Because the world of the marginalized is inevitably fraught with moral assumptions, the clientele being served by human service agencies are immersed in a Harry Potter-like venue where dramas of right and wrong, power and weakness, greed and largesse, pain and suffering, compassion and retribution are paraded daily before the public. It is a stark world of contrast in which subtlety has little salience. In this sense, it is much in tune with an electronic media desperately seeking ratings.
Child welfare, correctional, and mental health, agencies must fulfill politico-mythological roles that go well beyond their stated purposes (e.g. addressing child abuse, preventing delinquency and crime, or bolstering mental stability.)
While these agencie may be publicly encouraged to be effective, they must simultaneously buttress whatever prevailing myths may surround their clientele – whether or not these comport with reality.
As a consequence, whether a child welfare agency deals well with a specific incident of alleged abuse, a mental health agency treats a mental patient decently, a juvenile justice agency leads a youth toward a law-abiding life, or a prison deters an adult offender from further crime are all essentially beside the point.
While it may be laudable if these goals can be accomplished, they are less crucial to the agency’s survival than whether its practices buttress the political ideologies, biases or prevailing public distortions that might be hyped regarding their target populations. As a result, they are largely in the business of labeling individuals for quick and easy disposal – updating the nomenclature to keep current with the political demands of the times. Possessing the power to make ultimately hurtful labels stick while offering “help” is what keeps these agencies in business. Their “successes” have largely to do with negotiating this slippery slope.
It’s one reason why failed agencies trundle on from decade to decade. While they may fail their clientele – they are in fact, highly successful at more publicly valued tasks.