I may be talking out of turn – as an old Pakeha bloke that is – but I think it is useful to reflect on the bicultural journey in Aotearoa-New Zealand. So, I’d like to share some of the things that trouble me. Within the boundaries of the liberal capitalist state one of the most useful and progressive things we could do as a society is introduce compulsory Te Reo Māori into all levels of the education system. That would make a difference in a generation. We are told we don’t have the teachers but it could be done if the political will was there – with money, effort and commitment. Imagine a bilingual Aotearoa.
Over the last few months I’ve been closely following the Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland. The 8th Amendment in the Irish Constitution means that abortion is illegal in Ireland even where the pregnancy places a woman’s health at serious risk, in cases of rape or incest, or where the foetus is likely to die before or shortly after birth. See background to why the Irish Association of Social Workers supported the Together for Yes campaign. They said:
“Social workers come into daily contact with the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities in our society and witness the ways that many of the people we work with are disproportionately and adversely affected by the 8th Amendment. In effect, the Constitution as it stands specifically discriminates against them – the 13th Amendment gives permission for people who need a termination of pregnancy to travel to another jurisdiction, but if you’re poor, homeless, experiencing domestic violence, living with a disability, seeking asylum, are undocumented or a victim of trafficking, you do not have the same rights as others who, for a wide variety of reasons, may choose to terminate a pregnancy”.
Today people in Ireland are cheering a significant victory for the Yes vote which means that work can be done to change the constitution so that abortion can be legalised, according to an exit poll conducted for The Irish Times.
A guest post by John Darroch, PhD student , University of Auckland
This week the current Labour Government unveiled their first budget. The budget was a lot better than it could have been, and it’s a welcome relief to have a government which actually cares about people and demonstrates this in its spending. Despite this there have been some glaring omissions in the budget. I believe that we can, and should, do better.
We have been talking, in varying ways, about social work and social justice on this blog for a long while now. Is this relationship possible, sustainable, realistic? We do need to keep talking about this and, more importantly, we need to start doing something about it or you can probably forget about it in ten years – the project will have been eradicated! I would like to know what others think – can social work be a force for progressive social change?
This is a guest blog post by Lauren Bartley: a recent graduate and practising social worker.
I’ve spent the last four years at university banging on about social justice while doing the BSW at the University of Auckland. This was the very reason I began a career in social work, because I had deep sense of the injustice in the world and wanted to do something about it. I prided myself on being an activist, a radical. It became my passion, my defining feature. Early into the degree, I realised that there was a major incongruence between what I thought social work was, or should be, and what it actually seemed to be. By the end of my second year, most of my assignments had the same running theme: that as much as social workers espouse the value of social justice, social workers aren’t actually doing it. I deeply connected with Ferguson and Woodward’s (2009) criticism that social workers tend to “play down the structural factors and to focus on individual and personal issues.” (p.8). I was constantly frustrated and dismayed by how little attention seemed to be paid to the wider factors of colonisation, capitalism and neoliberalism, both in the degree and in the profession, and how little those structural inequalities and oppressions seemed to matter to everyone else. I challenged visiting social workers who presented in class, and was intensely critical of them when they said they had “no time” to address structural issues. Putting plasters on people was all social workers seemed to be doing, and this made me angry. A placement at Auckland Action Against Poverty served to fuel this cynicism, and I came to the point of having a crisis of faith, seriously reconsidering social work as a career.
I wasn’t always pro-registration. Coming from more of an activist background I was suspicious of the role of regulation by a government body when social work is about resisting and ameliorating the harms of the state. There are still tensions for me, but the latest social work registration bill has some significant implications for anyone who wants to practise social work in this country, where the profession, like others, has fought to be recognised as a legitimate one that involves more than just having a cup of tea and telling folks ‘there there, you’ll be ok’. Under the weight of lack of funding for decent wages and constant criticism by the public and in some cases, employers, social workers have several ways to ensure that their working conditions and the quality of the services able to be offered are maintained. Registration is one way to support these aims. It’s not perfect, but it contributes to a strong professional identity that can then be protected from anyone without the right qualifications and comitment to a code of ethics from claiming it. It helps provide the public with some level of confidence in the profession, and a remedy if it’s not up to scratch. It also allows us, in an ideal world, to define social work as the unique combination of social justice and self-determination aspirations it has always professed. In these ways, registration at least has the potential to maintain standards of practise, ensure a strong professional identity and provide people we work with as ‘service users’ (there is no good term) with some protections from unethical practise. The proposed legislation, fresh back from select committee, damages these aims. How? In the section defining what is ‘practising social work’, there are almost directly contradictory elements, both with significant drawbacks (Parliament website)
A guest blog post by Kieran O’Donoghue, Associate Professor in Social Work, Massey University.
Tena Koutou Katoa,
The Social and Community Services Select Committee report published on 13 April 2018, is an example of an opportunity missed in regard to protecting the public and enhancing the professionalism of social work. It is also an example of the Committee failing to listen to the majority of submitters, whilst at the same time raising questions about whose advice was privileged and why?
Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world. Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.
A guest post by David Kenkel
Fraser and Honneth (2003) suggest that one useful way to slice up politics is to distinguish between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution. You could also talk about identity politics (Gergen, 1995) versus the politics of class. Whatever it is named, this type of political critique looks at the difference between the social struggles of diverse groups for recognition and fair treatment versus the basic question of how a society allocates resources. Arguably, during the rise of neoliberalism the politics of recognition has played a more centre-stage role. Distribution is portrayed as a question better answered by the marketplace than political will or the desires of an electorate.
In social work we are sometimes prone to the lure of mantras, because they can help to keep us focused – help to ground us and simplify our complex jobs. By mantras, I mean the idea of neat and self-evident truths that can fundamentally inform or guide our practice. Politicians are also attracted to slogans. The pervasive concept of evidence-based practice is perhaps the most obvious current example of this. Who would argue with the idea that policy and practice should be guided by the notion of ‘what works’, and what can be shown to work? This is common sense, is it not? However, like all short forms of doctrine, such mantras always conceal as much as they reveal. Who defines the nature of problems? (Hibbs, 2005). Accordingly, what practice and policy outcomes are we looking to measure? Who decides what counts as evidence? (Pease, 2009). Ultimately, whose interests are served?
Pure or neutral concepts don’t really exist because they are applied in a social and political context which is constructed by relations of power. In order to understand power interests we need to look below the surface of social relations. Arguably this insight is what distinguishes the identity of social work. Understandings of behaviour in the social world are informed by deconstructing the wider social and political context. Such an analysis can be discomforting, partly because it often takes us beyond assessments of good and bad; beyond simple black and white narratives. Social workers are required to engage with complexity.
This approach is also what gives social work its radical potential – its capacity to trouble the status quo by exposing concealed assumptions. We are potential canaries in the neoliberal mine. The current drive for trauma-informed and child-centred practice is a good example of a particularly powerful self-evident truth. Who could argue that the welfare and best interests of children must be kept at the centre of child welfare social work? Who would query the need to disrupt inter-generational cycles of trauma? However, if we begin to examine the wider ideological context, some troublesome issues are brought to light. In relation to the design of new statutory practice processes, the introduction of fresh tools or the elevation of practice principles like the contemporary mantra of child-centred practice, it is critically important to ask the question, ‘why now?’ in this place and time? (Garrett, 2009, p. 880). Is it a coincidence that the child-centric practice emphasis that colours recent changes in the law and related practice frameworks for state social work in Aotearoa-New Zealand has been accompanied by a renewed focus on parental responsibility for child well-being in a society riven by systemic social inequality? (Hyslop, 2017). Clearly children have a right to love and care and parents are normally the primary source of nurturing and security. But is it that simple?
No, it isn’t. Social workers realise that needs and responsibilities are met within a wider setting that reaches beyond individual choice and moral character. The capacity of caregivers is affected by the cards they have been dealt: by income levels, access to adequate and affordable housing, community supports, health, education and social services. In an economic context of relative deprivation and disadvantage, what does it mean to say we are ‘here for the child’? Children are more than an abstract bundle of rights that can be separated from the wider social context of family circumstances. So while some argue that we should be more ‘child centred’, the way to actually change things for the child (as well as their parents) is really to be more ‘context centred’ – alert to the ways that the context of family relationships, material and social resources, and community factors affect childhood experiences. These are the targets for change. Often tragic child death cases are used as evidence that professionals had ‘lost sight of the child’. The more common factor is not that the child was not focussed on, but that there were crucial pieces of information not known to the child protection service. These are not the same thing.
Of course we are motivated to deal effectively with abuse and neglect but we need to recognise the struggle that goes with parenting in poverty if we are to create sustainable change. And as social workers we need to unpack the hidden dogma of individuated neoliberal choice and self-responsibility that lurks behind the simple mantra of child-centred practice. We need to recognise that parental capacity is impacted by the social and economic policy choices which we make collectively: as a society. Slogans that serve to conceal such complex realities may help us to sleep at night, but for how long?
Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of ‘problem’. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 17 (2) 32-37.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand: A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800 – 1817.
Garrett, P. (2009). Questioning Habermasian Social Work: A Note on Some Alternative Theoretical Resources. British Journal of Social Work, 39, 867-883.
Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based practice to critical knowledge in post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman, & Pease, B. (Eds.), Critical social work: theories and practices for a socially just world (pp. 45-69). NSW, Australia: Allen &Unwin.