England and the Republic of Ireland are bound together historically and in a contemporary sense. Both are currently governed by coalition administrations intent on pursing broadly neoliberal policies. In terms of social work practice, in the Republic, the main legislation relating to social work with children was, until the enactment of the Children Act 2001, the Children Act 1908 placed on the statute book by the former British colonial administration. Today, social work in both England and Ireland is mostly work undertaken by women workers. In the latter jurisdiction, 83.2% of social work posts are filled by women (NSWQB, 2006, p 23). Nevertheless, not surprisingly, there are certain national defining characteristics. That is to say, the difficulties and dilemmas confronting practitioners, social work academics and the users of services are not the same in England and the Republic of Ireland.
This relatively short contribution to the ‘Radical and Critical Perspectives’ series can only begin to identify some of the main emerging issues and themes relating to social work with children and families.1 In this context, readers need to be alert to the fact that it is, I feel, misguided to simply view social work – with children and families or any other group – as an entirely benign and emancipatory activity. Social work should not be sentimentalised and its function and purpose misunderstood. When discussing social work, we need to keep the state in vision: by and large, social workers are employed by the state and this is a social formation that does not simply act as a ‘good-enough parent’, seeking to intervene in the lives of children because of the need to ensure that their welfare is ‘paramount’.
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