Ethical stance could risk child happiness

Children should always come first. At the recent Working with
Fathers conference in London, Glen Palm, professor in child and
family studies at St Cloud State University, USA, suggested this
view ought to be challenged in the cause of best social work

Furthermore, he argued, the very assumption that children’s
rights take precedence can actually block fresh and creative

Palm has worked extensively with fathers. He and his colleagues
have also conducted research into ethics and their application to
social work. He argues that when children’s needs are automatically
given priority, not only are adult interests sometimes squeezed
out, but the complexity of the problem is also insufficiently
addressed. Or, as he put it: “The father disappears and children
reign” (hard to see why, unless the father is abusive, since it is
in the child’s interests to have parental needs addressed too.)

So, how should professionals decide whose interests come first,
why and when? Palm’s research has identified three groups of ethics
which, he suggests, could help to influence decisions.

“Principles ethics”, for instance, embrace a code of
professional practice. “This is what we collectively believe is a
guide to our work.” “Virtue ethics” are about the core qualities
required to do the job of social care well. Palm has researched
extensively and finally distilled a long list down to three
essential “virtues” – caring; prudence (defined as “practical
wisdom”) and optimism or hope. (Some might say that honesty and
commitment could also have been added to the list.)

The third set he labels “relational” or “feminist ethics” by
which he means a professional’s awareness of how his or her own
personal history affects clients; and professional colleagues as
well as the wider community. Palm suggests we ought to be more
alert to how these, “Three legs of a stool, [act] in dynamic
tension with each other”. Sometimes, Palm argues, as a result of
conflicting principles, the needs of a child may take second place
to those of an adult – although, in the workshop, examples were in
short supply.

Open minds and reflective practice, influenced by a strong
adherence to ethics, obviously matter hugely. Still, the continued
powerlessness of the young, in spite of the rhetoric about
children’s rights, makes me, for one, very unsettled about the
possible outcome of his arguments. In practice, and at its crudest,
could they result in a very simple message – fathers matter


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