Protect the child or preserve the family?

Regulating family ties
Social workers faced with child placements in the interwar period
By Lola Zappi

During the interwar period, the juvenile court of the Seine département enlisted the help of a social service. The assistants of the Service social de l’enfance (SSE) organised the placement of children in foster care on a widespread basis. However, their duties did not end there. Throughout the placement, they attempted to ensure that parents remained in contact with their children. How can this apparent paradox be explained? Thanks to the SSE case files, this paper shows that social workers were caught between two contradictory injunctions: on the one hand, fears about the influence of the family ‘environment’ on young people from working-class backgrounds; on the other hand, the increasing psychological focus on parent/child emotional ties. By combining a history of knowledge and a history of labour, this paper explores the infra-regulatory innovations implemented by social workers, and prompts us to give a more nuanced interpretation of the “family police”.

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