Celebrating diversity! Umm? and why the question – kei hea te putea? is more important than ever.

 A  guest post by David Kenkel

Fraser and Honneth (2003) suggest that one useful way to slice up politics is to distinguish between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution. You could also talk about identity politics (Gergen, 1995) versus the politics of class. Whatever it is named, this type of political critique looks at the difference between the social struggles of diverse groups for recognition and fair treatment versus the basic question of how a society allocates resources. Arguably, during the rise of neoliberalism the politics of recognition has played a more centre-stage role. Distribution is portrayed as a question better answered by the marketplace than political will or the desires of an electorate.

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Child-centred or context-centred practice?

 

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?

References
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.

Professionals against prisons Aotearoa

A guest blog post by Kendra Cox (BSW student, University of Auckland and organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa. Iwi affiliations Te Ure o Uenukukōpako, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tuhoe and Ngāti Porou)

A few weeks ago the recently elected Labour-led government announced that they are considering taking up the torch for the proposed Waikeria prison expansion floated under the National party in 2016 (Department of Corrections, 2016). The prospective expansion to the Waikato facility, just south of Te Awamutu, has ballooned from an extra capacity of 1500 to 3000 in the last eighteen months (Fisher, 2018a; Otorohanga District Council, 2017). The newest figures would raise the capacity of Waikeria Prison from 778 to nearly 3800, a higher number than our three largest correctional facilities combined. This ‘mega-prison’ has been celebrated by some, who are keen to see the influx of cash and jobs to the rural Waikato (Biddle, 2017). But the rapidly increasing prison population, which exceeded 10,000 last year and is now nearly 10,700 (Fisher, 2018a), has to be measured in more than just economic stimulation for the regions. Mass incarceration in Aotearoa should be measured instead by the human cost of families and communities ripped apart, of lives destroyed, and of social problems that continue to find a foothold and flourish in an increasingly unequal society.

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The problem with checklists in child protection work

A guest post by Eileen Joy, PhD candidate, University of Auckland

In the United Kingdom, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) have been getting a lot of government attention recently – largely due to a government committee announcing, in October 2017, that it was going to “examine the strength of the evidence linking adverse childhood experiences with long-term negative outcomes, he evidence base for related interventions, whether evidence is being used effectively in policy-making, and the support and oversight for research into this area”.  Here in New Zealand the conversation about ACEs has been less official, but has still permeated government departments and local social media, with exhortations to watch Nadine Burke Harris’ ‘Ted Talk’ about them.

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Social Workers – What and who are we here for?

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.

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Why social work needs pride

A guest post by Eileen Joy, PhD candidate, University of Auckland

This weekend just past, I took both my children, and one of their friends, to the Auckland Pride parade. They had an absolute blast. They loved the colours, the energy, the vibe. They adored collecting stickers and ‘high-fives’ and cheering loudly as Jacinda Ardern passed.  We even had the privilege of a number of hugs from people we knew in the parade who ran over to share their excitement with us. And, thanks have to go to the lovely group of men beside us, whom I assume were not altogether straight, who laughed alongside us, made room for the three children, and gave their rainbow flags to us. I have to say it was, hands down, the best Pride parade I’ve been to yet.

But.

We still get asked why we need the Pride parade. We still get told there are bigger issues. We still get told, you have marriage equality, why do you need more? We even get these questions from fellow social workers.

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Social workers call for the release of child political prisoners

This is a speech made by Shannon Pakura on 3rd February 2018 to a rally organised by Wellington Palestine protesting the arrest of Ahed Tamimi and all Palestinian child political prisoners

Kia ora, I’m Shannon Pakura, President of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers and I’m here to protest the arrest and detention of Ahed Tamimi and all Palestinian child political prisoners.

The facts are appalling: the Israeli state detains between 500 and 700 children (aged between 12 and 17) each year. They are tried in military courts with a prosecution rate of almost one hundred percent. The vast majority are tried for the crime of throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli Occupation Forces and their military vehicles: a crime that is punishable, depending on circumstances, by up to ten or twenty years in prison.  A UNICEF report found that around two thirds of children detained by the Israeli military testified to being violently abused during their arrest and detention, some said they were threatened with sexual assault. Since the year 2000 more than 12,000 children have been detained, and the problem is becoming more acute. The Palestinian child prisoner population has doubled in the last three years.

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A new paradigm for child protection practice

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!

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Promote the empowerment and liberation of people: Boycott Israel!

Context is everything. All social workers know this: that to make sense of a situation, to assess it, we need to put events into context. Put another way, private troubles are often connected to public issues, but we only see this when we make an effort to join the dots, to locate the micro in the macro. This connection, between the personal and the political, is at the heart of what it is to do social work. As the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) states:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing (IFSW, 2014)

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Heroes or villains, or is social work more complicated?

Over the past few months there have been a few debates on Twitter (where I talk to many people in many countries about all sorts of social work and politics stuff) about our profession and the nature of our public perception. This often-debated issue is inextricably tied up with our representation in ‘the media’. There is a long-standing theme in the literature going back to the 70s that the profession is given a tough time in the media. Like used-car sales people and estate agents we’re rarely in the news for doing good. Which is utterly aggravating (and underlining the contradictions) when we often suffer the disparaging epithet ‘do-gooder’.

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