When thinking about the past, present and future of social work it is instructive to bear in mind that its theory and practice is politically located (Gray & Webb, 2013). More specifically, social work in the Western context is embedded in the historical evolution of capitalism. Capitalism is a dynamic, often mesmerising, means of production and distribution which is both creative and destructive. There are some major difficulties with it as a model of development. As Karl Marx pointed out, it exploits working people, extracting surplus value from their labour (Hollander, 2008). Why do you think manufacturing has shifted to distant sweat-shops over the last forty years or so?
On Friday, I along with several other social workers and social work students attended the Rally Against Racism in Auckland. This rally was called in response to the racist speaking tour of white supremacists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. These speakers have engaged in an international tour designed to incite racism and hatred (Smith, 2018). As social workers we felt that it was important to speak up personally, and as social workers, against this kind of explicit racism. Those of us who have the privilege of being able to speak out without losing our jobs (such as academics) need to be particularly willing to engage in overt action to challenge racism. Another recent example of this kind of overt action against racism is seen in the action of Swedish social work student Elin Ersson who recently refused to sit down on an aeroplane, temporarily preventing the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker (Crouch, 2018).
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Decision-making, Assessment, Risk and Evidence (DARE) conference in Belfast, Ireland, run by the effervescent Brian Taylor from Ulster University. Our (myself and Ian Hyslop’s) presentation drew on our decision-making variability study that examines how and why child protection social workers make the decisions that they do. Understanding why a social worker might choose to either increase or reduce statutory intervention at key decision points on the decision-making continuum is one element of figuring out the reasons for variability. This is important to understand, as without knowing how or why key decision points function, it’s difficult to get a grip on improving or evaluating them.
Our study is based on the decision-making ecology, which proposes that decisions are not just the result of a single practitioner finding out information then coming to a decision. Instead, decision outcomes are the result of interlocking factors across the whole ecological spectrum, from macro factors such as inequalities, to meso factors such as organisational cultures and processes, and individual factors such as the values and culture of the social worker (Baumann, 2011). In this presentation, we were focussing on one main decision point: to go to a family group conference. Interviewing 24 social workers across three sites of the then Child Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki), plus holding six focus groups, allowed us to gather rich qualitative data about this and other fundamental decision points. These slides outline the perceptions of practitioners about what caused them to pursue a family group conference instead of either another intervention or none at all.
Baumann, D. J., Dalgleish, L., Fluke, J., & Kern, H. (2011). The decision-making ecology. Washington, DC: American Humane Association
Image credit: Thomas Hawk
Social work practice has its challenges and contradictions in a class society, so all the more reason to make meaningful connections between practice quality and social injustice. Hope, they say, is important not because a just society is easy to create – it is important because the struggle for social equality is valuable in itself. I recently had the opportunity to attend the launch of an anti-poverty practice framework for social work in Northern Ireland.
This framework seeks to build an understanding of material deprivation into all fields of social work practice. In themselves, new frameworks do not transform child welfare work that is driven by risk aversion and managerial constraints but this sort of re-thinking and commitment to a poverty-informed practice focus is a powerful beginning. It could and should be done here. The slide-show below (presented at the SWSD conference in Dublin) explores some of the questions we need to ask ourselves if we are to move from rhetoric to reality.
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)