The Social Reaction to Maria Colwell

  • Nigel Parton


The case of Maria Colwell proved crucial in establishing the issue as a major social problem and in introducing fundamental changes in policy and practice. Not only was the death of Maria Colwell constructed as a national scandal in its own right but the reaction to it reflected a more pervasive social anxiety about inadequate families and the role and activities of social workers.1 The case ensured that from then on the issue would no longer be experienced by the professionals concerned as marginal to their everyday practice but would take on the highest priority and would generate considerable concern and ‘fear’.2


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    The analysis in this section draws closely on N. Parton, ‘Child Abuse, Social Anxiety and Welfare’, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 11, no. 4, 1981, pp. 394–414.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A word used to summarise the feelings of social workers in the mid 1970s about this area of work in DHSS, Social Service Teams: The Practitioner’s View (HMSO, 1978);Google Scholar
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    This is very common with child abuse for it is claimed: (1) that the identified bruises etc. are symptomatic of much more worrying parental attitudes and parent-child relations; and (2) that the officially identified number of abused children is only a very small number of the real total. For instance, C. Schneider, J. K. Hoffmeister and R. E. Heifer, ‘A Predicative Screening Questionnaire for Potential Problems in Mother -Child Interaction’ in R. E. Heifer and C. H. Kempe (eds), Child Abuse and Neglect: The Family and the Community (Ballinger, 1976) claim that 20 per cent of the parental population have child rearing attitudes and experiences that are so similar to known abusers as to make them indistinguishable from abusers on any dimension except the absence of documented evidence.Google Scholar
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    It is far from apparent that S. Hall et al.’s grand theory that moral panics in the early 1970s were part of a wider crisis is valid. Some critics have argued that the actual material selected as proof of the slide into crisis does not add up to anything that was particularly ‘exceptional’. See S. Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Blackwells, 2nd edn revised 1980).Google Scholar
  11. Similarly it is my own view that we should not necessarily view this period as unique, for similar developments, with a correlation between crisis and moral panic, seem to have been in evidence in other periods in history. However the nature of the social reaction and the form of the panic have differed. This seems to have been the casé in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. For interesting discussions of S. Hall et al.’s thesis see D. Downes and P. Rock, Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime and Rule Breaking (Oxford University Press, 1982) ch. 10;Google Scholar
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    See A. Shearer, ‘The Legacy of Maria Col well’, Social Work Today, vol. 10, no. 9, 1979, pp. 12–19, in which it is suggested that the local media helped sustain interest in the case in East Sussex and would not let the problem go away until an inquiry was ‘secured’ from central government.Google Scholar
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    Adrian Webb in P. Hall, H. Land, R. Parker and A. Webb, Change, Choice and Conflict in Social Policy (Heinemann, 1975), p. 68. A specific example of this priority was the establishment of the SSRC/DHSS research programme on ‘transmitted deprivation’ at this time.Google Scholar
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    Lord Hausham, Guardian, 12 February 1970.Google Scholar
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© Nigel Parton 1985

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  • Nigel Parton

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