Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world. Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.
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.
Child protection and family support social workers really need to have it all: a strong political analysis, an understanding of organisations and a decent handle on relevant micro theories. In service of the latter, a rather obscure recent announcement was made about attachment theory. This is of interest to the child protection and family support communities due to the dominance of the theory in education and practise, and its usefulness in understanding some aspects of adult-child relationships.
A guest post by John Darroch, PhD Candidate, University of Auckland
Over the past week or so there have been a few blog posts on this site focusing on what the new Labour government means for social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. The general view of the authors seems to be that things are looking up, but that we will have to remain critical, and active, in order to push this government in the right direction.
In this post I intend to look more specifically at how the profession should position itself, and what we can do to maximise our impact. While the new government may have noble intentions there is no guarantee that this will always translate into sound social policy. There will be a range of competing interest groups, holding varying ideological beliefs, which will be working to influence this government when it comes to social policy. In particular this post aims to inspire individuals to think about how they can increase their effectiveness, and make their voice count.
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.
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.
Who hasn’t seen the brains? The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect. I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.
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 proposed changes to our child protection legislation take us back in time. They bury the vision of Püao-te-Āta-tü and signal a return to rescue-mentality foster care. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 set out to combat the effects of institutional racism by ensuring that children are understood in the context of whanau, the primary unit of Māori society. This emphasis is radically undermined by the proposed law changes. Securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity is the new driving purpose. The outcomes will be discriminatory for Māori – not for middle class whanau mind, but for those at the bottom of the social and economic pile. This, according to the language of accountants, is where the unacceptable fiscal cost associated with benefits and prisons is generated. The most effective way to fix this is earlier removal, permanency and de-traumatisation. Cultural links can be maintained as part of individual identity but failing whanau can be written off. When it is stripped to the bone, this is the racist, classist and eugenic thinking we are up against. How have we come to this?
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?”