Crossing a line – Maria’s tale

a post by Anonymous student

Consider Maria*. From age seven, Maria grew up with multiple foster parents before moving into residential care at age 14. She had her first child at 18, her second at 21, both with a partner who is physically abusive towards her. Both children were removed from their care due to neglect and physical abuse. Maria became pregnant again at 23 and because of her history, was referred to an NGO, which provided weekly visits from a social worker. Due to the potential high risk of neglect and abuse, the third baby was removed immediately after it was born and placed into care. Maria’s visits from the social worker then stopped because she was no longer pregnant and there was no baby or child in the family. Maria was left to return to an abusive partner and overwhelming feelings of grief and loss.

There is a dominant, reoccurring theme running through Maria’s story: judgements made about who is deserving and who is undeserving. As a child, Maria was deemed deserving of help, or viewed as a victim needing to be rescued. Maria then crossed an arbitrary line to be now deemed undeserving of support and compassion. When she was pregnant, some support was provided, but only because the baby is considered deserving. Maria is simply a container (The Handmaid’s Tale anyone?), and once the baby is born, she is back to being viewed as undeserving. This attitude ignores the accumulated negative impact Maria has experienced growing up in care, living in poverty and with a violent partner. It ignores how stressful it is for anyone to parent when they’re worried about where the next meal is coming from. In fact, it ignores how stressful it is, just becoming a parent (de Haan, 2016). While I understand it is a difficult, complex decision making process that goes into  taking children from their parents and into care, I have difficulty understanding why social services are withdrawn from Maria once a child is no longer part of her picture.

This deserving and undeserving theme fits with a neoliberal, moralising perspective (Hyslop, 2016) that considers Maria to be in this situation because of the bad decisions that she has made. Why does she keep having children? Why does she spend her benefit on drugs/alcohol? Why can’t she just leave her partner if he’s so violent? Conveniently, treating individuals as undeserving, means  some uncomfortable truths do not have to be addressed. By placing the blame and responsibility back on the individual, the effects of colonisation, poverty, racism, homelessness, insecure employment and domestic violence can be ignored.

From a neoliberal perspective, rather than examine the deeper societal inequalities that drive social issues (Hyslop, 2016), it is considered more cost effective to target vulnerable individuals through a social investment approach. However in Maria’s case, it seems as though even the social investment approach has given up on her. From a cost-benefit perspective, Maria has been given ample opportunities to change, but she has not, and so there is no point in providing her with support (money). Maria is punished for not changing her behaviour.

Viewing Maria as undeserving of support while experiencing painful emotions is cruel and heartless. Featherstone, White and Moss (2014) might wonder if there was any ethical debate about social services building up a relationship with Maria while she was pregnant only to  abandon her when she was not. Were any conversations had about how neoliberal ideology is shaping social work roles to meet outcomes rather than meeting individual needs (Pease, 2009)? A humane practice, would have continued to support Maria after the birth of her baby, or at the very least connecting her with a publicly funded service that could support her in her grief. Instead, Maria has been pushed aside in favour of rescuing her children, who are now considered deserving. According to a neoliberal perspective, it will all have been justified as long as her children remain deserving citizens, grow up to contribute to our national GDP, and never cross that arbitrary line to become undeserving.

*Maria is a fictional character created for illustration


de Haan, I. (2016). Supporting transition to parenthood in Aotearoa New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(3), 4-14. Read in full here 

Featherstone, B., White, S., & Morris, K. (2014). Re-imagining child protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Hyslop, I. (2016). Where to social work in a brave new neoliberal Aotearoa? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(1), 5-12. Read in full here.

Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based practice to critical social work. In J. Allan., L. Briskman., & B. Pease (Eds.). Critical social work; Theories and practices for a socially just world (2nd ed., pp. 45-69). Crows Nest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin.

Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

One thought on “Crossing a line – Maria’s tale”

  1. Oh this is so blood boiling. And I’ve witnessed it (even been an unwilling part of it as a student on placement!!), NGO’s working with “families” (cough: mothers) only receive funding if the child is in her care, if the child has been uplifted, all contact ceases with the mother and she is ‘exited’ from the programme. This is when she arguably needs social work the most! The cognitive gymnastics it must take to justify these abusive policies, I can’t understand it.
    The story of a 16 year old woman my team worked with: She’d just had a baby, and was then told if she didn’t ‘sort out her living situation’ (she was living in an overcrowded home, family dealing drugs, violence, etc) her infant was now at grave risk (the implication being: uplift). This woman was still a youth herself! Under CYFS (at the time) care! But it didn’t matter, cause she was going to ‘age out’ soon anyway. She was a fighter though. I’ll never forget her saying, “but I’ve always lived here, and you guys were fine with that. It was ok for me to live with abuse, overcrowding, the threat of violence, but now suddenly, it’s on me have to change all of this for my baby?”

    Liked by 1 person

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