Childhood Studies Children, Neoliberalism, and Child Protection
Emily Keddell, Ian Hyslop
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0283


Neoliberalism is a political and economic system that relies on the free market to provide the economic and social goods necessary for survival. Within neoliberal societies, the role of the state is to provide limited or no financial and economic regulation, minimal redistribution of wealth, and divest itself of assets into private ownership. This reduces the onus on the state to provide social protections for families, who are expected to generate their own economic wealth in order to provide and care for their members. The role of the state is a residual one only, providing (if anything) limited supports. Intervention is restricted to the removal of obstacles to private capital accumulation and deregulation of the labor market. Those who require supports are often demonized and moralized, viewed as inherently evil, weak, or irresponsible. When children are added to the picture, neoliberalism encounters a rupture, because young children cannot be held responsible for their own situation. This has several effects in the child protection systems of neoliberal countries. Parents are held entirely culpable for their social situation, despite marked economic inequities that impact on parenting. Consequent effects on personal wellbeing andand behavior that might be harmful to children are explained as individual deficit. Oppressive historical economic and social processes, such as colonization or slavery, and their impacts on whole communities are separated in discourse and policy, from the current situations of Indigenous or racialized minority groups. Neoliberal child protection systems are punitive and forensic, taking an investigatory, risk focused approach to child protection responses. Neoliberal systems can be bolstered by biologized accounts of human behavior and the reproduction of intergenerational deficits. These dovetail with individualistic behavioral approaches. Accordingly, methods of assessment and intervention that focus on individual and family shortfalls are privileged, obscuring social and economic determinants. Older children in the care system rapidly lose their “vulnerable” or deserving status also, and they are viewed as culpable, criminalized, and the “care to prison” pipeline channels these same children into the criminal justice system. The structure of child welfare services in neoliberal states foreground tertiary intervention after harm has occurred, relying on population surveillance and investigatory processes to do so. Public health prevention models that recognize the interconnections among structural conditions, provision of preventive support services, and provision of other supports to families (such as income protection, childcare, health service access) are neither provided nor considered relevant to child protection. Recognition of inequalities in system contact are also downplayed, as this research highlights a systematic relationship with disadvantage. Consequent interventions aimed at parents are individualized, their provision is often contracted out to third-party providers as per a market-based approach to service provision, and the quantity of preventive services is inadequate or piecemeal. Social workers are torn between risk management and their ethical commitments to social justice and relational, supportive approaches. Parents experience such interventions as surveillant, blaming, judgmental and not able to address the causes of their parenting difficulties. Children are viewed as individual rights holders in need of rescue and placement within families able to prepare them for future economic contributions to society. These rights discourses often intersect with notions of vulnerability and culpability that separate children’s needs, and vulnerability, from that of their families. Policy orientations tend to be protectionist or “child focused” in neoliberal societies, as these direct the focus of policy toward children as individuals, rather than recognition that their well-being relies on the well-being of wider social systems. Many countries have broadly neoliberal regimes, although the layered and complex nature of policy and economic ideologies over time make generalizations difficult. Despite this, the United States, United Kingdom, Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada, and Australia have all pursued neoliberal policies to a greater and lesser extent, as have various European and South American countries. Responses to neoliberalism in child protection includes perspectives based on public health, abolition, decolonization, family inclusion/advocacy, poverty-aware practice, progressive poverty policies, and socialist or Marxist political critique.

General Overviews

The topic of neoliberalism as it affects child protection systems is embedded in works outlining how inequities affect child protection as well as in works examining how the economics, culture, and values of neoliberalism specifically influence the structures and practices of child protection systems. Featherstone, et al. 2018 discusses these interconnections in the UK context. Hyslop 2022 discusses the ascendancy of neoliberal politics, and notes they are broadly tied to the collapse of the Keynesian consensus and the associated long boom from the late 1970s, particularly in Western anglophone countries. A shift to the right of the political spectrum has accompanied a global reinvigoration of market economics and a move away from the emphasis on social protection associated with the postwar Welfare State era, although the relevant policy parameters vary between nation-states. Approaches to the enablement of market economics and the production of market-ready citizens also vary, so that policies of support and coercion have taken on differing shades across the political spectrum. However, even the party-political left has increasingly accepted that capitalist economics is the natural mechanism for the distribution of goods and services in society. For social services generally, child welfare provision, and child protection systems specifically, this has meant a move away from state delivered support services toward privatized or quasi-privatized models of service delivery where many services are contracted out to non-state actants. For statutory child protection bureaucracies, it has meant a focus on the efficient management of service production via mangerialist methods. For children and families on the receiving end of child protection system contact, it has meant a focus on responsibilization and remoralization of parents, often with more “muscular” and punitive forms of intervention, as discussed in Parton 2014. All authors in this section note that in many jurisdictions neoliberal ideals result in a newfound emphasis on rescuing children from situations that threaten their future capacity as productive economic citizens. An emphasis on adult responsibility and child safety has impacted disproportionately on economically disadvantaged citizens, so that contact with the child protection system and entry into care is much more likely for the children of the poor. This outcome also has classed, gendered and racialized dimensions so that the children of Indigenous, Black, and other racialized populations are more likely to be subject to care and protection intervention. This phenomenon is exacerbated by biases in relation to race, reporting, decision making, and the surveillance of poor neighborhoods. The reproduction of the inequalities that are endemic to neoliberal economic and political settings within child protection systems is the subject of rising debate.

  • Featherstone, B., A. Gupta, K. Morris, and S. White. Protecting Children: A Social Model. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv4rfrnc

    While not exclusively about neoliberalism, this book argues that models of child protection need to take cognizance of the context of austerity and other economic drivers that increase poverty. While not wishing to perpetuate stigma relating to people living in poverty, the authors state this reluctance reduces the focus on the observable associations among poverty, stress, interpersonal difficulties, and contact with child protection systems. Greater focus on social context and understanding people’s subjective experience is needed to address the drivers of system contact.

  • Hyslop, Ian Kelvin. A Political History of Child Protection: Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.46692/9781447353195

    Hyslop traces the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s in Aotearoa with growing inequality and poverty. He outlines the interconnections of economic inequity, capitalism with colonialism and the effects for Māori, and the seeds of disproportionality for Māori in the child protection system. A case is made for considering the disproportionality of the “brown proletariat” in the child protection system as reflective of neoliberal reforms infiltrating many aspects of the child protection system and wider social protections.

  • Parton, Nigel. The Politics of Child Protection—Contemporary Developments and Future Directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-26930-0

    Considers the social construction of child abuse as a function of the relationship between social work and the liberal state. Although focused on the United Kingdom, it is relevant to all interested in child protection and the changing forms of liberal capitalist governance. Examines changes from the “third way” associated with New Labour through the Conservative “big society” project to what Parton calls the “authoritarian neoliberal” regime in the 2010s. This punitive turn resulted in more muscular child protection directed toward the children of the poor.

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