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.

Social work and social investment: Fear and loathing in Aotearoa

The so-called social investment strategy being implemented by the current Government is based on a narrow individualised analysis of the causes of poor social outcomes. The intent is to spend some money on problem people now in order to reduce social costs in the future. The specific focus is on reducing the long term cost of benefits and prisons.

Like much ideologically loaded social policy there is a strong superficial appeal. Social service workers are familiar with the idea that social deficits can be inter-generationally reproduced and that the traumatic effects of violence and abuse can echo down the generations. It is a short step from this insight to accepting the idea that we need to fix these people – efficiently and effectively, once and for all.

Continue reading Social work and social investment: Fear and loathing in Aotearoa

Social work and the chimes of freedom flashing: Some thoughts on future change

If we are serious about developing new visions for social work – rethinking how we can work in ways that change the oppressive relationships that structure the lives of people – we need to find strategies that do more than alter the behaviour of individuals. However, social work is not a free-floating activity which we can shape at will.

Continue reading Social work and the chimes of freedom flashing: Some thoughts on future change

Hope for change at close of year

It is useful – I think – to reflect on the busy year that is now drawing in and to focus on the hopes and dreams that lie ahead of us. In various ways the aim of our RSW Collective has been to contribute to a re-thinking of the aims and aspirations of social work in turbulent times. Above all it is critical to recognise that social work is influenced by a broader context of economic and political relations.

Continue reading Hope for change at close of year

Train coming: Destination ‘Child Rescue’.

More rooms – more elephants! There are numerous references in the posts on this site to poverty, inequality and social justice in relation to child protection. These relationships are complex. The urban poor are, for example, subject to a higher level of professional surveillance than the residents of our gated and ‘leafy’ suburbs. However it is clear that the incidence and prevalence of child abuse is higher in relatively impoverished communities (Pelton, 2015). This should not come as any great surprise – the rates of crime, imprisonment, educational under-achievement and poor health outcomes are also higher. Why wouldn’t they be? The more important question in the current climate is “what does this mean for the ‘every-day’ practice of child protection social work?”

Continue reading Train coming: Destination ‘Child Rescue’.

What is really going on here?

Ideas are never neutral. As Marx and Engels observed, those who define the dominant ideas control the world:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. (Marx & Engels, 1964)

The following is a brief historical exploration of how the seductive and insidious ideology of neoliberalism has come not only to dominate the social policy landscape in Aotearoa – New Zealand  but also to colonise our common sense and rob us of our political imaginations.

Continue reading What is really going on here?

The road not taken

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to be clear that that the CYF Review process, outcome and ongoing implementation, is not a neutral or dispassionate exercise. It has and will continue to be, politically and ideologically orchestrated. In this sense the ‘review’ has been about constructing a narrative to fit within a predetermined frame that is consistent with the Government’s wider social investment policy programme. The agenda is about reducing the downstream fiscal cost caused by ‘vulnerable’ people and “productivity”.

Continue reading The road not taken