"Failings in the duty of care": mediated discourses on "children at risk"

Maggie Sweeney

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Whilst the death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her step-father in 1973 precipitated a shift in public and political attitudes towards issues of child welfare, it also marked a turning point in terms of the media’s response to incidents of child abuse in that this particular event captured an unprecedented level of media attention (Warner, 2013). Over the past decade, this level of media interest has also been apparent in a number of high profile episodes of child neglect, as evidenced in the roll call of children who have fallen victim to such incidents: Victoria Climbie (2000), ‘Baby P’ (2007), Khyra Ishaq (2008), Daniel Pelka (2012), Ellie Butler, (2013), and Liam Fee (2014). As observed, “the ghost of each successive scandal haunts the next” in child abuse cases (Butler and Drakeford, 2011, p.194) and the discourses that permeate such stories emphasise the continuing risks, dangers and vulnerability of young children. Perhaps then it comes as no surprise that according to some scholars, contemporary society has become marked by a universal surge in parental and cultural anxieties about matters of child welfare and safety (Backett-Milburn and Harden, 2004). Indeed, as Furedi (2001) has observed, the invention of ‘the concept of “children at risk”’ reinforces the sense that childhood has become defined by an ever-increasing possibility of exposure to a variety of opaque dangers. As a result, the hegemonic rhetoric of contemporary childhood politics has become suffused by discourses that emphasise notions of vulnerability and risk, so much so that such fears have become “amplified to an excruciating pitch” (Brooks, 2006). For some, this intensification of perceived risks can be attributed to the increasing encroachment of the mass media in the delivery of news and information to the wider public (Bourke, 2005) with Burgess, (2010) observing that the media “play an active role in framing risk controversies” (p.59).

Alongside discourses pertaining to “children at risk” however, mediated narratives about perceived “failings in the duty of care” by those working within the field of child protection and social care services have also become an increasingly dominant frame of reference within the sphere of child politics. Therefore, with reference to specific incidents of child neglect and abuse - namely those of Ellie Butler (2013) and Liam Fee (2014) - this chapter will set out to examine the way in which “children at risk” and “failings in the duty of care” appear to have become the dominant narrative tropes within the contemporary mediated public sphere. Whilst the employment of such labels appears to contribute to the ongoing demonization of the care sector, they are equally applicable within the context of what could be described as ‘bad parenting’. As the discussion progresses, I will argue that such tropes can be captured within a ‘master label’ of what is recognisably ‘bad care’. Recent figures from the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, 2015) indicate that, of the 93,000 children in care in the UK, over 60% are in the system as a result of neglect and abuse. Arguably, this points not only to a care sector in crisis, but also raises urgent questions about societal and mediated responses to issues of childhood politics and more specifically, that of care.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiscourses of Care
Subtitle of host publicationMedia Practices and Cultures
EditorsAmy Holdsworth, Karen Lury, Hannah Tweed
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
ISBN (Print)9781501342820
Publication statusPublished - 28 May 2020


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