The term child rearing refers to the process used to bring up a child from birth to adulthood. Approaches to child rearing vary greatly from culture to culture, influenced by societal organisation, community structure, and social, cultural and historical norms. The Irish child welfare field and the individuals and organisations within it, as established by the Childcare Act of 1991 and the Child and Family Agency Act of 2013, have a mandate centered around defending the safety and wellbeing of the child and ensuring that child rearing is carried out in the safest manner. Standard practice in Ireland holds that the best interests of the child should be of primary concern when making decisions that affects the lives of children. With this comes a difficulty in establishing a universally applicable definition of both “best interests” and an “optimal approach” to child rearing. Any attempt by officials within the Oireachtas made to reach a definition of this sort will naturally be exclusionary, as it is impossible to encompass within it the multitude of methods of child rearing.
A 2021 Report from the Child Law Project detailing figures about the childcare system in Ireland shows that a disproportionate number of children with at least one parent from an ethnic minority or without residency status are subjected to childcare proceedings. Relating to children from the Traveller community, the only officially recognised indigenous ethnic minority in Ireland, the report found “the percentage of respondents from the Traveller community to be significantly over-represented in families subject to childcare proceedings.” The report further details “approximately a quarter of respondent families included at least one parent who was a national of another jurisdiction… the majority of the ethnic minority cases were from Eastern European countries, particularly Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and a small group were from Africa and Asia.” It is important to note that the need for intervention is significant in many cases, as the issues involved can range from domestic violence, early death, addiction and mental health issues to neglect, poor school attendance and sexual abuse. However, these are issues that affect children and families regardless of ethnicity or nationality.
Several cases demonstrated a complicated mix of child protection issues and cultural issues, with some involving traditional practices that might be considered unacceptable under Irish law and according to Irish cultural and social norms, for example early marriage, corporal punishment, and strict parenting. Although the law requires definitions and standardisation to deliver fair and equal decisions, the individual social workers working directly with families in complicated cases are required to make judgements based on experience and intuition, both of which are susceptible to influence by conscious and unconscious bias.
As Ireland grows increasingly multicultural and multiracial, it is worthwhile exploring the relationship between the disproportionate representation of minority families in care proceedings and the cultural and historical foundation on which the standards and norms regarding child welfare policy are based.
In her 2007 article Race, Ethnicity and Child Welfare: A Fine Balancing Act published in the British Journal of Social Work, Ravinder Barn explores the relationship between race, ethnicity, and socio-historical power relations and different theories relating to child welfare policy. She introduces two conflicting theories on understanding culture and cultural differences – cultural deficitism and cultural relativism – and how these can inform how minority families are represented in the care system. Cultural deficitism is a theory of culture “understood to have its roots in wider socio-political ideologies of slavery, colonialism and contemporary imperialism which placed white European cultures at the apex.” This perspective posits that any deviations from the standard as established by white Western culture should be considered incorrect and defective. Relating this to child rearing would categorise any approaches different than those established as standard or “optimal” as unsuitable. Cultural relativism, however, as a multiculturalist and anti-racist framework promulgates the premise that “all cultures are equally valid and that it is erroneous to operate within a cultural hierarchy which positions some cultures as superior to others.” Therefore, evaluating one culture based on the premises of a different one would be inappropriate.
Employing a purely relativistic framework when evaluating childcare situations can be dangerous – there are certain practices and traditions that are violent, exploitative, and abusive regardless of culture, and should be treated as such by any individual or organisation responsible for protecting the wellbeing of children. However, it would be worthwhile to acknowledge how different cultural perspectives on race and ethnicity can have important consequences for minority ethnic children and families. Enlisting a more critical approach through an introduction and consideration of current and historical ideas about race, culture, language and religion when evaluating care situations and the best interests of the child might be an important move towards ensuring a more equal and impartial child welfare system.
Sophie is a Pro Bono Development Intern at the Public Interest Law Alliance.