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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The violence of "best interests of the child" : social work in the ruling relations Ono, Erika


What are the state and society’s collective responsibilities towards supporting children and their families? How does this interface with patriarchy, violence, parenting, and social work? This study addresses these questions by exploring mothers’ work of navigating social and legal systems for the safety and care of their children, while facing inequity-based interpersonal and structural violence. The goal of this research was to provide contextualized understandings of the day-to-day practices of mothers and professionals, and explicate how their practices are institutionally and socially organized. The method of inquiry in this study was institutional ethnography. The purpose of institutional ethnographic research is to uncover how the social is constructed, experienced, and understood. Institutional ethnography goes beyond personal narratives and uses texts to map the accounts of what people do at the local level, while investigating these experiences in connection to the sociopolitical context. Data sources included six individual interviews with women with experiential knowledges, one group interview with two professionals working at a women’s legal centre, legislation, policies, a risk assessment model, and case law from 220 child protection and 262 family law judgements. What emerged was the significance of the legal principle “best interests of the child” in women’s lives, as it structures decision-making about the safety and care of their children. This study illuminates how “best interests of the child” operates as an ideological code, activated through people’s material practices. Ideological codes import representational order through shared lexicon in social, political, and professional discourses, which become conceptually entangled with ideas that are widely accepted and often unquestioned. The “best interests of the child” ideological code serves as a modality of status quo regulation, producing and reproducing intersecting inequity-based violence through ruling relations of class, race, and gender. Analysis of “best interests of the child” reveals how social work practices can conceal and alter what is known, which can reinforce violence, despite the profession’s purported values of social justice and human rights. However, this study also highlights how texts can be social workers’ tools of resistance, rather than complicity.

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