a life as possible.

In 2012 Sharynne Hamilton and Valerie Braithwaite set out with a modest plan of assessing whether Canberra’s community organizations had the capacity to meet the needs of families that were experiencing such problems and were also involved in some way with the ACT government’s Child Protection Services.

An initial study found that families relied heavily on community organisations to assist them negotiate the child protection system. However, organisations struggled to provide advocacy and support to parents and family members with child protection involvement in addition to their own service provision. Their time and resources were clearly stretched to capacity. These findings prompted a follow up study with a broader group of community organisation staff.

In the course of interviews with senior staff at these community organizations, we consistently heard stories of how they and their staff were treated dismissively and discourteously by Child Protection Services. Community service staff were quick to point out that not all child protection workers treated them this way. However, the consistency with which community workers told us such stories was alarming. We questioned whether there were elements of courtesy stigma occurring, which could assist to explain the intractability addressing the problems which plague child protection practice in Australia.

Continuous government inquiries into services across the country points to the ongoing problems in the child-protection sector. Australia has had upward of 40 child protection government inquiries in the last decade. These inquiries always say the same thing – not good enough coordination, not good enough communication, not timely enough service delivery, not good enough responsiveness to problems occurring in the community. Additionally, child protection services have been found to be a highly stressed, overly stretched workforce, and because of high turnover, staff are young and inexperienced. We wondered how any of this could be improved if child protection authorities were consistently disrespectful and dismissive of front-line workers in community organizations that were trying to help families.

When we re-analysed our 15 interviews with leaders and coordinators  of community organizations in the ACT we drew the following conclusions:

  1. Child Protection Services stigmatised parents through communicating the belief that they would never change, discussing them disparagingly, and not providing them with reasons for their actions against them;

  2. Community organization staff felt stigmatised as not putting the interests of children first, and advocating for parents to the detriment of children;

  3. Community organization staff felt they were denigrated professionally, except when Child Protection Services needed their help for gaining information about or delivering a service to their client; and

  4. Community organization staff felt they were excluded in a deliberate way from meetings and important information about their clients.

These experiences are in accordance with descriptions of how a powerful institution will silence those people and groups in society who may be critical of its actions. This quote provides a stark example of how community workers can feel silenced and the immediate consequences for a client:

‘... as my client was breaking down, I wanted to jump in and say something but I didn’t, because previously to that I had jumped in at a moment and said something to offer her reassurance and information about something that she didn’t know, but the person who was in charge looked at me and sighed and said, ‘you’ll have time to do this out of the case conference’. And I just shut down, I felt shamed, I felt fearful to speak truthfully to the client ... I went into a very professional, pragmatic, authoritative mode.  It was my first case conference and I was the youngest person there. So probably already I was on the back foot. I didn’t respond the next time she broke down crying...’

Perhaps the most concerning factor currently present in the child protection sphere are the ACT government’s current plans to dispense with parental consent in long term decision making about their children by parents; particularly adoption. Parents should be supported to understand the complex processes they often confront together with advocates or community workers. Regardless of what parents may have or may have not done, they have a right to fair and equitable processes, aided by the services funded to provide to support them. This right is seriously compromised if government officers stigmatise both families and support workers.

Stigma by association becomes a useful tool for a powerful institution that wants to push back against those who demand accountability on behalf of families. Community workers know the families well, are trusted by the families and are in a position to make change happen, if they work cooperatively with child protection authorities. Building a bridge of respect and open communication between child protection staff and community organization staff may be the first step in reforming our broken child protection system.

Photo by raymond revaldi on Unsplash.