I would like to invite some elephants to reveal themselves and vacate the child protection room. This might give us some more space to breathe and think. In other words let’s name some of the uncomfortable realities. Let’s be frank: child protection social work in Aotearoa New Zealand is enmeshed with social inequality. Pelton’s (2015) summary of recent research studies presents compelling evidence of the link between poverty, child maltreatment and entry into state care. It does not take a rocket scientist (luckily) to work out that a range of negative outcomes for children – including a greater risk of maltreatment – result from inadequate incomes, second rate education, deprived neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and poor health. Social workers are aware of this.
Often the most vulnerable children are parented by the most vulnerable adults in our increasingly divided society. Relative inequality has grown in this country for the past thirty years. This is not the society it could have been or should be. Child protection targets families who are socially and economically marginalised, and whānau Māori are disproportionately represented. Parton (2014) has suggested that if we look for the causes of child abuse and neglect we should look beyond the narrow notion of irresponsible families. We should consider the concept of systemic or societal neglect: the violence inflicted upon vulnerable citizens by neoliberal governments which place corporate profit ahead of social well-being.
We are being offered three related policy visions by the current Government. Firstly, to our collective relief, the Government has discovered that a class of dangerous and abusive families are responsible for our problems. We just have to find them and fix them more effectively. The answer to the social threat posed by morally corrupt benefit dependent underclass is work – any work will do. Social workers could help to drive these people into low paid work and save their children from ruin into the bargain. However, as they are not particularly efficient at these sorts of tasks (queasy stomachs, silly ethical qualms) private corporates might be a safer investment. Dies this sound bizarre, ideological, or neo-fascist? Well, it would do if the threat wasn’t real.
Our professional history has not always been one to take pride in. As we know the care and control dilemma goes with the territory. As well as being a force for redemption and liberation, social work has often contributed to punitive and damaging state programs. The idea that social problems are caused by dirty and dangerous families has been with us since social work began in the late Nineteenth Century. This emotive idea is rolled out in times of economic liberalisation. It is comforting to know that it is not “us” who abuse children – it is the feral and ill-disciplined ‘other’. If these people can be identified and corrected our society will be okay – perhaps we could all lead the comfortable and idealised lives of middle class consumerism?
Do you want to be part of this banal agenda? Is this the sort of social work you trained for? As social workers, are we prepared to accept the role allotted to us – to more efficiently pull some families back from the brink (if they deserve it) and shut the door on the others? It is time for a hard look at the road which social work should take. Can I urge you to think for a minute, in a room emptied of our large grey friends? What does the social work voice have to say? What do you have to say, as thinking people, in these challenging times? Poverty and disadvantage is cyclic but it is not ‘caused’ by work-shy, benefit-dependent, violent brown skinned individuals. Poverty and disadvantage is in fact the flip side of social and economic policies that promote the accumulation of private wealth ahead of social care. Social work does not have to be revolutionary but we do have a proud history of providing a voice, speaking with and for the excluded. Are you prepared to have this taken from us? The answer lies in our individual and collective hearts, minds, and hands. Call me old fashioned but I think we, as social workers, can ‘push back’ against the neoliberal tide and make a difference in our structurally unjust society.
Ian Hyslop, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.
(The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, or any association to which I belong.)
Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse and Neglect, 41. 30 – 39.