It is a cliché, of course, to point out that we inevitably repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not understand and learn from them. However, this does not make the sentiment any less true. The story of the abuse of children in the care of the New Zealand state is a case in point. It is a deeply disturbing and still largely hidden history (Stanley, 2015; 2017). There are currently over 700 people with unresolved claims on the books of the Wellington law firm Cooper Law. It is very likely that this figure represents the tip of the iceberg.
The pressure of these claims was one of the hidden drivers behind the recent review of state social work. We now have the beginnings of a (partially) independent advocacy service for children and young people in care and a stated commitment to do better: the bad old days are magically behind us. The question is whether this is good enough. What is the likelihood that we have fixed everything when we haven’t even really looked at what went wrong?
For decades, social work and social workers have been donkey-deep in situations where young people have been mistreated while in state care – sometimes in small ways and sometimes horrifically. State violence is linked with a legacy of trauma in our society – particularly for Māori. I’d like to suggest that another cliché is also relevant here – the notion that evil flourishes when people fail to speak up. How many of us who have worked in these systems over time have let moments of doubt and dissent pass us by, turned a blind eye, focused on the greater good – and all those other clichés? Every social worker who has not had this experience can stop reading now.
The key issue in my mind is recognition of the social and institutional forces that have generated passive consent to abuse in care. I believe this is an issue that social workers need to actively take ownership of. After all we pride ourselves on naming and identifying the power dynamics that perpetuate abuse in families, but what about our own professional and managerial systems? What are the factors that conspire to keep good social workers silent and what can be done to prevent systems from tolerating damaging practices? I do not think we have begun to answer this question in our Aotearoa New Zealand context. And until we address it how can we have confidence in a better standard of future practice?
Worryingly, many of the current policy and practice settings do not inspire confidence. In fact, they suggest closure and accommodation. While the capacity of the surveillance state to police the behaviour of our less privileged citizens has grown substantially, our capacity to hold the state to account is diminishing. Un-redacted official documents are harder to access than they were ten years ago. Archival records are under threat (Monash University, 2017). Social workers are unable to publicly voice practice concerns or name resourcing deficits because such things are dangerous for their political masters.
If we are to re-imagine social work in a society that supports social equality, let us begin by looking at why we have treated so many people so destructively in the name of social care. We have been here before. The call for an independent investigation has been on the table for over forty years now. The dogged work done by ACORD (Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination) in the 1970s is as inspiring as the capacity of successive governments to ignore demands for an inquiry into institutional abuse is sobering.
Apart from the scale of harm likely to be unearthed and the Government’s fear of the potential cost of compensation, there are attitudinal barriers to accepting the need for an inquiry. We are obstructed by the same underlying racist and classist prejudices that justified the abuse of children in care: “they were difficult kids from hard backgrounds, the damage was done before they came to us, discipline is what they needed, just a few bad apples amongst the staff, their accounts will not be fully truthful – they are criminals not deserving of the rights of the rest of us”. As revealed by the investigation of institutional abuse cover-ups internationally, these justifications don’t have to be spoken – they are tacit: embedded in unequal post-colonial societies like ours (Stanfield, 2017). Care issues, like child protection issues generally in this country, are enmeshed with issues of class and race (Hyslop, 2016). We also know that the abuser cannot be the saviour. We need an independent inquiry.
Neglect and abuse in institutions, in foster care and in kin placements is not ancient history. Whanau care has been under-resourced and inadequately supported for nearly thirty years, often with dire consequences. This is the reason why the promise of Pūao-te-Ata-Tū has remained unrealised. We sent scores of young people to wilderness boot camps like Whakapakiri in the 1990s and early 2000s when it was not difficult to see that these set-ups were bound to generate violence. Why did we not care enough to see and how were our blinkers constructed?
In terms of child protection, state social work has focused on risk and capacity: efficiently triaging clients into an overloaded process-driven system. We have not asked ourselves what it is that families with complex social and economically determined challenges need to care for their children well. Good child protection systems are necessary but they will not resolve the social deficits that generate child maltreatment (Parton, 2014). The only lasting solutions are political. In this context, Bill English’s new idea of reforming bad families one at a time is, frankly, idiotic.
Perhaps the real fear of the current Government is that an inquiry into state abuse might begin to recalibrate our thinking about what makes a caring and equitable society, and the appropriate role of social work within such a society. We need this inquiry for ourselves – for the future of our profession – and for the generations of working class children we have damaged (Jones, 1983). We need truth and reconciliation a great deal more than we need a shiny new practice framework. I have heard it whispered that social work and social workers are concerned with social justice and human rights. Is anyone able to tell me whether there is any accuracy in this preposterous rumour? I would like to know what people think.
Department of Social Welfare (1988). Pūao-te-Ata-tū: Day break. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.
Jones, C. (1983). State social work and the working class. London, UK: Macmillan.
Hyslop, I. (2016 January 5). Racism and Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand – A Pakeha Perspective. [Blog post] Retrieved from: http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2016/01/racism-and-social-work-in-aotearoa-new-zealand-a-pakeha-perspective/
Monash University (2017). Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child. National Summit 8-9 May 2017. [Website]. Accessed 26 May 2017 at https://rights-records.it.monash.edu/
Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: Contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stanfield, D. (2017 March 1). The Politics of Saying Sorry. [Blog post] Retrieved from: http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/03/the-politics-of-saying-sorry-making-good-on-intentions/
Stanley, E. (2015). Responding to state institutional violence. British Journal of Criminology, 5, 1149–1167. doi:10.1093/bjc/azv034
Stanley, E. (2017). The road to hell: State violence against children in postwar New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.