A guest post by Irene de Haan, lecturer in social work in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland and a registered social worker. Irene’s previous roles include Senior Advisor at the Office of the Chief Social Worker and Principal Community Engagement Advisor at the Families Commission. Currently Irene is involved in reviews undertaken for the Family Violence Death Review Committee. Her research focuses on the promotion of child and family well-being and the prevention of maltreatment and family violence.
Tony Stanley ‘s post in August observes slippage in UK social work, from helping to surveillance. In New Zealand, social workers interested in child and family well-being have another kind of slippage to worry about – from a partnership model of family support, focussed on families’ self-defined needs, to an instructive model of parent education focused on the development and behaviour of individual children considered ‘at risk’.
The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 was internationally acclaimed for encouraging family-led decision-making and supporting kinship relationships. The Act recognised that what children need is security within their own families – and that families need support while raising children. Good support reduces the need for placement in care, an experience that commonly disrupts children’s attachments and weakens their sense of belonging and identity (Zeanah, Shauffer & Dozier, 2011; Burgess, Rossvoll, Wallace & Daniel, 2011). So, the Act promoted accessible, community-based services. Organisations across New Zealand received government funding to provide supportive social work that would help families access resources, resolve problems and meet the needs of adults and children alike. Despite convincing arguments in favour of a partnership approach to working with families (Arney & Scott, 2013) more recent funding does not reflect this focus. With the notable exception of Whanau Ora, holistic services are now few and far between. Why is this so? Are we reverting to ideas about ‘child rescue’ that have been shown to be inadequate (Humphreys & Absler, 2011; Scott & O’Neil, 1996)? Has hopelessness prevailed about the scale and complexity of problems commonly confronting families today?
Hope is the hallmark of the family support model (Scott & O’Neill, 1996).
From this perspective, a partnership approach to working with families is the best way to promote the well-being of all children, all of whom are vulnerable in some ways. The model uses strengths-based techniques and is responsive to families’ unique situations and to local circumstances. A fundamental feature is easy access, a ‘low threshold’ that enables families to seek and receive support for relatively common problems while developing enough trust to disclose something they think shameful or likely to evoke intervention by authorities. The key to success is respectful relationships. Workers get to know families and their stories and so can offer genuinely useful assistance, whether emotional support, access to resources, information, practical strategies or guidance. Empathy encourages people to reveal the harsher realities of their lives. Family support work combines capacity to confront gruelling truths with optimism about reversing a downward spiral of adversity and averting worse problems.
New Zealand family support services were not systematically evaluated. It is thus hard to argue that they prevented harm and promoted well-being – outcomes notoriously tricky to measure – but anecdotal evidence suggests that many did much good, especially when embedded in a community and staffed by people willing to learn how to respond to issues troubling people in that community. Some family support services still survive, probably because they are now so useful to their communities that withdrawing funding would cause outrage. Mostly, however, holistic family support has been superseded by parent education programmes, typically requiring professional referral of families deemed ‘high risk’.
Now, many families get too little help, too late. Even when problems are chronic, violence is normalised or there is serious threat to people’s lives, help is hard to find (Family Violence Death Review Committee, 2014; Wilson, Smith, Tolmie & de Haan, 2015). This is sometimes the case when families labelled ‘high risk’ are on the caseloads of the plethora of professionals and agencies that constitute ‘the system’. Equally worrying, deprivation blights the lives of many families. The scale of unmet need is clear from frequent media stories featuring hungry children or housing conditions that compromise well-being, health and indeed life. How much better it would be to provide meaningful, preventive support than to ignore problems that cause increasing distress and trauma. Social workers understand the challenges of raising children in a complex world where problems – financial hardship, insecure housing, unstable employment, addiction, unremitting stress, partner violence – commonly co-occur, multiply, intensify and perpetuate harm. Family support social work offers ways to interrupt this pattern.
If hopelessness has indeed prevailed, then social workers must protest. The social work role is about holding hope. It involves comprehending both the big picture and people’s personal stories, gaining understanding of how each affects the other and using this knowledge to advocate for change. Social work is grounded in human rights. At the recent European Domestic Violence Conference in Belfast, Joanna Goodey, of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, declared that rights demand responses – the state has a duty, statutory and moral, to act. Families and their individual members have rights, as recognised and defended by New Zealand legislation. The problem facing us, hopefully reactivated by controversy and debate around the idea of offering support to families with difficult circumstances flagged by predictive risk modelling, is how best, collectively, we can promote people’s rights by responding to hidden suffering or even preventing suffering occurring in the first place.
Arney, F. & Scott, D. (2013). Working With Vulnerable Families. A Partnership Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Burgess, C., F. Rossvoll, B. Wallace and B. Daniel (2011) ‘‘It’s Just Like Another Home, Just Another Family, So It’s Nae Different’’: Children’s Voices in Kinship Care: A Research Study about the Experience of Children in Kinship Care in Scotland. Child & Family Social Work, 15(3): 297–306.
Family Violence Death Review Committee (2014). Fourth Annual Report. January 2013 to December 2013. Wellington: Health Quality and Safety Commission. Read reports here.
Humphreys, C. & Absler, D. (2011). History repeating: child protection responses to domestic violence. Child & Family Social Work, 16(4) 464 – 473.
Scott, D. & O’Neil, D. (1996). Beyond Child Rescue. Bendigo: Solutions Press.
Wilson, D., Smith, R., Tolmie, J. & de Haan, I. (2015). Becoming Better Helpers. Policy Quarterly, 11(1). 25-31.
Zeanah, C., C. Shauffer and J. Dozier (2011) ‘Foster Care for Young Children: Why It Must Be Developmentally Informed’, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 50(12): 1199–201