Child Welfare and Child Endangerment

A Social and Cultural History of the Political Economy of Care since 1946

Agnes Anna Arndt

Since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, but also in countless articles on the effects of the corona pandemic, the concept of the „best interests of the child“ has drawn unprecedented attention. As a legal term that gestures beyond the law, the „best interests of the child” encompasses such diverse issues as equality of opportunity and participation, education, family and social policy, but also immigration and development policy. The central concern of this semantically and politically changeable concept is the need to protect children, on both a national and global level, a need that is ethically motivated yet legally difficult to enforce. However, this study posits that the term has public impact primarily because it provides a screen to project diverse and often contradictory interests.

Contrary to what the term suggests, the „best interests of the child” are not simply a matter of „well-being”. And even the fact that children are considered bearers of fundamental rights still does not answer the question of what constitutes children’s well-being. While the opinion accompanying the Marriage Act of 1946 spoke of the „mental happiness of the child”, by 1979, a draft definition described the best interests of the child as the „sum of children's rights and children's interests with due consideration of the respective will of the child”. What criteria constituted „the best interests of the child” – advancement, continuity and their will – remained vague, their hierarchisation in individual cases arbitrary. Nevertheless, indeterminate legal concepts (unbestimmte Rechtsbegriffe) such as „the best interests of the child” are highly charged attributions, both legally and politically, which can determine whether children are removed from their families and taken into care, the granting of custody and access rights, and the allocation of residence and citizenship rights.

The project conducts a comparative analysis of a key normative pattern of social order in Europe, taking the notion of the „best interests of the child” as its starting point. Located at the intersection of legal, social and cultural history, it inquires into the genesis and history of legal norms and practices that emerged out of powerful cultural negotiations and in turn have influenced the social, political and economic order of modern societies. The project focuses on the binding and orienting power of such concepts, the change in values which are triggered by them and feed into them, and on their potential for regulating and regimenting social groups and actors, making them legible as social subjects.

Concepts of child welfare and child endangerment are thus understood as a historically variable but also volatile component of a political economy of care. This raises the question of what changes in meaning the physical and emotional welfare of children has undergone and what effects this has had on the protection of children from violence, abuse and neglect. At the same time, it foregrounds politically and economically determined ideas about children and childhood, motherhood and fatherhood, as well as the state's role as „guardian”.

The sources surveyed include court and trial records, expert opinions, legal texts, commentaries, specialist debates in law and education, psychology and the sociology of childhood, and, last but not least, fictional texts – like Ian McEwan's novel “The Children Act” – which in their own way provide information about the history of the political economy of care since 1946. The project analyses East and West Germany and includes developments in Switzerland, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Poland from an entangled history and comparative perspective.

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