Informing Permanent Care Discourses: A Thematic Analysis of Parliamentary Debates in Victoria

Informing Permanent Care Discourses: A Thematic Analysis of Parliamentary Debates in Victoria Abstract The policy, legal and service configuration of a child and family welfare system reflects the historically predominant ideological perspectives relating to children, families, community and state. Examination of parliamentary debates provides a window on the discourses relating to policy and legislative change in a jurisdiction. This article presents a document analysis of parliamentary debates in the Australian state of Victoria using Applied Thematic Analysis to investigate the key issues and ideas that informed consideration of the Bills associated with the 1989 introduction of Permanent Care Orders—a special form of guardianship preferred to adoption for children drifting in out-of-home care. Four primary themes were identified: the rhetoric of rights; the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate; child protection is everybody’s business; and the politics of influence. Interpreted using Fox Harding’s typology of ideological perspectives in Western child welfare, these findings reinforce that different views about family formation emerge at times of social transition, in turn, influencing the political discourse that shapes the policy and legislative approach to child and family welfare. Permanency planning policies supporting children’s connections to their biological families were established in Victoria in the 1980s, but now appear to be shifting to more paternalist protectionist and laissez-faire orientations. Child welfare, parliamentary debates, permanent care Context Western approaches to defining and dealing with child maltreatment are strongly shaped by a jurisdiction’s cultural and political history, as well as the contemporaneous local issues confronting its government, relevant domestic and international research evidence, and ideas available to guide interventions. The specific policy, legal and service configuration of a child and family welfare system thus reflects the historically predominant ideological perspectives—comprising values, beliefs, priorities and desired outcomes—in relation to children, families, community and state (Cameron and Freymond, 2006). A window on what drives the direction of policy and legislative change is provided through an examination of parliamentary debates. Such studies have illuminated the ideological positions, as well as the politics, associated with the introduction of child welfare laws in a range of jurisdictions; for example, the UK (Kirton, 2016), Canada (Kronick and Rousseau, 2015), Denmark (Wasshede, 2016), Finland (Nygård, 2009), Ireland (Smith, 2016), Scotland (Tisdall, 2015) and Western Australia (Harrison et al., 2014). Important insights have thus been gained into the relationships between media, policy development, policy and practice; the negotiation of the conflicting demands of differing ideological perspectives; impacts on the priority accorded to children’s rights and interests; and changes in the discourse on children and developments in child welfare provision over time. A useful framework for understanding the different ideological perspectives in Western child welfare is the four-fold classification developed by UK social policy academic, Lorraine Fox Harding (1997), which has been influential in the UK and Australia (Farrell, 2004). UK research undertaken by Roger Smith (1995) applied Fox Harding’s typology to an analysis of developments and change in child welfare, concluding that it ‘offered an effective basis for further study, but that such a framework cannot be applied rigidly or uncritically’ (p. 2). Smith (2005) expanded on the typology in an exploration of the importance and complexity of identifying, articulating and applying values, principles and beliefs in child welfare policy and practice, and addressed changes in the ideological drivers, policy and legal configurations associated with youth justice services in the UK (Smith, 2010). In this article, we draw on Fox Harding’s typology to interpret the complexity of findings from a study investigating the key issues and ideas which informed the political debates that drove the introduction of Permanent Care Orders (PCOs) in the Australian state of Victoria. PCOs are a special form of guardianship introduced via legislation in 1989, and implemented in 1992, in preference to adoption as a permanent placement option for children drifting in out-of-home care. The influence of ideological perspectives in child welfare The core aim of child welfare interventions is to ensure the provision of safe permanent homes for children. The approach taken in determining what constitutes and causes child maltreatment, and subsequently in responding to it, reflects the historical cultural, social, institutional and political context of the jurisdiction (Cameron and Freymond, 2006). In other words, a child welfare system is significantly shaped by the predominant value and belief systems, or ideological perspectives. Wattam argues that the contextual nature of child protection influences how it is defined: Definitional issues are at the heart of child protection practice … child abuse is not ‘an absolute concept’. … it depends on its context, whether historical, cultural or ‘in situ’, for its definition. … It is a socially constructed phenomenon which reflects values and opinions of a particular culture at a particular time (Wattam, 1996, p. 190). For example, in New Zealand, Cooke (2013) ‘identified a rich and complex historical legal and socal [sic] tapestry that explains the role of and the responsibilities taken up by the State to children in its care’ (p. 372). Prevailing child welfare orientations variously draw on relevant research evidence, but are also significantly driven by political and economic factors: ‘Those who have the power to define the terms have the power to shape the discourse’ (Wattam, 1996, p. 192). O’Brien (2015) highlights that the state is not ideologically neutral in balancing its child welfare responsibilities with the rights of those involved. This helps explain why major, more interventionist policy change has often occurred following child abuse tragedies fuelled by accusations of child protection worker negligence or incompetence sensationalised by the media (Gainsborough, 2010; Fernandez, 2014) and to periodic public enquiries into the operation and outcomes of the respective child protection system (Fernandez, 2014; Parton, 2014). Fox Harding’s typology Fox Harding’s (1997) framework of ideological orientations in Western child welfare is one of the most sophisticated. It comprises the ‘laissez-faire’, ‘state paternalism and child protection’, ‘defence of the birth family and parents’ rights’ and ‘children’s rights and child liberation’ perspectives. The laissez-faire perspective entails a minimalist state role. A core belief is that the family’s power and privacy should not normally be disturbed, to protect the special bond between parents and children. It may, however, be necessary for the state to intervene in extreme cases to avert greater harm, to find a new permanent home for the child and sever contact with the family of origin. The state paternalism and child protection perspective advocates extensive state intervention. A core belief is that the state should intervene readily, extensively and even coercively to provide a better option for children when their parents do a poor job of raising them. Consequently, the parents should lose their parental rights and, if necessary, be excluded from their children’s lives (as with the laissez-faire approach). Children are viewed as individuals, and the state as neutral or beneficent. The defence of the birth family and parents’ rights perspective emphasises parents’ biological and psychological bonds with their children. An extensive state role is advocated, especially via supportive interventions enabling children to remain in their parents’ care. Placement out of home is a last resort, with contact supported to facilitate reunification. Core beliefs include that inadequate parenting is linked with social deprivation and that the state generally inadequately supports biological families, discriminating on a class and/or racial basis. The children’s rights and child liberation orientation emphasises the child’s perspective. The child is considered independent from their family (as with the paternalist protectionist approach) and their developmental status is de-emphasised. The child’s own viewpoint, wishes, feelings and choices are valued above adults’ considerations regarding their best interests. Fox Harding’s typology conceptualises the main approaches to child, family and state relationships and has been influential in child welfare in the UK and elsewhere. For example, it has been used by its author (Fox Harding, 1997) and Smith (1995) in the UK; Fernandez (1996) and Farrell (2004) in Australia; Cooke (2013) in New Zealand; McGregor (2014) and O’Brien (2015) in Ireland; and Perkins et al. (2017) in the USA. It captures the issues at the heart of child welfare practice. Thus, it has considerable potential to help understand and position permanency policies and interventions, given a jurisdiction’s predominant child welfare ideology is generally enshrined in the permanency planning framework for children entering its child-protection system. Permanency planning in child welfare A range of principles, definitions and dimensions have been articulated in relation to the concept of permanency planning since it was first expounded through the Oregon Project in the USA in the early 1970s (see Maluccio et al., 1986; Adler, 2001; Freundlich et al., 2006). However, integral to all permanency planning frameworks is a hierarchy of placement options for a child’s long-term care. These range from most to least desirable approximately as follows: maintaining the child with their biological parents (family preservation); returning the child placed temporarily out of home to their biological parents (family reunification/restoration); adoption, legal guardianship or long-term foster-care by relatives; adoption by non-relatives; specialised long-term foster-care; and, finally, long-term care in a non-family setting. The positioning of adoption in its permanency hierarchy is a litmus test for a jurisdiction’s predominant child and family welfare ideology because informed consent by biological parents, ‘free from financial or other rewards and from duress’ (O’Halloran, 2015, p. 437), is a key principle of Western—certainly, of Australian—adoption law. In other words, the extent of a government’s willingness and power to terminate parental rights to pursue adoptions from care is indicative of its general child welfare orientation. Internationally, O’Halloran (2015) reported that ‘only three out of 28 European Union countries allow non-consensual adoption from the public care system’ (pp. 802–3). However, there has been ‘a recurring political preoccupation’ with child adoption in the UK and the USA (Garrett, 2002, p. 193). As a result, generally ‘closed’ adoptions from care have been a permanency planning priority for children in those two countries. Despite much similarity between Western child welfare systems, historically there has been little use of adoption as a pathway to permanency from care in Australia (Fernandez, 2014; O’Halloran, 2015), where child welfare policies, legislation and programmes are largely the responsibility of the state and territory governments. In addition, Australian adoption policy, legislation and practice have involved ‘open’ information and contact arrangements since the 1980s. This reflects important views about children’s best interests being served by remaining connected to their family and culture—particularly, but not only, in relation to Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) children. Australian family law ‘generally treats “kinship” adoption as not necessarily in the best interests of the child. Applicants are usually required to … convince the court that none of the alternative orders available would be more appropriate’ (O’Halloran, 2015, p. 440). There are well-established preferences in Australian child welfare and family law for the least interventionist order and legal preservation of the child’s biological relationships and cultural heritage. Still, little Australian research has focused on the influences on change in permanency planning policy—including the range of options, their positioning in the hierarchy and the factors that influence decision making on the range and positioning of those options. Some authors have addressed these matters in the context of New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, which recently introduced reforms designed to promote open adoptions from care (see Parkinson, 2003; Ross and Cashmore, 2016). However, there has been minimal academic attention on adoptions from care in neighbouring Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, despite that legislative amendments prioritising adoption after family preservation and family reunification were passed there in 2014—the same year as the NSW reforms. Victoria has a unique permanency planning history, integral to which are PCOs, implemented from 1992. This article presents findings from a study exploring the discourses associated with the introduction of PCOs in the relevant parliamentary debates. Research question The study aimed to address the following question: What were the key issues and ideas that informed the 1984–89 political debates associated with the introduction of PCOs in Victoria? Methods The study employed document analysis—a classic exploratory, or content-driven, inductive approach that sits within the broader framework of qualitative research methods. Historically, such methods have attracted criticism for lacking rigour and being prone to bias. Subsequently, a range of methodological frameworks have been developed to strengthen qualitative research methods in dealing with these challenges (Guest et al., 2012). Applied Thematic Analysis (ATA), the methodological framework developed by Guest et al. (2012), was applied to this research primarily because of its purposeful methodology aimed at enhancing rigour, transparency and replicability, and reducing bias. In addition, ATA synthesises a range of epistemological and methodological approaches to research, in turn, allowing a choice and combination of theoretical approaches and analytic techniques. In this study, grounded theory and thematic analysis informed the thematic identification and coding application processes, and Fox Harding’s typology was used to interpret the results of the codified data. Data The data were sourced from Hansard—the official record of debates in the Victorian parliament. It was anticipated that using such high-quality and easily accessed data would further enhance transparency and replicability. As the research involved publicly available records, an application for approval by an ethics committee was not required. The study investigated the debates relating to the eight Bills associated with the introduction of PCOs, being the Adoption Bill 1984; Children (Guardianship and Custody) Bill 1984; Adoption Bill (No. 2) 1984; Children’s Court (Amendment) Bill 1986; Community Services Bill 1986; Adoption (Amendment) Bill 1987; Children and Young Persons Bill 1987; and Children and Young Persons Bill (No. 2) 1988. These Bills were identified through searching within all the Hansard records from 1984 to 1989 for relevant keywords—including ‘adoption’, ‘child’, ‘custody’, ‘guardianship’, ‘permanency’ and/or ‘permanent care’. The data-set, comprising 412 pages of Hansard, was converted from .pdf into Word format for the purposes of coding. Design The operationalisation of ATA in the document analysis is summarised in Figure 1. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide The operationalisation of ATA Figure 1 View largeDownload slide The operationalisation of ATA In the crucial planning and preparation phase, the research question and key concepts were defined, and the theoretical and methodological approaches selected. Fox Harding’s (1997) typology was identified during the literature review as highly relevant. However, we wanted the data to speak for themselves, and thus decided not to introduce theoretical concepts in the early phases of the analysis, with a view to further minimising potential bias and following Smith’s (1995) advice that Fox Harding’s typology should not be rigidly applied. Additionally, the boundaries of the data-set were articulated, the counting rules decided and the research cycles scheduled. All this information was compiled in a ‘Research Plan & Codebook’, which was constantly referred to and updated throughout the study, ensuring a clear audit trail. The process of theme identification was undertaken through careful reading and interpretation of the text in the data-set. Codes corresponding to the themes were drafted, tested and refined through multiple passes of reading through the data focused on removing or minimising any overlap in code definitions and mapped to indicate how they linked to each other. Intra-coder reliability was established via three iterations of a pre-planned coding and checking cycle; the final checking and comparison processes yielded coding consistency of approximately 95 per cent. The codes were applied to every sentence of the data-set. However, the amount of text to which codes were applied was not uniform—a coded text segment variously included a whole sentence, part of a sentence, a paragraph, a page or multiple pages, as applicable. Analysis Quantification of qualitative data is a controversial topic in qualitative research. However, there are often reasons for undertaking some basic numerical, as opposed to statistical, analysis of qualitative data (Guest et al., 2012). In this case, it was considered helpful in summarising the content of the relatively large data-set, which comprised a complete sample of the relevant debates—especially in validating the themes that emerged through the early phases of analysis. The meanings ascribed to the themes were analysed through traditional qualitative analysis techniques, involving many iterations of checking tentative understandings against the source textual data. The strength of each theme was measured by summing and converting to percentage the number of individuals whose contributions to the debates included the corresponding code, whether once or multiple times. This avoided over-representation of themes, sub-themes or arguments that were repeated in the numerous contributions made by some debaters, compared with others who contributed occasionally or only once to a Bill debate. Where a debater discussed an issue generically, this was reflected in the coding (and counting) for the relevant primary theme. Where a debater advocated a specific position, the text was coded (and counted) according to the respective sub-theme or argument. Results Analysis of the contributions made by the fifty-nine debaters included in the study enabled identification of four primary themes: the rhetoric of rights; the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate; child protection is everybody’s business; and the politics of influence. The debaters by primary theme is illustrated in Figure 2. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Debaters (%) by primary theme Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Debaters (%) by primary theme The rhetoric of rights Almost all debaters (91.53 per cent) acknowledged the need for provisions to uphold the rights of people affected by the Bills, simultaneously identifying a need to balance the range of interests with government and community responsibilities. There was also much advocacy for treating the child’s/adoptee’s rights as paramount. However, another picture emerges on closer examination of the text illuminating underlying ideologies that influenced the debaters. It was common for stated prioritisation of children’s/adoptees’ rights to be attenuated, or even contradicted, by the same debater: Although I wholeheartedly support the provisions dealing with adopted people having access to information, particularly original birth certificates, so that they are aware of their origins, of their parents and what might have happened to them—and for relinquishing parents to be able to ascertain what has happened to their children—one must not forget the role of protecting the adoptive parents because their rights and needs for protection must be recognized (G. Baylor, Liberal Party, Legislative Council, 9 October 1984, emphasis added). Such qualified prioritisation was signalled by an emphasis on the child’s/adoptee’s ‘best interests’ or ‘welfare’, rather than their ‘rights’, or on upholding the rights or interests of another group, most frequently relinquishing mothers, where their rights conflicted with children’s/adoptees’. Thus, expressions of support for the paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights were usually more rhetorical than real. There was marked, although progressively less, overt advocacy for the rights and interests of biological and adoptive families over children’s/adoptees’, as shown in Figure 3. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Prioritisation of rights by debaters (%) Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Prioritisation of rights by debaters (%) The many debaters concerned to address the moral issues inherent in the Bills and to strike an appropriate balance between different rights, interests and responsibilities frequently acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the task. For example: It would be difficult to come into contact with a family that does not have a relative or that does not know someone who is a party to the adoption process. Adoption conditions and the arrangements that are made to provide for the proper ordering and good security of all of the persons who are concerned in the adoption and guardianship processes are, therefore, matters of wide community concern and interest. … proper interests need to be balanced (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). One of the enormous issues that confronts our society is providing adequate legal framework in which to support the family unit in exercising its responsibility for the care and nurturing of children, but at the same time defining a safety net which ensures that those children who are abused are given the opportunity of developing into mature adults. It is not an easy task to strike a balance (R. Knowles, Liberal Party, Legislative Council, 26 May 1989). Almost three-quarters (74.58 per cent) of debaters prioritised children’s/adoptees’ rights and best interests. This is consistent with the contemporaneous global context whereby the UN was progressing its 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child towards a Convention, achieved in 1989 after a decade of effort; and with the purpose of the Bills debated being to provide for the welfare of vulnerable children. This quote is typical of the advocacy for paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights: The Bill has been drafted to accommodate the interests of all parties within the parameter of an overriding concern for the interests of the child. It enshrines in law twenty years of development in community attitudes and gives greater meaning to the rights of the child (M. Ray, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). However, a third (33.90 per cent) of debaters argued that higher priority should be accorded to biological parents’ rights or interests: The National Party proposes further amendments to protect natural parents against the sudden intrusion of a natural child adopted 20 or 30 years earlier (D. Evans, National Party, Legislative Council, 9 October 1984). One-fifth (20.34 per cent) of debaters advocated prioritisation of adoptive families’ rights and interests. This reflects that Victoria’s adoption legislation had previously, and strongly, favoured adoptive parents’ interests over those of adoptees and biological parents. Advocacy for adoptive parents reflected strong reluctance to change this predominancy: I do not believe conditions can be placed on adopting parents prior to consent being given and I do not believe the people of Victoria will accept that (B. Steggall, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). The adoptive family must be able to develop its own lifestyle, free of interference (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 19 September 1984). In summary, despite apparent agreement to elevate consideration of children’s/adoptees’ rights to paramountcy, many debaters undermined their initial advocacy by focusing on children’s/adoptees’ ‘best interests’ or ‘welfare’, or arguing the need to ‘balance’ children’s/adoptees’ rights with relinquishing and/or adoptive parents’ rights. The passion with which adoptive parents’ rights were advocated reflects the historical predominance of that group’s interests. Together, these findings indicate that debaters’ apparent agreement on the paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights was more rhetorical than real. The ‘hierarchy of family’ debate Two-fifths (42.37 per cent) of debaters emphasised the importance of ‘family’ for raising children. This was often accompanied by discussion about the most suitable family form, clearly reflecting debaters’ values, beliefs and priorities in relation to the legal, social and/or cultural dimensions of family. Across-party support was expressed for family care for best meeting children’s needs: I would judge the proposed legislation to be successful if it achieved the Cain Government’s aim of providing a place in the family for every Victorian child and providing every Victorian child with an emotionally and physically secure, happy, healthy environment in which to grow and develop (G. Vaughan, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). I believe we have already come to the conclusion in the debate that good family welfare is far better than any institutionalised care (N. Maughan, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). Debaters often emphasised the importance of a child’s biological family, and of addressing the complexities of continuing—or resuming—contact between child and biological family. Numerous debaters idealised the nuclear family and the institution of marriage: The family unit is constantly under attack, and has been for many years. … it is time to call a halt to that attack, and I, for one, cannot support in any way, shape or form the concept of de facto couples being eligible to adopt children (A. Brown, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). I should hope … for a situation in which adoption is restricted to the traditional married couple or, in special circumstances, to single persons (E. Hann, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 18 September 1984). Arguments against de facto couples becoming eligible to adopt children were also argued on socio-legal grounds: … if one makes an adoption order in favour of a couple who are not married and who are living together … There might be a strong emotional bond between the two people but there is no legal bond (D. Evans, National Party, Legislative Council, 10 October 1984). Debaters were, however, often prepared to make exceptions for Aboriginal families, so that tribal and de facto relationships would not impede them adopting. Some debaters also idealised Aboriginal society: I believe the Aboriginal community … does not need … conditional consents … because the Aboriginal community looks after any child who has been deserted or has lost its parents (B. Evans, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). While there was general acknowledgement of special issues concerning Aboriginal children and families, there was also much—and often heated—debate regarding how best to address them: The definition is unnecessary for the purposes of the Bill. The amendment would make the Bill more flexible for the Aboriginal community rather than having the community tied down by this ridiculous definition (B. Evans, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 13 September 1984). The Government recognises that some groups in the community have special needs and that protections need to be built into legislation to ensure that these needs are met. … To ensure that Aboriginal child placements are culturally sensitive and reflect Aboriginal tribal, kinship and communal network approaches to care (P. Spyker, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 4 December 1986). Somewhat curiously, given the idealisation of the nuclear family, there was significant agreement that guardianship, rather than adoption, was the best way to address the permanent family placement needs of children drifting in out-of-home care, including Aboriginal children: … it is clearly wiser to provide for the real and genuine needs of those people through extended forms of guardianship or permanent placement rather than by adoption (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). Indeed, this consensus on the government’s proposed guardianship option led to further proposals to enhance the measure and, ultimately, to the creation of PCOs. Child protection is everybody’s business Most debaters (88.14 per cent) supported the provision of services to assist families to care safely for their children or, when not possible, to support the children within substitute families. Half the debaters (49.15 per cent) advocated for the continuing role of community, including faith-based, organisations in delivering child and family support, and adoption, services: The problem requires community commitment, as not all of the necessary work can be done by the government. … non-government voluntary organisations, which have played a vital role in the area in the past, will be required to continue to play that role in the future to ensure that the basic services are delivered (C. Coleman, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 9 August 1988). This included much advocacy for increasing funding allocations to organisations delivering child and family support services and tertiary child-protection services, although three-fifths (61 per cent) of debaters criticised the government’s service delivery. They were particularly scathing of the recently established child protection service, variously citing inadequate resourcing, staffing recruitment and retention problems, excessive workloads, etc.: Resources have been poor. … Community Services Victoria has one of the poorest reputations in Australia for its work in this field. It is going through a difficult time trying to tackle its workload. It does not have the professionals, nor does it have the facilities and the expertise (B. Steggall, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 9 August 1988). Simultaneously, almost a quarter (23.73 per cent) of debaters applied concerted pressure to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child maltreatment. This position was often argued passionately on moral grounds: Child abuse often involves serious assaults, such as a sexual assault or attempted murder. If an attempt were made to murder an adult, anyone knowing of such a case would have a legal responsibility to report it. Would anyone claim that, because a child is the victim of such an assault, the incident should not be reported? It would be an extraordinary claim to make. How could anyone morally justify not reporting an instance of abuse or neglect of a child? (D. Hayward, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). However, there was also firm resistance to the introduction of mandatory reporting: I urge the Committee not to impose mandatory reporting on the government. … It is not in the best interests of those concerned with its application to have mandatory reporting in child abuse cases (N. Maughan, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). The government’s policy to continue the existing system of voluntary reporting of child abuse prevailed during the period researched. The politics of influence Almost two-thirds (64.41 per cent) of debaters commented specifically on the non-partisan (variously described as ‘bi-partisan’ or ‘tri-partisan’) approach taken, especially to the adoption Bills: It is commendable to see the co-operation that has taken place between the Minister for Community Welfare Services and the spokespersons of both the Liberal Party and the National Party. It is an indication of how the Parliament should operate more often on matters of controversy within the community that are non-political, particularly when they affect the lives of thousands of people (P. Sibree, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). This quote highlights that the government’s co-operative approach to pursuing its child welfare reforms was unexpected by the opposition and the leadership of one, especially, of the four female Labor parliamentarians who contributed to the debates. The Labor Party had the highest number and proportion of female contributors—three in ministerial portfolios—who influenced the tone and direction of the debates. The above-mentioned minister, Pauline Toner, was the first female cabinet minister appointed in the Victorian parliament and, arguably, the most influential in reforming Victoria’s adoption and permanency planning policies and legislation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, when there was disagreement, arguments followed party lines. The Labor debaters, who formed the incumbent government, recognised different forms of family and advocated for these; valued the maintenance of contact between children and their biological families; argued for special provisions prioritising family and cultural continuity for Aboriginal children; and advocated for the existing voluntary system of reporting child abuse. The other debaters were members of the more socially conservative metropolitan-focused Liberal and rural-focused National parties. Their positions included strong resistance to de facto couples becoming eligible to adopt children; reluctant agreement to change the existing adoption information and contact provisions; and strong, ultimately successful, advocacy for mandatory counselling for adoptees before being given retrospective access to their adoption records. The partisan positions on various issues are depicted in Figure 4. Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Some issues argued on party policy by debaters (%) Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Some issues argued on party policy by debaters (%) Advocating party positions often involved quoting from stakeholders’ letters and submissions, and from relevant domestic and international research. For over a quarter of debaters (27.12 per cent), it also included sharing relevant personal experiences—prima facie to explain their interest in the debate, but also to strengthen the credibility and persuasiveness of their arguments. These personal experiences included being an adoptee (two debaters), an adoptive parent (three debaters), a foster parent (one debater) or having a sister and brother-in-law who were adoptive parents (two debaters). Notably, no debater shared that either they or a family member had relinquished a child for adoption, although this scenario was likely. Discussion The high volume and richness of the data-set combined with the complexity of its themes and sub-themes create difficulties in succinctly articulating the meanings contained within the parliamentary debates studied. Once the themes were identified, Fox Harding’s conceptualisation of ideological perspectives in child welfare provided a useful lens through which to focus interpretation of the primary themes and sub-themes. The current findings resonate, in many respects, with Smith’s (1995) UK research. Both demonstrate the complexities of politics, and that a political party’s policies rarely equate neatly to a single ideological perspective. The Victorian research highlights the tensions inherent in political alignment with particular child welfare orientations and reinforces how such orientations reflect beliefs about the roles of the family and the state in matters concerning children and their care. The debates illustrate views about the ideal family form, with the arguments regarding nuclear versus de facto couple families echoed in more recent discourses regarding heterosexual versus same-sex couple families. The personal views of parliamentarians often transcend party lines and thus may shift perspectives in ways not necessarily aligned with party policy expectations. For example, parliamentarians from all parties supported eligibility for singles to adopt. However, Labor’s position was based on acceptance of the range of family forms, whereas the position of the more socially conservative parties reflected reluctant exceptionalism based on acknowledgement of the increasing rates of divorce and single-parent families, neither of which they favoured. In addition to being influenced by personal views, party alignment with child welfare orientations also shifted as the debates progressed. Whilst Labor parliamentarians articulated a strong children’s rights and child liberation approach, they proved somewhat ambivalent about embracing this entirely. There was prima facie across-party agreement that children’s rights should be paramount, suggesting a shared value on hearing children’s own voices rather than adults’ considerations of children’s best interests. However, closer examination revealed these arguments were generally more rhetorical than real, focused more on defining children’s best interests rather than delineating and upholding their rights. This rhetoric of rights was certainly more child-centred than the previous approach to adoption, child protection and out-of-home care in Victoria but, in reality, it was more closely aligned with a birth family and parents’ rights orientation. This straddling of orientations often saw the government yield to pressure from their more socially conservative counterparts and agreeing to various amendments, such as to protect the interests of biological and adoptive parents, rather than assertively uphold the rights of adoptees to information about their identities and biological families. It is also interesting that political pragmatism played a role in both debates and outcomes. This is most clearly illustrated in the debate on voluntary versus mandatory reporting of child abuse, which strongly followed party policies. Consistent with Fox Harding’s birth family and parents’ rights perspective, Labor parliamentarians argued against mandatory reporting, reinforcing the need to assist vulnerable families to improve the quality of their childcare rather than punishing them when found wanting. Counter to this, the more conservative opposition parliamentarians aligned more strongly with a paternalist protectionist perspective through their preparedness to deal punitively not only with maltreating parents, but also with professionals who failed to notify the child protection authorities of suspected child abuse. These parliamentarians were also prepared to intervene decisively by removing children and placing them in foster care, described by one as ‘a quick, cheap and easy solution’. Interestingly, however, by 1993, when mandatory reporting was debated again and subsequently passed, the political parties had completely switched positions. Labor, no longer in power, had become a strong supporter of mandatory reporting. Conversely, the new government, whose parliamentarians had previously argued that mandatory reporting was a pre-requisite to understanding the extent of the apparently snowballing rates of child maltreatment confronting the state, had also reversed its position. This suggests that, on this issue at least, the parties were more influenced by the pragmatics of resourcing and political point scoring than by values, or even consideration of evidence relating to child and family outcomes. The findings relating to the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate are particularly illuminating when considered from the child’s perspective. The opposition parliamentarians tended to idealise the nuclear family as the best kind of family in which to raise, and thus to adopt, babies. While prepared to make exceptions for single parents, they did not recognise de facto unions as a legitimate family form and would not tolerate their enshrinement in adoption law. Alternatively, Labor parliamentarians argued that not extending eligibility to adopt to such families was not in children’s best interests, because it unnecessarily restricted the pool of suitable prospective adoptive parents for children in out-of-home care needing permanent substitute families. This introduced an interesting distinction between babies potentially available for adoption and children in the long-term care of the state. Babies whose young mothers conceived and gave birth out of wedlock and chose to relinquish their newborns to give them ‘a better life’ were deemed better placed for adoption with the ‘ideal’ family—a heterosexual married couple. Curiously, the picture was very different in relation to the debates on guardianship options for children drifting in out-of-home care. On this matter, there was tri-partisan agreement that guardianship could apply to singles and de facto, as well as married, couples. While potentially many reasons for this, provocatively, it suggests an unspoken ‘hierarchy of child’, whereby some children are considered more ‘ideal’ or ‘deserving’ than others. Notions of ideal and deserving are clearly contentious. But it is interesting that those and other value-laden concepts emerge in political debate and have the potential to influence the ways in which policy and law are developed. The findings also reinforce that politicians from all parties, regardless of their preferred family form, tend to conceptualise child welfare issues from the perspective of adults, rather than children. Perhaps ironically, the Victorian debates ultimately resulted in the introduction of guardianship provisions that accommodate children’s long-term needs without legally severing their relationships with their families of origin—provisions considered innovative at the time, but now arguably seen as the middle ground between two ideological extremes. Conclusion Different views about family formation tend to emerge at times of social transition. These views influence the political discourse that drives the policy and legislative approach to child and family welfare—including the supports provided to vulnerable families, and the range and priority of permanent placement options provided to children removed from their families by the state. Currently, the Australian Government is pushing all state and territory governments to increase use of adoption for children experiencing extended periods in out-of-home care, thus also pushing adoption into the public domain for the first time in Australia’s child welfare history. Accordingly, the state of Victoria appears poised to reverse its long-standing non-partisan adoption and permanency policies established in the 1980s. This suggests an underlying shift in the predominant child welfare ideology, simultaneously towards a more paternalist protectionist approach in the public child-protection sphere—as reflected in the 2014 legislative amendments to Victoria’s permanency planning hierarchy prioritising adoption above PCOs—and towards a more laissez-faire approach in the private family sphere—as reflected in the 2015 amendment to Victoria’s adoption legislation prioritising the interests of prospective adoptive parents, specifically same-sex couples. Fox Harding (1997) and Smith (1995) have described such situations as an ‘uneasy synthesis’, whereby no single child welfare ideology predominates, rather pronounced and often contradictory ideologies co-exist in uneasy tension. Regardless, important questions are raised that frequently form the basis of both Fox Harding’s typology and parliamentary debates regarding children and their care: What is the rightful role of government in family matters? And what is the best way to support children’s needs and rights? Strengths and limitations Parliamentary debates offer an opportunity to understand the predominant ideological perspectives of a historical period. However, what was said is necessarily interpreted retrospectively, through a lens that is doubtless influenced by current understandings and perspectives. Nevertheless, document analysis of parliamentary debates has high relevance (face validity) and quality (i.e. well-recorded views articulated by policy makers on the issues of interest). ATA is a valuable research tool that provides structure and incorporates reflexivity, thereby facilitating transparency and replicability, and strengthening the processes through which researchers gain theoretical insights through thematic document analysis. Conflict of interest statement. None declared. Acknowledgements This study was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. References Adler L. ( 2001) ‘ The meanings of permanence: A critical analysis of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997’, Harvard Journal of Legislation , 38( 1), pp. 1– 36. Cameron G., Freymond N. ( 2006) ‘Understanding international comparisons of child protection, family service, and community caring systems’, in Cameron G., Freymond N. (eds), Towards Positive Systems of Child and Family Welfare , Toronto, University of Toronto Press. Cooke A. ( 2013) ‘ State responsibility for children in care’ , unpublished Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Dunedin, University of Otago. Farrell A. ( 2004) ‘ Child protection policy perspectives and reform of Australian legislation’, Child Abuse Review , 13( 4), pp. 234– 45. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fernandez E. ( 1996) Significant Harm: Unravelling Child Protection Decisions and Substitute Care Careers of Children , Aldershot, UK; Brookfield, USA, Avebury. Fernandez E. ( 2014) ‘ Child protection and vulnerable families: Trends and issues in the Australian context’, Social Sciences , 3( 4), pp. 785– 808. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fox Harding L. ( 1997) Perspectives in Child Care Policy , London, Longman. Freundlich M., Avery R., Munson S., Gerstenzang S. ( 2006) ‘ The meaning of permanency in child welfare: Multiple stakeholder perspectives’, Children & Youth Services Review , 28( 7), pp. 741– 60. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Gainsborough J. ( 2010) Scandalous Politics: Child Welfare Policy in the States , Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press. Garrett P. ( 2002) ‘ Getting a grip: New labour and the reform of the law on child adoption’, Critical Social Policy , 22( 2), pp. 174– 202. Guest G., MacQueen K., Namey E. ( 2012) Applied Thematic Analysis , CA, Sage Publications. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hansard (1984–93) ‘Victorian Department of Parliamentary Services, Victoria’, available online at https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/hansard (accessed 6 March 2018). Harrison C., Harries M., Liddiard M. ( 2014) ‘ The perfect storm: Politics, media and child welfare policy making’, Communities, Children and Families Australia , 8( 2), pp. 29– 45. Kirton D. ( 2016) ‘ Neo-liberal racism: Excision, ethnicity and the Children and Families Act 2014’, Critical Social Policy , 36( 4), pp. 469– 88. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kronick R., Rousseau C. ( 2015) ‘ Rights, compassion and invisible children: A critical discourse analysis of the parliamentary debates on the mandatory detention of migrant children in Canada’, Journal of Refugee Studies , 28( 4), pp. 544– 69. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Maluccio A., Fein E., Olmstead K. ( 1986) Permanency Planning for Children: Concepts and Methods , New York, NY, Tavistock Publications. McGregor C. ( 2014) ‘ Why is history important at moments of transition? The case of “transformation” of Irish child welfare via the new Child and Family Agency’, European Journal of Social Work , 17( 5), pp. 771– 83. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Nygård M. ( 2009) ‘ Competent actors or vulnerable objects? Constructions of children and state intervention among Finnish politicians in relation to the Child Protection Act 1983 and 2006’, Social Policy & Administration , 43( 5), pp. 464– 82. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   O’Brien V. ( 2015) ‘A conceptual framework to assist Irish reform in adoption and child welfare, including lessons from the USA’, Conference: Reimagining Adoption as a Viable Care Option in Ireland , Ireland, Cork. O’Halloran K. ( 2015) The Politics of Adoption: International Perspectives on Law, Policy and Practice , Heidelberg/New York/London, Springer Netherlands. Parkinson P. ( 2003) ‘ Child protection, permanency planning and children’s right to family life’, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family , 17( 2), pp. 147– 72. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Parton N. ( 2014) The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions , Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. Perkins N., Coles D., O’Connor M. ( 2017) ‘ Physical and emotional sibling violence and policy: An examination of Fox-Harding’s child care value perspectives’, Child & Youth Services , 38( 1), pp. 4– 23. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Ross N., Cashmore J. ( 2016) ‘ Adoption reforms New South Wales style: A comparative look’, Australian Journal of Family Law , 30( 1), pp. 51– 75. Smith R. ( 1995) ‘ Values and practice in child care ’, unpublished Doctor of Philosophy thesis, ProQuest, England, University of Leicester. Smith R. ( 2005) Values and Practice in Children’s Services , Houndmills, Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Smith R. ( 2010) ‘ Children’s rights and youth justice: 20 years of no progress’, Child Care in Practice , 16( 1), pp. 3– 17. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Smith K. ( 2016) ‘ Constructing the child in need of state protection: Continuity and change in Irish political discourse, 1922–1991’, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth , 9( 2), pp. 309– 62. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Tisdall E. ( 2015) ‘ Children’s wellbeing and children’s rights in tension?’, International Journal of Children’s Rights , 23( 4), pp. 769– 89. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Wasshede C. ( 2016) ‘ Normalization of children: Politics and images of children in the Freetown of Christiania’, Childhood , 23( 2), pp. 207– 20. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Wattam C. ( 1996) ‘ Social construction of child abuse for practical policy purposes: A review of child protection: Messages from research’, Child and Family Law Quarterly , 8( 3), pp. 189– 200. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Informing Permanent Care Discourses: A Thematic Analysis of Parliamentary Debates in Victoria

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract The policy, legal and service configuration of a child and family welfare system reflects the historically predominant ideological perspectives relating to children, families, community and state. Examination of parliamentary debates provides a window on the discourses relating to policy and legislative change in a jurisdiction. This article presents a document analysis of parliamentary debates in the Australian state of Victoria using Applied Thematic Analysis to investigate the key issues and ideas that informed consideration of the Bills associated with the 1989 introduction of Permanent Care Orders—a special form of guardianship preferred to adoption for children drifting in out-of-home care. Four primary themes were identified: the rhetoric of rights; the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate; child protection is everybody’s business; and the politics of influence. Interpreted using Fox Harding’s typology of ideological perspectives in Western child welfare, these findings reinforce that different views about family formation emerge at times of social transition, in turn, influencing the political discourse that shapes the policy and legislative approach to child and family welfare. Permanency planning policies supporting children’s connections to their biological families were established in Victoria in the 1980s, but now appear to be shifting to more paternalist protectionist and laissez-faire orientations. Child welfare, parliamentary debates, permanent care Context Western approaches to defining and dealing with child maltreatment are strongly shaped by a jurisdiction’s cultural and political history, as well as the contemporaneous local issues confronting its government, relevant domestic and international research evidence, and ideas available to guide interventions. The specific policy, legal and service configuration of a child and family welfare system thus reflects the historically predominant ideological perspectives—comprising values, beliefs, priorities and desired outcomes—in relation to children, families, community and state (Cameron and Freymond, 2006). A window on what drives the direction of policy and legislative change is provided through an examination of parliamentary debates. Such studies have illuminated the ideological positions, as well as the politics, associated with the introduction of child welfare laws in a range of jurisdictions; for example, the UK (Kirton, 2016), Canada (Kronick and Rousseau, 2015), Denmark (Wasshede, 2016), Finland (Nygård, 2009), Ireland (Smith, 2016), Scotland (Tisdall, 2015) and Western Australia (Harrison et al., 2014). Important insights have thus been gained into the relationships between media, policy development, policy and practice; the negotiation of the conflicting demands of differing ideological perspectives; impacts on the priority accorded to children’s rights and interests; and changes in the discourse on children and developments in child welfare provision over time. A useful framework for understanding the different ideological perspectives in Western child welfare is the four-fold classification developed by UK social policy academic, Lorraine Fox Harding (1997), which has been influential in the UK and Australia (Farrell, 2004). UK research undertaken by Roger Smith (1995) applied Fox Harding’s typology to an analysis of developments and change in child welfare, concluding that it ‘offered an effective basis for further study, but that such a framework cannot be applied rigidly or uncritically’ (p. 2). Smith (2005) expanded on the typology in an exploration of the importance and complexity of identifying, articulating and applying values, principles and beliefs in child welfare policy and practice, and addressed changes in the ideological drivers, policy and legal configurations associated with youth justice services in the UK (Smith, 2010). In this article, we draw on Fox Harding’s typology to interpret the complexity of findings from a study investigating the key issues and ideas which informed the political debates that drove the introduction of Permanent Care Orders (PCOs) in the Australian state of Victoria. PCOs are a special form of guardianship introduced via legislation in 1989, and implemented in 1992, in preference to adoption as a permanent placement option for children drifting in out-of-home care. The influence of ideological perspectives in child welfare The core aim of child welfare interventions is to ensure the provision of safe permanent homes for children. The approach taken in determining what constitutes and causes child maltreatment, and subsequently in responding to it, reflects the historical cultural, social, institutional and political context of the jurisdiction (Cameron and Freymond, 2006). In other words, a child welfare system is significantly shaped by the predominant value and belief systems, or ideological perspectives. Wattam argues that the contextual nature of child protection influences how it is defined: Definitional issues are at the heart of child protection practice … child abuse is not ‘an absolute concept’. … it depends on its context, whether historical, cultural or ‘in situ’, for its definition. … It is a socially constructed phenomenon which reflects values and opinions of a particular culture at a particular time (Wattam, 1996, p. 190). For example, in New Zealand, Cooke (2013) ‘identified a rich and complex historical legal and socal [sic] tapestry that explains the role of and the responsibilities taken up by the State to children in its care’ (p. 372). Prevailing child welfare orientations variously draw on relevant research evidence, but are also significantly driven by political and economic factors: ‘Those who have the power to define the terms have the power to shape the discourse’ (Wattam, 1996, p. 192). O’Brien (2015) highlights that the state is not ideologically neutral in balancing its child welfare responsibilities with the rights of those involved. This helps explain why major, more interventionist policy change has often occurred following child abuse tragedies fuelled by accusations of child protection worker negligence or incompetence sensationalised by the media (Gainsborough, 2010; Fernandez, 2014) and to periodic public enquiries into the operation and outcomes of the respective child protection system (Fernandez, 2014; Parton, 2014). Fox Harding’s typology Fox Harding’s (1997) framework of ideological orientations in Western child welfare is one of the most sophisticated. It comprises the ‘laissez-faire’, ‘state paternalism and child protection’, ‘defence of the birth family and parents’ rights’ and ‘children’s rights and child liberation’ perspectives. The laissez-faire perspective entails a minimalist state role. A core belief is that the family’s power and privacy should not normally be disturbed, to protect the special bond between parents and children. It may, however, be necessary for the state to intervene in extreme cases to avert greater harm, to find a new permanent home for the child and sever contact with the family of origin. The state paternalism and child protection perspective advocates extensive state intervention. A core belief is that the state should intervene readily, extensively and even coercively to provide a better option for children when their parents do a poor job of raising them. Consequently, the parents should lose their parental rights and, if necessary, be excluded from their children’s lives (as with the laissez-faire approach). Children are viewed as individuals, and the state as neutral or beneficent. The defence of the birth family and parents’ rights perspective emphasises parents’ biological and psychological bonds with their children. An extensive state role is advocated, especially via supportive interventions enabling children to remain in their parents’ care. Placement out of home is a last resort, with contact supported to facilitate reunification. Core beliefs include that inadequate parenting is linked with social deprivation and that the state generally inadequately supports biological families, discriminating on a class and/or racial basis. The children’s rights and child liberation orientation emphasises the child’s perspective. The child is considered independent from their family (as with the paternalist protectionist approach) and their developmental status is de-emphasised. The child’s own viewpoint, wishes, feelings and choices are valued above adults’ considerations regarding their best interests. Fox Harding’s typology conceptualises the main approaches to child, family and state relationships and has been influential in child welfare in the UK and elsewhere. For example, it has been used by its author (Fox Harding, 1997) and Smith (1995) in the UK; Fernandez (1996) and Farrell (2004) in Australia; Cooke (2013) in New Zealand; McGregor (2014) and O’Brien (2015) in Ireland; and Perkins et al. (2017) in the USA. It captures the issues at the heart of child welfare practice. Thus, it has considerable potential to help understand and position permanency policies and interventions, given a jurisdiction’s predominant child welfare ideology is generally enshrined in the permanency planning framework for children entering its child-protection system. Permanency planning in child welfare A range of principles, definitions and dimensions have been articulated in relation to the concept of permanency planning since it was first expounded through the Oregon Project in the USA in the early 1970s (see Maluccio et al., 1986; Adler, 2001; Freundlich et al., 2006). However, integral to all permanency planning frameworks is a hierarchy of placement options for a child’s long-term care. These range from most to least desirable approximately as follows: maintaining the child with their biological parents (family preservation); returning the child placed temporarily out of home to their biological parents (family reunification/restoration); adoption, legal guardianship or long-term foster-care by relatives; adoption by non-relatives; specialised long-term foster-care; and, finally, long-term care in a non-family setting. The positioning of adoption in its permanency hierarchy is a litmus test for a jurisdiction’s predominant child and family welfare ideology because informed consent by biological parents, ‘free from financial or other rewards and from duress’ (O’Halloran, 2015, p. 437), is a key principle of Western—certainly, of Australian—adoption law. In other words, the extent of a government’s willingness and power to terminate parental rights to pursue adoptions from care is indicative of its general child welfare orientation. Internationally, O’Halloran (2015) reported that ‘only three out of 28 European Union countries allow non-consensual adoption from the public care system’ (pp. 802–3). However, there has been ‘a recurring political preoccupation’ with child adoption in the UK and the USA (Garrett, 2002, p. 193). As a result, generally ‘closed’ adoptions from care have been a permanency planning priority for children in those two countries. Despite much similarity between Western child welfare systems, historically there has been little use of adoption as a pathway to permanency from care in Australia (Fernandez, 2014; O’Halloran, 2015), where child welfare policies, legislation and programmes are largely the responsibility of the state and territory governments. In addition, Australian adoption policy, legislation and practice have involved ‘open’ information and contact arrangements since the 1980s. This reflects important views about children’s best interests being served by remaining connected to their family and culture—particularly, but not only, in relation to Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) children. Australian family law ‘generally treats “kinship” adoption as not necessarily in the best interests of the child. Applicants are usually required to … convince the court that none of the alternative orders available would be more appropriate’ (O’Halloran, 2015, p. 440). There are well-established preferences in Australian child welfare and family law for the least interventionist order and legal preservation of the child’s biological relationships and cultural heritage. Still, little Australian research has focused on the influences on change in permanency planning policy—including the range of options, their positioning in the hierarchy and the factors that influence decision making on the range and positioning of those options. Some authors have addressed these matters in the context of New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, which recently introduced reforms designed to promote open adoptions from care (see Parkinson, 2003; Ross and Cashmore, 2016). However, there has been minimal academic attention on adoptions from care in neighbouring Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, despite that legislative amendments prioritising adoption after family preservation and family reunification were passed there in 2014—the same year as the NSW reforms. Victoria has a unique permanency planning history, integral to which are PCOs, implemented from 1992. This article presents findings from a study exploring the discourses associated with the introduction of PCOs in the relevant parliamentary debates. Research question The study aimed to address the following question: What were the key issues and ideas that informed the 1984–89 political debates associated with the introduction of PCOs in Victoria? Methods The study employed document analysis—a classic exploratory, or content-driven, inductive approach that sits within the broader framework of qualitative research methods. Historically, such methods have attracted criticism for lacking rigour and being prone to bias. Subsequently, a range of methodological frameworks have been developed to strengthen qualitative research methods in dealing with these challenges (Guest et al., 2012). Applied Thematic Analysis (ATA), the methodological framework developed by Guest et al. (2012), was applied to this research primarily because of its purposeful methodology aimed at enhancing rigour, transparency and replicability, and reducing bias. In addition, ATA synthesises a range of epistemological and methodological approaches to research, in turn, allowing a choice and combination of theoretical approaches and analytic techniques. In this study, grounded theory and thematic analysis informed the thematic identification and coding application processes, and Fox Harding’s typology was used to interpret the results of the codified data. Data The data were sourced from Hansard—the official record of debates in the Victorian parliament. It was anticipated that using such high-quality and easily accessed data would further enhance transparency and replicability. As the research involved publicly available records, an application for approval by an ethics committee was not required. The study investigated the debates relating to the eight Bills associated with the introduction of PCOs, being the Adoption Bill 1984; Children (Guardianship and Custody) Bill 1984; Adoption Bill (No. 2) 1984; Children’s Court (Amendment) Bill 1986; Community Services Bill 1986; Adoption (Amendment) Bill 1987; Children and Young Persons Bill 1987; and Children and Young Persons Bill (No. 2) 1988. These Bills were identified through searching within all the Hansard records from 1984 to 1989 for relevant keywords—including ‘adoption’, ‘child’, ‘custody’, ‘guardianship’, ‘permanency’ and/or ‘permanent care’. The data-set, comprising 412 pages of Hansard, was converted from .pdf into Word format for the purposes of coding. Design The operationalisation of ATA in the document analysis is summarised in Figure 1. Figure 1 View largeDownload slide The operationalisation of ATA Figure 1 View largeDownload slide The operationalisation of ATA In the crucial planning and preparation phase, the research question and key concepts were defined, and the theoretical and methodological approaches selected. Fox Harding’s (1997) typology was identified during the literature review as highly relevant. However, we wanted the data to speak for themselves, and thus decided not to introduce theoretical concepts in the early phases of the analysis, with a view to further minimising potential bias and following Smith’s (1995) advice that Fox Harding’s typology should not be rigidly applied. Additionally, the boundaries of the data-set were articulated, the counting rules decided and the research cycles scheduled. All this information was compiled in a ‘Research Plan & Codebook’, which was constantly referred to and updated throughout the study, ensuring a clear audit trail. The process of theme identification was undertaken through careful reading and interpretation of the text in the data-set. Codes corresponding to the themes were drafted, tested and refined through multiple passes of reading through the data focused on removing or minimising any overlap in code definitions and mapped to indicate how they linked to each other. Intra-coder reliability was established via three iterations of a pre-planned coding and checking cycle; the final checking and comparison processes yielded coding consistency of approximately 95 per cent. The codes were applied to every sentence of the data-set. However, the amount of text to which codes were applied was not uniform—a coded text segment variously included a whole sentence, part of a sentence, a paragraph, a page or multiple pages, as applicable. Analysis Quantification of qualitative data is a controversial topic in qualitative research. However, there are often reasons for undertaking some basic numerical, as opposed to statistical, analysis of qualitative data (Guest et al., 2012). In this case, it was considered helpful in summarising the content of the relatively large data-set, which comprised a complete sample of the relevant debates—especially in validating the themes that emerged through the early phases of analysis. The meanings ascribed to the themes were analysed through traditional qualitative analysis techniques, involving many iterations of checking tentative understandings against the source textual data. The strength of each theme was measured by summing and converting to percentage the number of individuals whose contributions to the debates included the corresponding code, whether once or multiple times. This avoided over-representation of themes, sub-themes or arguments that were repeated in the numerous contributions made by some debaters, compared with others who contributed occasionally or only once to a Bill debate. Where a debater discussed an issue generically, this was reflected in the coding (and counting) for the relevant primary theme. Where a debater advocated a specific position, the text was coded (and counted) according to the respective sub-theme or argument. Results Analysis of the contributions made by the fifty-nine debaters included in the study enabled identification of four primary themes: the rhetoric of rights; the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate; child protection is everybody’s business; and the politics of influence. The debaters by primary theme is illustrated in Figure 2. Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Debaters (%) by primary theme Figure 2 View largeDownload slide Debaters (%) by primary theme The rhetoric of rights Almost all debaters (91.53 per cent) acknowledged the need for provisions to uphold the rights of people affected by the Bills, simultaneously identifying a need to balance the range of interests with government and community responsibilities. There was also much advocacy for treating the child’s/adoptee’s rights as paramount. However, another picture emerges on closer examination of the text illuminating underlying ideologies that influenced the debaters. It was common for stated prioritisation of children’s/adoptees’ rights to be attenuated, or even contradicted, by the same debater: Although I wholeheartedly support the provisions dealing with adopted people having access to information, particularly original birth certificates, so that they are aware of their origins, of their parents and what might have happened to them—and for relinquishing parents to be able to ascertain what has happened to their children—one must not forget the role of protecting the adoptive parents because their rights and needs for protection must be recognized (G. Baylor, Liberal Party, Legislative Council, 9 October 1984, emphasis added). Such qualified prioritisation was signalled by an emphasis on the child’s/adoptee’s ‘best interests’ or ‘welfare’, rather than their ‘rights’, or on upholding the rights or interests of another group, most frequently relinquishing mothers, where their rights conflicted with children’s/adoptees’. Thus, expressions of support for the paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights were usually more rhetorical than real. There was marked, although progressively less, overt advocacy for the rights and interests of biological and adoptive families over children’s/adoptees’, as shown in Figure 3. Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Prioritisation of rights by debaters (%) Figure 3 View largeDownload slide Prioritisation of rights by debaters (%) The many debaters concerned to address the moral issues inherent in the Bills and to strike an appropriate balance between different rights, interests and responsibilities frequently acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the task. For example: It would be difficult to come into contact with a family that does not have a relative or that does not know someone who is a party to the adoption process. Adoption conditions and the arrangements that are made to provide for the proper ordering and good security of all of the persons who are concerned in the adoption and guardianship processes are, therefore, matters of wide community concern and interest. … proper interests need to be balanced (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). One of the enormous issues that confronts our society is providing adequate legal framework in which to support the family unit in exercising its responsibility for the care and nurturing of children, but at the same time defining a safety net which ensures that those children who are abused are given the opportunity of developing into mature adults. It is not an easy task to strike a balance (R. Knowles, Liberal Party, Legislative Council, 26 May 1989). Almost three-quarters (74.58 per cent) of debaters prioritised children’s/adoptees’ rights and best interests. This is consistent with the contemporaneous global context whereby the UN was progressing its 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child towards a Convention, achieved in 1989 after a decade of effort; and with the purpose of the Bills debated being to provide for the welfare of vulnerable children. This quote is typical of the advocacy for paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights: The Bill has been drafted to accommodate the interests of all parties within the parameter of an overriding concern for the interests of the child. It enshrines in law twenty years of development in community attitudes and gives greater meaning to the rights of the child (M. Ray, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). However, a third (33.90 per cent) of debaters argued that higher priority should be accorded to biological parents’ rights or interests: The National Party proposes further amendments to protect natural parents against the sudden intrusion of a natural child adopted 20 or 30 years earlier (D. Evans, National Party, Legislative Council, 9 October 1984). One-fifth (20.34 per cent) of debaters advocated prioritisation of adoptive families’ rights and interests. This reflects that Victoria’s adoption legislation had previously, and strongly, favoured adoptive parents’ interests over those of adoptees and biological parents. Advocacy for adoptive parents reflected strong reluctance to change this predominancy: I do not believe conditions can be placed on adopting parents prior to consent being given and I do not believe the people of Victoria will accept that (B. Steggall, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). The adoptive family must be able to develop its own lifestyle, free of interference (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 19 September 1984). In summary, despite apparent agreement to elevate consideration of children’s/adoptees’ rights to paramountcy, many debaters undermined their initial advocacy by focusing on children’s/adoptees’ ‘best interests’ or ‘welfare’, or arguing the need to ‘balance’ children’s/adoptees’ rights with relinquishing and/or adoptive parents’ rights. The passion with which adoptive parents’ rights were advocated reflects the historical predominance of that group’s interests. Together, these findings indicate that debaters’ apparent agreement on the paramountcy of children’s/adoptees’ rights was more rhetorical than real. The ‘hierarchy of family’ debate Two-fifths (42.37 per cent) of debaters emphasised the importance of ‘family’ for raising children. This was often accompanied by discussion about the most suitable family form, clearly reflecting debaters’ values, beliefs and priorities in relation to the legal, social and/or cultural dimensions of family. Across-party support was expressed for family care for best meeting children’s needs: I would judge the proposed legislation to be successful if it achieved the Cain Government’s aim of providing a place in the family for every Victorian child and providing every Victorian child with an emotionally and physically secure, happy, healthy environment in which to grow and develop (G. Vaughan, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). I believe we have already come to the conclusion in the debate that good family welfare is far better than any institutionalised care (N. Maughan, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). Debaters often emphasised the importance of a child’s biological family, and of addressing the complexities of continuing—or resuming—contact between child and biological family. Numerous debaters idealised the nuclear family and the institution of marriage: The family unit is constantly under attack, and has been for many years. … it is time to call a halt to that attack, and I, for one, cannot support in any way, shape or form the concept of de facto couples being eligible to adopt children (A. Brown, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). I should hope … for a situation in which adoption is restricted to the traditional married couple or, in special circumstances, to single persons (E. Hann, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 18 September 1984). Arguments against de facto couples becoming eligible to adopt children were also argued on socio-legal grounds: … if one makes an adoption order in favour of a couple who are not married and who are living together … There might be a strong emotional bond between the two people but there is no legal bond (D. Evans, National Party, Legislative Council, 10 October 1984). Debaters were, however, often prepared to make exceptions for Aboriginal families, so that tribal and de facto relationships would not impede them adopting. Some debaters also idealised Aboriginal society: I believe the Aboriginal community … does not need … conditional consents … because the Aboriginal community looks after any child who has been deserted or has lost its parents (B. Evans, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). While there was general acknowledgement of special issues concerning Aboriginal children and families, there was also much—and often heated—debate regarding how best to address them: The definition is unnecessary for the purposes of the Bill. The amendment would make the Bill more flexible for the Aboriginal community rather than having the community tied down by this ridiculous definition (B. Evans, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 13 September 1984). The Government recognises that some groups in the community have special needs and that protections need to be built into legislation to ensure that these needs are met. … To ensure that Aboriginal child placements are culturally sensitive and reflect Aboriginal tribal, kinship and communal network approaches to care (P. Spyker, Labor Party, Legislative Assembly, 4 December 1986). Somewhat curiously, given the idealisation of the nuclear family, there was significant agreement that guardianship, rather than adoption, was the best way to address the permanent family placement needs of children drifting in out-of-home care, including Aboriginal children: … it is clearly wiser to provide for the real and genuine needs of those people through extended forms of guardianship or permanent placement rather than by adoption (D. Saltmarsh, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). Indeed, this consensus on the government’s proposed guardianship option led to further proposals to enhance the measure and, ultimately, to the creation of PCOs. Child protection is everybody’s business Most debaters (88.14 per cent) supported the provision of services to assist families to care safely for their children or, when not possible, to support the children within substitute families. Half the debaters (49.15 per cent) advocated for the continuing role of community, including faith-based, organisations in delivering child and family support, and adoption, services: The problem requires community commitment, as not all of the necessary work can be done by the government. … non-government voluntary organisations, which have played a vital role in the area in the past, will be required to continue to play that role in the future to ensure that the basic services are delivered (C. Coleman, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 9 August 1988). This included much advocacy for increasing funding allocations to organisations delivering child and family support services and tertiary child-protection services, although three-fifths (61 per cent) of debaters criticised the government’s service delivery. They were particularly scathing of the recently established child protection service, variously citing inadequate resourcing, staffing recruitment and retention problems, excessive workloads, etc.: Resources have been poor. … Community Services Victoria has one of the poorest reputations in Australia for its work in this field. It is going through a difficult time trying to tackle its workload. It does not have the professionals, nor does it have the facilities and the expertise (B. Steggall, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 9 August 1988). Simultaneously, almost a quarter (23.73 per cent) of debaters applied concerted pressure to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child maltreatment. This position was often argued passionately on moral grounds: Child abuse often involves serious assaults, such as a sexual assault or attempted murder. If an attempt were made to murder an adult, anyone knowing of such a case would have a legal responsibility to report it. Would anyone claim that, because a child is the victim of such an assault, the incident should not be reported? It would be an extraordinary claim to make. How could anyone morally justify not reporting an instance of abuse or neglect of a child? (D. Hayward, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). However, there was also firm resistance to the introduction of mandatory reporting: I urge the Committee not to impose mandatory reporting on the government. … It is not in the best interests of those concerned with its application to have mandatory reporting in child abuse cases (N. Maughan, National Party, Legislative Assembly, 25 May 1989). The government’s policy to continue the existing system of voluntary reporting of child abuse prevailed during the period researched. The politics of influence Almost two-thirds (64.41 per cent) of debaters commented specifically on the non-partisan (variously described as ‘bi-partisan’ or ‘tri-partisan’) approach taken, especially to the adoption Bills: It is commendable to see the co-operation that has taken place between the Minister for Community Welfare Services and the spokespersons of both the Liberal Party and the National Party. It is an indication of how the Parliament should operate more often on matters of controversy within the community that are non-political, particularly when they affect the lives of thousands of people (P. Sibree, Liberal Party, Legislative Assembly, 12 September 1984). This quote highlights that the government’s co-operative approach to pursuing its child welfare reforms was unexpected by the opposition and the leadership of one, especially, of the four female Labor parliamentarians who contributed to the debates. The Labor Party had the highest number and proportion of female contributors—three in ministerial portfolios—who influenced the tone and direction of the debates. The above-mentioned minister, Pauline Toner, was the first female cabinet minister appointed in the Victorian parliament and, arguably, the most influential in reforming Victoria’s adoption and permanency planning policies and legislation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, when there was disagreement, arguments followed party lines. The Labor debaters, who formed the incumbent government, recognised different forms of family and advocated for these; valued the maintenance of contact between children and their biological families; argued for special provisions prioritising family and cultural continuity for Aboriginal children; and advocated for the existing voluntary system of reporting child abuse. The other debaters were members of the more socially conservative metropolitan-focused Liberal and rural-focused National parties. Their positions included strong resistance to de facto couples becoming eligible to adopt children; reluctant agreement to change the existing adoption information and contact provisions; and strong, ultimately successful, advocacy for mandatory counselling for adoptees before being given retrospective access to their adoption records. The partisan positions on various issues are depicted in Figure 4. Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Some issues argued on party policy by debaters (%) Figure 4 View largeDownload slide Some issues argued on party policy by debaters (%) Advocating party positions often involved quoting from stakeholders’ letters and submissions, and from relevant domestic and international research. For over a quarter of debaters (27.12 per cent), it also included sharing relevant personal experiences—prima facie to explain their interest in the debate, but also to strengthen the credibility and persuasiveness of their arguments. These personal experiences included being an adoptee (two debaters), an adoptive parent (three debaters), a foster parent (one debater) or having a sister and brother-in-law who were adoptive parents (two debaters). Notably, no debater shared that either they or a family member had relinquished a child for adoption, although this scenario was likely. Discussion The high volume and richness of the data-set combined with the complexity of its themes and sub-themes create difficulties in succinctly articulating the meanings contained within the parliamentary debates studied. Once the themes were identified, Fox Harding’s conceptualisation of ideological perspectives in child welfare provided a useful lens through which to focus interpretation of the primary themes and sub-themes. The current findings resonate, in many respects, with Smith’s (1995) UK research. Both demonstrate the complexities of politics, and that a political party’s policies rarely equate neatly to a single ideological perspective. The Victorian research highlights the tensions inherent in political alignment with particular child welfare orientations and reinforces how such orientations reflect beliefs about the roles of the family and the state in matters concerning children and their care. The debates illustrate views about the ideal family form, with the arguments regarding nuclear versus de facto couple families echoed in more recent discourses regarding heterosexual versus same-sex couple families. The personal views of parliamentarians often transcend party lines and thus may shift perspectives in ways not necessarily aligned with party policy expectations. For example, parliamentarians from all parties supported eligibility for singles to adopt. However, Labor’s position was based on acceptance of the range of family forms, whereas the position of the more socially conservative parties reflected reluctant exceptionalism based on acknowledgement of the increasing rates of divorce and single-parent families, neither of which they favoured. In addition to being influenced by personal views, party alignment with child welfare orientations also shifted as the debates progressed. Whilst Labor parliamentarians articulated a strong children’s rights and child liberation approach, they proved somewhat ambivalent about embracing this entirely. There was prima facie across-party agreement that children’s rights should be paramount, suggesting a shared value on hearing children’s own voices rather than adults’ considerations of children’s best interests. However, closer examination revealed these arguments were generally more rhetorical than real, focused more on defining children’s best interests rather than delineating and upholding their rights. This rhetoric of rights was certainly more child-centred than the previous approach to adoption, child protection and out-of-home care in Victoria but, in reality, it was more closely aligned with a birth family and parents’ rights orientation. This straddling of orientations often saw the government yield to pressure from their more socially conservative counterparts and agreeing to various amendments, such as to protect the interests of biological and adoptive parents, rather than assertively uphold the rights of adoptees to information about their identities and biological families. It is also interesting that political pragmatism played a role in both debates and outcomes. This is most clearly illustrated in the debate on voluntary versus mandatory reporting of child abuse, which strongly followed party policies. Consistent with Fox Harding’s birth family and parents’ rights perspective, Labor parliamentarians argued against mandatory reporting, reinforcing the need to assist vulnerable families to improve the quality of their childcare rather than punishing them when found wanting. Counter to this, the more conservative opposition parliamentarians aligned more strongly with a paternalist protectionist perspective through their preparedness to deal punitively not only with maltreating parents, but also with professionals who failed to notify the child protection authorities of suspected child abuse. These parliamentarians were also prepared to intervene decisively by removing children and placing them in foster care, described by one as ‘a quick, cheap and easy solution’. Interestingly, however, by 1993, when mandatory reporting was debated again and subsequently passed, the political parties had completely switched positions. Labor, no longer in power, had become a strong supporter of mandatory reporting. Conversely, the new government, whose parliamentarians had previously argued that mandatory reporting was a pre-requisite to understanding the extent of the apparently snowballing rates of child maltreatment confronting the state, had also reversed its position. This suggests that, on this issue at least, the parties were more influenced by the pragmatics of resourcing and political point scoring than by values, or even consideration of evidence relating to child and family outcomes. The findings relating to the ‘hierarchy of family’ debate are particularly illuminating when considered from the child’s perspective. The opposition parliamentarians tended to idealise the nuclear family as the best kind of family in which to raise, and thus to adopt, babies. While prepared to make exceptions for single parents, they did not recognise de facto unions as a legitimate family form and would not tolerate their enshrinement in adoption law. Alternatively, Labor parliamentarians argued that not extending eligibility to adopt to such families was not in children’s best interests, because it unnecessarily restricted the pool of suitable prospective adoptive parents for children in out-of-home care needing permanent substitute families. This introduced an interesting distinction between babies potentially available for adoption and children in the long-term care of the state. Babies whose young mothers conceived and gave birth out of wedlock and chose to relinquish their newborns to give them ‘a better life’ were deemed better placed for adoption with the ‘ideal’ family—a heterosexual married couple. Curiously, the picture was very different in relation to the debates on guardianship options for children drifting in out-of-home care. On this matter, there was tri-partisan agreement that guardianship could apply to singles and de facto, as well as married, couples. While potentially many reasons for this, provocatively, it suggests an unspoken ‘hierarchy of child’, whereby some children are considered more ‘ideal’ or ‘deserving’ than others. Notions of ideal and deserving are clearly contentious. But it is interesting that those and other value-laden concepts emerge in political debate and have the potential to influence the ways in which policy and law are developed. The findings also reinforce that politicians from all parties, regardless of their preferred family form, tend to conceptualise child welfare issues from the perspective of adults, rather than children. Perhaps ironically, the Victorian debates ultimately resulted in the introduction of guardianship provisions that accommodate children’s long-term needs without legally severing their relationships with their families of origin—provisions considered innovative at the time, but now arguably seen as the middle ground between two ideological extremes. Conclusion Different views about family formation tend to emerge at times of social transition. These views influence the political discourse that drives the policy and legislative approach to child and family welfare—including the supports provided to vulnerable families, and the range and priority of permanent placement options provided to children removed from their families by the state. Currently, the Australian Government is pushing all state and territory governments to increase use of adoption for children experiencing extended periods in out-of-home care, thus also pushing adoption into the public domain for the first time in Australia’s child welfare history. Accordingly, the state of Victoria appears poised to reverse its long-standing non-partisan adoption and permanency policies established in the 1980s. This suggests an underlying shift in the predominant child welfare ideology, simultaneously towards a more paternalist protectionist approach in the public child-protection sphere—as reflected in the 2014 legislative amendments to Victoria’s permanency planning hierarchy prioritising adoption above PCOs—and towards a more laissez-faire approach in the private family sphere—as reflected in the 2015 amendment to Victoria’s adoption legislation prioritising the interests of prospective adoptive parents, specifically same-sex couples. Fox Harding (1997) and Smith (1995) have described such situations as an ‘uneasy synthesis’, whereby no single child welfare ideology predominates, rather pronounced and often contradictory ideologies co-exist in uneasy tension. Regardless, important questions are raised that frequently form the basis of both Fox Harding’s typology and parliamentary debates regarding children and their care: What is the rightful role of government in family matters? And what is the best way to support children’s needs and rights? Strengths and limitations Parliamentary debates offer an opportunity to understand the predominant ideological perspectives of a historical period. However, what was said is necessarily interpreted retrospectively, through a lens that is doubtless influenced by current understandings and perspectives. Nevertheless, document analysis of parliamentary debates has high relevance (face validity) and quality (i.e. well-recorded views articulated by policy makers on the issues of interest). ATA is a valuable research tool that provides structure and incorporates reflexivity, thereby facilitating transparency and replicability, and strengthening the processes through which researchers gain theoretical insights through thematic document analysis. Conflict of interest statement. None declared. Acknowledgements This study was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. References Adler L. 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( 1996) ‘ Social construction of child abuse for practical policy purposes: A review of child protection: Messages from research’, Child and Family Law Quarterly , 8( 3), pp. 189– 200. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Published: Mar 14, 2018

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