This guest blog post by Eileen Joy (Phd Candidate, University of Auckland) outlines the implications for social workers of an inquiry into state violence against children.
Elizabeth Stanley (2016), in her detailed examination of state violence against children in New Zealand, called it a ‘Road to Hell’ . Her accounts of how children in our country were treated is horrifying, chilling, and makes for unsettling reading. Stanley, the Human Rights Commission, tangata whenua, the United Nations, and many others have repeatedly made calls for there to be an inquiry into abuse in state care. The previous National led government resolutely stuck to their belief that the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) which, from 2008-2015 listened to those individuals who came forward (however only those with claims prior to 1992), and was able to refer people to the relevant Ministry for claims, was enough, and that an inquiry would “achieve very little”. Such claims have been debunked by victims and the judge who oversaw CLAS, who have both made strong calls for an independent inquiry.
However, the recent change in government from a National led government to a new Labour led government has meant that the possibility of a desperately needed inquiry is very real. Indeed, the Labour Party has committed to having an inquiry as part of the ‘First 100 Days’ package. Given that both New Zealand First and the Green Party had both already expressed support for such an inquiry it seems inevitable that it will take place.
Such an inquiry is essential, however any inquiry that does not properly determine frames of reference and include, and even centre the right people will fail in its work. This is why it is so important for social workers to critically examine their own role in the hoped-for upcoming inquiry. I need to preface this by saying this is uncomfortable work, it is always awkward to look at the role one, or one’s own profession might have played in something this awful, however it is critical for true justice and healing. This is not to say that social workers have existed in a vacuum and engaged in these behaviours without state sanction or that they should have been (and are) somehow immune to this cultural soup we all swim in that encourages the proliferation of forms of oppression such as racism, classism, and sexism. Rather this is to say that we can acknowledge all of that, and still own up to our part in this, indeed, that we must, further, that we as social workers, schooled in social justice and human rights are uniquely placed to deeply reflect on our own actions and that of our profession.
Social work, both in New Zealand, and internationally, has a fraught history with being complicit in state abuse. In every Anglophone country that has been colonised, the indigenous people have been subjected to institutionalised and systemic racism meaning that they are both over represented in child abuse statistics and over represented in the figures of those who have been found to be abused in state care.
The ramifications of this are profound. Social work must reckon honestly with its past as a part of state sanctioned abuse. This means all of social work, not just those in child protection, for the suspicion that many indigenous people feel towards social workers bleeds into all of social work and hinders genuine relationship building. This ultimately means that social workers must be both a part of the inquiry, and be willing to be inquired upon. It is highly likely that there are social workers today who are still working in social work, indeed may still be working in Oranga Tamariki, who participated in, sanctioned, or ‘ignored’ the sort of abuse that Stanley detailed in her book (2016).
In order to do this, social workers need to look to themselves and their practice, both present and past to examine their commitments to bicultural practice. This means, perhaps rather controversially, re-examining the notion of ‘cultural competence’ itself. Pākehā need to ask, can we truly rest on our metaphorical laurels and decree ourselves to be ‘culturally competent’ or is it more accurate to describe such learning as a behaviour, a constant re-examination of self that demands continual attention to whether or not one has lingering, persistent colonising behaviours, conscious or otherwise. We need to be on guard, constantly against what Memmi (2003) calls coloniser in the mind, or, in more local terms, as Andrew Judd has stated, we need to consider ourselves to be ‘recovering racists’. And critically, it is not up to an outsider to one culture, to decree what is competent in another. We as pākehā have to be willing to unpack that which has the capacity to make us feel very uncomfortable.
So in considering the long hoped-for inquiry then, it is critical that such an inquiry, honouring the ancestry of the (mostly) unrealised voices of Pūao-te-Ata-tū and those harmed, must be tangata whenua centred and driven. Social work, government, and New Zealand has a lot to learn, and a lot to reflect on from such an inquiry. As already stated, social work is uniquely placed to not only critically examine it’s own role in this shameful history, but be present enough to learn and grow from it. This should not be a story of how awful social work is, although it would be easy to paint it as such, it can be a story of how social work is responsible, how it can grow, be better, and recover from the racism that informed much of its practice.
The way social work responds to and learns from such an inquiry could be the blueprint for examining racism in other state services, education, health, in all sectors. We could build upon this and have a far-reaching inquiry into institutional racism within all government agencies. We need only be open to the process, open to the possibility of applying the skills and values of social work to our own practice, and then to hold the government responsible for ensuring change will happen. The present government is open to starting the process, lets be open to ensuring that the process is sound. We need only lean into that discomfort and work towards continually examining the coloniser within to ensure it does not exist throughout.
Image credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ
Memmi, A. (2003). The coloniser and the colonized (3rd ed.). London, England: Earthscan
Stanley, E. (2016). The road to hell: State violence against children in postwar New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.