Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Looking at the budget announcement of a new specialist support service delivered from 5 Oranga Tamariki sites “employing family/whanau support workers to support children and young people who are at risk of harm to be safe in their home”, I am pleased to see that at least some form of initiative has come to pass, albeit 3.5 years out from the Expert Panel recommendation for an intensive intervention programme. Having said that, this response remains seriously underwhelming. It reflects the inability of Oranga Tamariki and the current Government to get its priorities right in relation to child protection social work. In this post I will consider some of the challenges in moving child protection practice from a statutory care focus to a social work support focus. I will also explore some of the tensions arising from the conflicted legislative mandate within which this particular specialist support service will operate.
When seeking to understand the performance of Oranga Tamariki (OT) it is important to be mindful of the context. Statutory child protection practice is challenging (and sometimes very rewarding) work that is often carried out by hard working and highly skilled social workers. Currently the work occurs within a risk-averse hierarchical bureaucracy which often tends not to provide the required level of support for good decision making in complex situations. Support for careful whānau and tamariki-centred social work is found in well supervised and resourced practice teams where uncertainty is recognised, responsibility is shared and where capable social workers are nurtured.
The following is a personal reflection on the week that has passed. It is – of course – so very difficult to comprehend the bloody horror that erupted in Christchurch on March 15. Waves of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness are rolling through our communities as we all struggle to make sense of this event. Those of us at the edge can only imagine the unfolding grief of those at the centre who have lost friends and kin. There are no adequate words still. Perhaps there never will be. Aroha mai.
The Labour-led coalition government has provided some relative respite from the overt demonising of those who are excluded from what Simon Bridges describes as the “Kiwi way of life”. This way of life, it seems, is epitomised by tax-free speculation in the private rental property market. Is this our communal cultural lode-stone? Unfettered profits from investment in rental properties? Really? Do we really all hold a sacred place for what is a fundamentally exploitative, unequal and unfair practice? Give me strength! It has been pleasant to have a break from all that banality about “good” mum and dad “Kiwis”which John Key was so fond of. The interests of the good Kiwis that Bridges has been talking about are in fact the interests of a privileged class of people. Conservative political parties have erroneously conflated the interests of private property owners with the well-being of us all since early colonial land grab times. It is the cornerstone of political Liberalism after all (Duncan, 2007). It is high time to stop milking the politics of fear in the golf clubs of an imaginary middle New Zealand Simon.
The Government promised us capitalism with a human face. To be fair, serious political attention is being directed at the social consequences of capitalism for the first time in decades. However, the soothing language of wellbeing can be deceptive. I think it is important to understand that this public policy initiative has serious limitations which are disguised in the current political context. Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) is a small liberal capitalist society. This model of economic, social and political arrangements sets the possibilities for reform and limits our perceptions of alternatives. I will argue here that we need to think outside of the liberal capitalist box if we are to imagine (and make) real distributive change.
I have incorporated some simple arithmetic in the title of this blog post because I want to make the key point clear. As the Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft stated in a recent TV1 interview elaborating on his October 2018 State of Care Report, the proportion of children in state care who are Māori has risen to around two-thirds. Although the report itself is mainly concerned with the proposed development of community group homes as an alternative to institutional care, the text does focus on the lost opportunity for whanau, hapu and Iwi empowerment envisaged in the CYP&tF Act, 1989 and argues that we have a chance to reclaim this vision under the provisions of the reconfigured Oranga Tamariki Act. In many ways it is encouraging to see the Commissioner asserting this position, however the full picture is glossed over somewhat.
We live in a social system that is configured by relations of class and privilege which are economically produced and reproduced. We need to understand the relationship between this reality and the past, present (and possible future of social work). This involves recognising the context of our practice and engaging with the contest of interests and ideas which surround us: questioning the dominant psychologised discourse and bringing critical social and political voices back into theory and practice.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the ANZSWWER symposium in Adelaide on the topic Disrupting the Narrative – Creating a Progressive Future for Social Work. I argued that social workers have historically worked with oppressed people in ways that are either caring or controlling and which often involve elements of both.
Neoliberal capitalism and instrumental science are a powerful combination but they are not the only games in town. The challenge for social work in the face of contemporary systemic inequality is to work alongside those who are constructed as our clients – with people rather than on them. Service users are not products to be developed or projects to be built. The following slides explore and develop this historical imperative and consider progressive strategies relevant to the here and now.
The Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) Conference – ‘the future is in the past’ – is being held at the Victoria University of Wellington this year: 4-7 December 2018. The following link takes you to a call for papers. Following the very successful incorporation of a Social Work Stream at the 2017 SAANZ Conference in Dunedin, the 2018 Conference will include a social work stream under the broad theme of Disrupting the Narrative. We hope to see you there.
Image credit: Global Justice Now
When thinking about the past, present and future of social work it is instructive to bear in mind that its theory and practice is politically located (Gray & Webb, 2013). More specifically, social work in the Western context is embedded in the historical evolution of capitalism. Capitalism is a dynamic, often mesmerising, means of production and distribution which is both creative and destructive. There are some major difficulties with it as a model of development. As Karl Marx pointed out, it exploits working people, extracting surplus value from their labour (Hollander, 2008). Why do you think manufacturing has shifted to distant sweat-shops over the last forty years or so?
Social work practice has its challenges and contradictions in a class society, so all the more reason to make meaningful connections between practice quality and social injustice. Hope, they say, is important not because a just society is easy to create – it is important because the struggle for social equality is valuable in itself. I recently had the opportunity to attend the launch of an anti-poverty practice framework for social work in Northern Ireland.
This framework seeks to build an understanding of material deprivation into all fields of social work practice. In themselves, new frameworks do not transform child welfare work that is driven by risk aversion and managerial constraints but this sort of re-thinking and commitment to a poverty-informed practice focus is a powerful beginning. It could and should be done here. The slide-show below (presented at the SWSD conference in Dublin) explores some of the questions we need to ask ourselves if we are to move from rhetoric to reality.