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.
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.
It is not difficult to be pessimistic about the future of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand at the present point in time. However I want to convey a sense of genuine optimism. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Social work has always been a challenging and conflicted job – that is the beauty of doing it well. It is important to have a critical understanding of the relationship between our practice and its wider context, historically, and in the now. According to Featherstone, White, and Morris (2014, p.36), social work needs…
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.
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.
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.
The slideshow below is of my address to the PSA Social Work Action Network conference on 1st and 2nd of September 2016 at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand. I talked about the way in which social services are applying an increasingly punitive approach to the most disadvantaged people in our society.
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?”