5.1 Why does understanding ‘family’ matter?
While precision about family structures might be required for legal reasons (for example, who has ‘parental responsibility’), ‘what is a family’ is not just a legal issue. Children often live in diverse family forms with people they are not ‘technically’ related to, for example, new parental partners and their siblings, long-standing friends. However, some or all of these people may fall within their own definition of who is a member of their family.
This perspective of who is in a family and who is important to a child or young person can be vital for a social worker trying to understand their world view and working constructively with them through difficult family circumstances.
It is also important for social work practitioners to be aware of their own views about ‘family’, as what we believe to be a good or normal family composition can carry a particular value base that may influence our approaches to working with children in their own family context.
In the same way that ‘family’ is a dynamic and contested concept, the meaning of ‘family life’ is also problematic. Legislation does not define ‘family life’; whether or not there is family life depends on the circumstances and these have been interpreted by the European Court of Human Right (ECtHR) in a way that includes a wider range of relationships than covered by statute (see K v United Kingdom  50 DR 199; 207 E Comm HR).
Family life usually requires the existence of a close personal relationship, but it is not limited to relationships based only on blood, marital ties or recognised in law in some other way. The recognition by legislators and the courts that there are many different forms of family living, including step-families, gay and lesbian families and civil partnerships, is an important development in family law (Ruspini, 2015).
Clearly, the state can, and does, intervene in family life in various ways within the UK, but why, what for, and what should the limits of this be? In the next activity you will reflect on your own views regarding the regulation of family life by the state.
Activity 3 Why regulate?
In Table 1 below, note reasons for and against the need for the regulation of family life.
|Reasons for the regulation of family life
|Reasons against the regulation of family life
Under ‘for’, you may have included the need to protect vulnerable people in society, which would include children, or the rights of all children to have equality of opportunity. Under ‘against’, you may have considered that family life should be private and parents should be able to bring up their children in a way that they choose. In considering these matters, you are reflecting on the different, and sometimes competing, rights of individuals in society. It is the role of government to recognise and acknowledge that in society there are competing rights that have to be managed at the same time as being respected. In turn, regulation necessarily leads to professionals being under a duty to take certain steps.
Where the line is drawn on the need for regulation also changes over time, or is renegotiated within societies. In legislative terms, in the UK, intervention into the way that parents care for their children is generally agreed to have effectively started only in the 1880s with the Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act 1889. The expanding role of the state into the arena of family life since then has sometimes been controversial and continues to be so.
While the law provides an important framework for practice, government policy is equally, if not more, directly influential on what practitioners do on a day-to-day basis. We are all affected by social policy in different areas of our lives and what kind of policy we have depends upon a range of political, economic and social factors. For practitioners there can be little flexibility in terms of law and policy shaping the nature of their work. However, it is important to understand law and policy while also having a critical perspective on the reasons for their development.