We have been talking, in varying ways, about social work and social justice on this blog for a long while now. Is this relationship possible, sustainable, realistic? We do need to keep talking about this and, more importantly, we need to start doing something about it or you can probably forget about it in ten years – the project will have been eradicated! I would like to know what others think – can social work be a force for progressive social change?
Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world. Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.
In social work we are sometimes prone to the lure of mantras, because they can help to keep us focused – help to ground us and simplify our complex jobs. By mantras, I mean the idea of neat and self-evident truths that can fundamentally inform or guide our practice. Politicians are also attracted to slogans. The pervasive concept of evidence-based practice is perhaps the most obvious current example of this. Who would argue with the idea that policy and practice should be guided by the notion of ‘what works’, and what can be shown to work? This is common sense, is it not? However, like all short forms of doctrine, such mantras always conceal as much as they reveal. Who defines the nature of problems? (Hibbs, 2005). Accordingly, what practice and policy outcomes are we looking to measure? Who decides what counts as evidence? (Pease, 2009). Ultimately, whose interests are served?
Pure or neutral concepts don’t really exist because they are applied in a social and political context which is constructed by relations of power. In order to understand power interests we need to look below the surface of social relations. Arguably this insight is what distinguishes the identity of social work. Understandings of behaviour in the social world are informed by deconstructing the wider social and political context. Such an analysis can be discomforting, partly because it often takes us beyond assessments of good and bad; beyond simple black and white narratives. Social workers are required to engage with complexity.
This approach is also what gives social work its radical potential – its capacity to trouble the status quo by exposing concealed assumptions. We are potential canaries in the neoliberal mine. The current drive for trauma-informed and child-centred practice is a good example of a particularly powerful self-evident truth. Who could argue that the welfare and best interests of children must be kept at the centre of child welfare social work? Who would query the need to disrupt inter-generational cycles of trauma? However, if we begin to examine the wider ideological context, some troublesome issues are brought to light. In relation to the design of new statutory practice processes, the introduction of fresh tools or the elevation of practice principles like the contemporary mantra of child-centred practice, it is critically important to ask the question, ‘why now?’ in this place and time? (Garrett, 2009, p. 880). Is it a coincidence that the child-centric practice emphasis that colours recent changes in the law and related practice frameworks for state social work in Aotearoa-New Zealand has been accompanied by a renewed focus on parental responsibility for child well-being in a society riven by systemic social inequality? (Hyslop, 2017). Clearly children have a right to love and care and parents are normally the primary source of nurturing and security. But is it that simple?
No, it isn’t. Social workers realise that needs and responsibilities are met within a wider setting that reaches beyond individual choice and moral character. The capacity of caregivers is affected by the cards they have been dealt: by income levels, access to adequate and affordable housing, community supports, health, education and social services. In an economic context of relative deprivation and disadvantage, what does it mean to say we are ‘here for the child’? Children are more than an abstract bundle of rights that can be separated from the wider social context of family circumstances. So while some argue that we should be more ‘child centred’, the way to actually change things for the child (as well as their parents) is really to be more ‘context centred’ – alert to the ways that the context of family relationships, material and social resources, and community factors affect childhood experiences. These are the targets for change. Often tragic child death cases are used as evidence that professionals had ‘lost sight of the child’. The more common factor is not that the child was not focussed on, but that there were crucial pieces of information not known to the child protection service. These are not the same thing.
Of course we are motivated to deal effectively with abuse and neglect but we need to recognise the struggle that goes with parenting in poverty if we are to create sustainable change. And as social workers we need to unpack the hidden dogma of individuated neoliberal choice and self-responsibility that lurks behind the simple mantra of child-centred practice. We need to recognise that parental capacity is impacted by the social and economic policy choices which we make collectively: as a society. Slogans that serve to conceal such complex realities may help us to sleep at night, but for how long?
Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of ‘problem’. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 17 (2) 32-37.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand: A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800 – 1817.
Garrett, P. (2009). Questioning Habermasian Social Work: A Note on Some Alternative Theoretical Resources. British Journal of Social Work, 39, 867-883.
Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based practice to critical knowledge in post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman, & Pease, B. (Eds.), Critical social work: theories and practices for a socially just world (pp. 45-69). NSW, Australia: Allen &Unwin.
As we know, social work is a broad church with many different fields of practice. As a teacher in a social work programme I often tell students that this depth and variety is one of the beauties of the profession. In this sense, unifying definitions are always something of a challenge. For example, some earlier blog posts have questioned the supposed professional commitment to social justice when social workers generally help people to adapt to our exploitative social and economic system, rather than working to radically change it.
More disturbingly, social workers can potentially entrench social injustice by working in systems that discriminate against certain sections of the population in structurally unequal societies. Social work can therefore be understood as a complex and contradictory undertaking. However, in this short post I would like to keep things simple. I think it is important to cut to the chase a little and get one or two things straight.
Across the English-speaking world social work in child protection has taken an authoritarian turn. Child protection social work will never foster social revolution, but it does not have to be the soul-less practice that it has developed into. The rationale for child welfare intervention in family life and the appropriate form of such intervention is contested (Fox-Harding, 1997; Grey & Webb, 2013). We have a choice about the shape of future practice and to make an informed choice we need to examine the wider political and economic context of current practice. Our child protection paradigm does not exist in a vacuum. It is tangled with the failed political ideology of neoliberalism – and it needs to be untangled!
The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.
In the much anticipated speech which revealed the launch of a new Labour-led coalition government, Winston Peters talked about capitalism. This is significant because mainstream politicians in Aotearoa New Zealand very seldom mention the word. They don’t want to frighten the horses. What Peters suggested is that too many of us see capitalism as a foe rather than a friend and that a return to capitalism with a human face is required. This is a clear reference to the failed politics of neoliberalism. As Filipe Duarte has pointed out, the destructive failure of neoliberal capitalism has spawned a right wing populist politics of prejudice and nationalism. This is graphically illustrated in the Trump debacle. However this realisation can also be an engine for progressive change.
I recently had the privilege of attending the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association in Athens, Greece. At the end of this trip, as we waited for a ride to the airport and the journey home, a rag-tag group of homeless families were sleeping rough in a dusty park behind the bus stop. A frail little girl, maybe four or five, in a torn dress, with matted hair, skin sores and blackened teeth stretched out her tiny arm for some loose change – a studied look of hopelessness in her empty eyes. I have seen this look before – in the intense gaze, both vacant and pleading, of malnourished street children in East Africa and in the teeming cities of India.
Away from the daily grind of social work practice, in the lofty land of international definitions and professional bodies, social work is nominally aligned with the struggle against oppression and the pursuit of social justice. This identity claim is contradictory on at least two fronts. First, it is ideologically fudged in the sense that the nature of social justice and the conditions for establishing it are politically contested. Unsurprisingly, such umbrella definitions reflect a compromise position. International social work organisations have not – and they are not about to – condemn the injustices inherent to globalised capitalism (Gray & Webb, 2013).
In their analysis of the contemporary linkages between sociology and biological science – and the practical realisation of this project in recent social policy and service design – Gillies, Edwards & Horsley (2016) pose some critical questions for social work. The epigenetic argument is that care and love generate a healthy brain, a well-adjusted child, and a successful adult (see also Beddoe, 2017). It follows that parenting – the provision of stability, love and care – is the key to social development. Accordingly, targeted resources should be directed to ensuring that parents who are not doing this job adequately are enabled (or forced) to do so. Further, it is appropriate to terminate the rights of parents if they are incapable of delivering on this responsibility. Such parents are, of course, found amongst the urban poor in western capitalist societies. The way out of poverty is, it seems, ‘love’. And we have the data-base capacity to detect love-less children, and those parents who are unable or unwilling to provide it.