Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia: A History
November 4, 2013
Review By Suzanne Smythe
Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia: A History brings together a diverse range of studies conducted by practising professionals and scholars in the field of education, history of childhood and the family, social welfare, and social work. The editors, Diane Purvey and Chris Walmsley, observe that, in recent years, the study of social welfare and social work has been greatly enriched by interdisciplinary work. This collection contributes to this trend, while making its mark as the first book to address social welfare and social work within the context of its historical development in one Canadian province. Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia thus offers students and researchers perspectives on social regulation and resistance in the unique social, geographic, and political landscape that is British Columbia.
Through case studies, oral histories, biographies, and documentary analysis, the fifteen chapters that comprise Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia – eight of which have been previously published in other col lections or journals – are primarily concerned with the policy and practice of social welfare in British Columbia in the first half of the twentieth century. The book is divided into four thematic sections: the care of children in institutions, policy perspectives, the professionalization of social work practice, and the role of campaigns for social reform. A particular strength of this book involves the compelling evidence and arguments provided in individual chapters. Readers will be moved by biographical accounts of children in orphanages and institutions, including Vancouver’s Alexandra Orphanage, described by Diane Purvey (53), and the experiences of fathers dealing with the Vancouver Children’s Aid Society Home, described by Robert Adamoski (29). Patrick Dunae (91) documents the remarkable yet distressing work of the Fairbridge Society, an organization unique to British Columbia, in bringing underprivileged children as young as four and five to British Columbia from Britain in the 1930s. Gord Bruyere provides the only study in the book concerned with Aboriginal children in his account of a Spallumcheen child’s experiences of foster care, a so cial welfare policy that arose in the wake of residential schools (283). Readers wil l be confronted with diffi cult questions concerning the quality of care that diversely situated children received in an era that defined childhood and the needs of children quite differently than they are defined today, as described in Nic Clarke’s study of “mentally deficient” children (165) and John McLaren’s study of Doukhobor children (125).
Readers may recognize in con temporary policy and practice the ideologies laid out by Veronica Strong-Boag, which guided child adoption policies in the early twentieth century – policies that both constructed and privileged notions of biological kin ties (139). And they may feel indignant over social workers’ responses to wife abuse, as documented by Purvey in masters’ theses written in the Faculty of Social Work at ubc in the 1950s (259). The gendered and racialized history of social work as it emerged as a profession is described in studies by Brian Wharf, who provides another dimension to Purvey’s study through his student perspective on social work at ubc in the 1950s (295). Megan Davies (195), Marilyn Callahan (235), and Margaret Little (327) similarly document the place of women in BC social welfare policy – as social workers, activists, and campaigners for the mother’s pension. The sexism underpinning these experiences, as well as the place of social reform campaigns in shaping social welfare policies, considered by Walmsley within the context of the 1927 child welfare survey (305) and by Dorothy E. Chunn in her account of the 1939-45 campaign for family courts (349), will resonate with contemporary scholars and practitioners both inside and outside British Columbia.
Woven throughout the book is the message, stated implicitly and explicitly, that social welfare policies in British Columbia have been shaped not only by dominant groups in government and social agencies but also by resistance to these regulatory regimes on the part of families, various ethnic and cultural groups, and individuals. The volume is replete with examples of how people in contact with social welfare agencies negotiated and forged personal and social visions within the constraints of dominant ideologies of the day, the whims of officials in positions of power, and often cruel economic circumstances. It is important to highlight this interplay between regulation and resistance as it constitutes a significant contribution to the study of social welfare and social work in British Columbia and elsewhere. However, in this volume the full implication of this tension between regulation and resistance for the practice of social welfare and social work is muted by the virtual absence of a discussion of theories and methods for studying social welfare in historical context.
Given that the collection is interdisciplinary and is aimed at an interdisciplinary audience of students and researchers, an overview of the theoretical lenses adopted here (and elsewhere) for the study of social welfare would have been welcome. Not only would this have provided needed cohesion across the diverse studies but it would also have helped readers to make more explicit connections between contemporary theoretical trends in the study of social welfare and the themes and arguments presented by contributors to the volume. In addition to providing a theoretical compass for navigating these studies, a discussion of the dominant social theories and movements that shaped social welfare in the period under study (broad as it is) would have eliminated redundancy across each chapter and helped readers to fully appreciate the impact of the rise of psychology – as well as of social Darwinism, eugenics, and patriarchy – in all aspects of British Columbians’ lives. One consequence of the absence of an overarching theoretical framework is that, as a course text, it may not fully stimulate a critical engagement with questions pertaining to the why or how of social regulation and resistance. Yet it is these sociological questions, promoting textured understandings of the continuities and discontinuities between the past and the present, that are so important to critical and reflective social welfare practice and policy making.
Nevertheless, for teachers, students, and researchers willing to tease them out, Child and Family Welfare in British Columbia: A History suggests compelling themes that touch squarely on historical and contemporary issues in social regulation. These include the uneasy and often conflicting definitions of “childhood” and “family” as represented in policies surrounding foster care and adoption, approaches to the discipline of young offenders, the implications of the enduring distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and the role of patriarchy in promoting conformity to ideals of the nuclear family, with the consequent punishment of lone parents through policies that result in dependency, poverty, and blame. The volume also provides source material for scholars of British Columbia, and, in particular, it deepens our understanding of just how profoundly social welfare policies – or the lack of them – not only shaped individual experiences of poverty, injustice, and loneliness but also promoted dignity, fairness, and citizenship.
In addition, Purvey and Walmsley helpfully identify important themes in social work policy and practice that are not covered in the book and that are in need of further research. These include the experiences of British Columbia’s Aboriginal, Chinese, and Japanese children who were in institutional care in the early decades of the twentieth century, the ruralurban distinction with respect to the distribution of resources and access to services, and the role of social activism and community organizing in the history of social work in this province (the importance of which has often been neglected in social work research, policy, and practice). Indeed, the extent to which contemporary social welfare policies and their regulatory practices may claim to be either “innovative” or vestiges of long-standing ideologies and practices is a question that readers of this book may fruitfully explore if they are prepared to make their own links to contemporary theories, policies, and practices.