An independent inquiry is needed: Right here!  Right now!

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.

To sign the HRC petition Never Again 

Image credit: Jeremy Board (the image is of a reconciliation pole erected by the University of British Columbia)

References

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.

5 thoughts on “An independent inquiry is needed: Right here!  Right now!

  1. Hi David

    Thanks for this contribution – yes I think the process of reflection you speak of is important for us as individual practitioners and for the wider bodies and systems surrounding practice.

    Social workers work in resource scarce environments, in organizations that are less than perfect and with practice situations that are multi-layered. Accordingly we choose our battles, do what we can – and do not always find a clear place to stand. Within this context there is always a risk of accommodating ourselves to systems, practices, attitudes that are not operating in the interests (in big ways and small ways) of people without a great deal of power.

    The challenge which is woven through the posts on this site is about how social work can make its rhetoric about human rights and social justice ‘real’ in the challenging environment of contemporary practice.

    An independent inquiry into state abuse would be a good beginning and it is something all social workers should support in my humble opinion. As argued by the Green Party in their dissenting view recorded in the recent Social Services Select Committee report about proposed changes to the CYP&tF Act – this would have been a better starting point for a review of statutory practice than the Expert Panel process – and may have yielded better results.

    In an election year this call is gaining momentum – how can you go forward when you haven’t acknowledged your past e hoa?

    Ian

  2. Great points Ian, and appreciate Jayne’s additions as well. I’m behind having an enquiry but only recently thought more about what role I might personally have in being held to account as a social worker involved in working with children and young people in care in the past. There’s also a good question about what collective role our profession might have for condoning bad practice and not being active enough in standing up to systemic abuse.

  3. Hi Jane – Thanks for your thoughts. As you suggest the relationship between the state / service providers and service recipients is problematic – and particularly so when children and young people are in the care system. One key area is understanding how institutional abuse and related social worker blindness has been enabled in Aotearoa New Zealand – and an inquiry is one way of progressing this.
    Ian

  4. Reasons why the “public /private partnership/contract” model of social services delivery is being pushed over a model of State services provision is that it takes the business of “provision” out of the control of the people who receive those services. Contracts = “professional privacy/protection” for those whose job security relies on maintaining personal power over their service recipients. The “public /private partnership/contract” model of social service delivery also disempowers any critique, from any source, facilitates abuse of power, and promotes what amounts to a “slavery” situation for those people- families and children -caught up in it.
    The reality of social services receipt being restricted to “the most vulnerable”( or restricted to the most antisocial and difficult individuals ) ensures a level of hardship is created for the majority who need services, and that the recipients if abuse occurs, are often forced into engaging in antisocial behavior to be heard, and therefore providing public justification for imposing punitive lifestyle conditions within the social service delivery model. This also ensures that individuals within social groups eligible for social services never have enough power to change the system that controls them, without outside help.
    An example of what can go wrong for social service recipients in the “contracting public / private model of governance http://thevolcano.org/2016/10/26/inside-the-jail-of-supportive-housing/
    The administration model in the above example deliberately breaks down family relationships for the people reliant on this social service. I don’t think I need to explain how this works here. Most people reading this will know the result.
    Most NZ social services use this administration model for social service delivery with varying degrees of subtlety and nuance. When these methods are practiced with expert and even not so expert subtlety, within both governance and individual contracted localized units of staff practice models the people caught up in this style of services delivery are often the ones with the least awareness of the ways that their human rights are being violated though daily social control of their lives in many mundane ways, and will gang up on any one of their number to silence any critique of the system, to a high degree of dysfunction.
    Not so surprisingly the staunchest advocates of using draconian principles to control the behavior of people caught up in social services provision is often the “ordinary working population”. Ironically this is also the primary social group who are on the receiving end of these social control policies and the group identified as the “place where abuse is most likely to happen and most likely to escape remediation”.
    It is not surprising also that this model advocates “child rescue ” above all else; the term “rescue” refers to the fact that children grow into adults, so its their “minds” that need “rescuing” from being “polluted” by freedom of thought. As a child, an individual has to experience a positive democratic lifestyle in order to recognize it.
    In recent times adopted and fostered children have not been discouraged from “knowing” where they came from, but my experience is that many seek out their parents as young adults not for reconciliation but to deliver some sort of “revenge” upon them. Many of victims of this strategy are women who have come out at the other end of this abuse mill alone and vulnerable. Psychological services and social support to enable relinquishing families to rebuild their lives, especially for (first) parents, are deliberately absent, from any child rescue program, or if they exist, are mostly idealized and punitively delivered with extreme prejudice.
    Family reconciliation services often encourage young adults and do not prioritize parents. Often when reconciliation happens, these situations have realized a potential for violence and sometimes result in murder. Parents who have experienced these “family reunions” often live in fear of their child as a young adult, and with good reason.

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