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.
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.