Where has my radicalism gone? Revisited (again!)

This is a guest post from Lauren Bartley

Over the last few years, I have contributed a couple of blogs to Reimagining Social Work, reflecting on the grief I felt at losing my sense of radicalism once I started working as a social worker. You can read those blogs here and here, but a quick rehash: throughout my degree, I became pretty disillusioned by how little focus contemporary social work placed on social justice. It seemed that social work was more about putting plasters on people, and adjusting people to their circumstances, rather than trying to change those circumstances. I had created a name for myself as a bit of a radical and got pretty fired up in my classes and assignments about what social workers should really be doing. And then I got my first social work job, and reality hit. Workload, time constraints, and organisational suppression of anything remotely political meant that I was really restrained in what I could do, and I quickly felt my sense of radicalism slipping away.

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Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and its intersections with the youth justice system

Anita Gibbs (Associate Professor, University of Otago) is a longstanding social worker, teacher, researcher and advocate for young people with FASD and their families. In 2020 she received the Universities New Zealand ‘Critic and Conscience of Society’ award for her outstanding work in this area. Anita is currently undertaking research with caregivers and stakeholders on the topic of living well with FASD across the lifespan. 

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Mental health services in Aotearoa: A system in constant crisis

This blog post is extracted from a recent editorial of the journal Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work written by Neil Ballantyne and Liz Beddoe. The editorial extract refers to a commentary in the journal by Genevieve Smith and Joanna Appleby.


In their commentary on the “Social work practice implications of upcoming mental health reforms”, Genevieve Smith and Joanna Appleby offer an informative account of the key challenges for mental health services and for people experiencing mental distress in Aotearoa New Zealand. They contextualise their discussion with reference to the impact of four decades of neoliberal reforms on our people and on our health and social services—reforms that have fostered deep economic inequality, racism, precarity and despair in the lives of the many (see, also, the review of Ferguson, 2017 in this issue). These reforms have devastated mental health services through underfunding, service rationing and managerial business models that alienate service users, pressurise frontline workers and fracture service provision. Smith and Appleby explore four challenges faced by those who would reform mental health services: the steady growth in demand for services along with the severity of presenting problems, the failure to maintain or increase the supply of services leading to issues with service accessibility, the postcode lottery of service variability between the 20 District Health Boards, and staff retention and burnout (partly a product of the first two challenges).

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Social work and the un-justice system

This is a guest post from Bex Rillstone. Bex graduated the MSW(P) Programme, University of Auckland, in 2018. She has worked as a housing social worker in South Auckland and as a Family Start social worker with a kaupapa Māori NGO. Bex now works in a male prison, delivering rehabilitation programmes. She also sits on the Labour Party Justice Policy Committee, advocating for changes within the Justice and Corrections systems.

I have been working in a men’s prison for almost two years now. There is something unsettling about working within a Justice system that remains so fundamentally unjust. Many people have asked me why I choose this line of work. The answer is that I purposely chose to move towards my fear rather than away from it. I already knew, from international research and national recidivism rates, that the prison system doesn’t work – for perpetrators or for victims.

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Dissent, Struggle and Change: OT – The world in a teardrop

As many others will be doing at this uncertain time, I am hunkering down and wondering about the state of the play in the world as I know it. On a global scale the hypocrisy and ultimate futility of the US project in Afghanistan is gobsmacking. On a bigger scale still, the growing evidence of a planet pushed to breaking point by the extractive profit driven commodification of all things is chilling. Closer to home we have a virus to surround and conquer. It does seem that our politicians and public health specialists are close to being on the same page and we can have some confidence that this outbreak will be isolated and extinguished. We also have winds of change blowing through the bureaucracy of our state child protection system in Aotearoa. In this blog post I want to touch on the indirect connections – the conjuncture – between some of these things.

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Education for people in prison: How, why and what’s the point?

In the latest RSW podcast Emily Keddell interviews Fairleigh Gilmour, an academic in Gender studies and Criminology at the University of Otago. Fairleigh has run a volunteering programme into the Milton prison for a number of years, after discovering how few students in her criminology classes had ever been into a prison. Her programmes involve recruiting and training students to develop their own classes and run them for men in the local prison.

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Some notes on science and the social world

There is a troubled relationship between social work and science. Although western social work is not separate from the historical development of Enlightenment science and what has come to be understood as the project of modernity, it has always sat uncomfortably within this schema of knowledge. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650) science has advanced a claim to objective truth – that the tool of scientific reason is a mechanism for naming, understanding, and controlling the world (Hyslop, 2012). There are more than a few problems with this belief system.

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Residential Abuse and Child Protection Reform

Given the extensive and harrowing testimony presented to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State and Faith-Based Care we should not be surprised by the recent whistle-blower evidence of physical abuse in a Care and Protection residence. I have read copious case records of young people placed in institutional care settings in the 2000s which document incidents of violent and coercive behaviour by residential staff during this period. Not all staff were guilty of this sort of practice and it didn’t happen all the time.

Any such behaviour is unacceptable and indefensible, but we don’t really need our politicians to repeat these platitudes to us – we already know that. What we need is a plan to abolish the residential incarceration for children in need of care. Andrew Becroft is right to point out that secure residential regimes are not fit for purpose. They are challenging workplaces. Staffing gaps tend to be filled by casual contracted workers. High needs young people grouped together in rule saturated behaviour management systems form hierarchies and actively push back against the system. They are gold-fish bowls – small prisons for kids – and they don’t work. All too often staff end up controlling children with bullying and  intimidating practices of their own.

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On any given day

When we kicked off this blog site we envisaged a creative space that challenged complacent doxa – that rattled a few cages and imagined a different social work in a world made both more equal and more free. We have chipped away at this all the way along – exploring the boundaries of what might be done. Recently we have experimented with podcast interviews – changing up from the usual run of opinion and commentary pieces. Today I though I’d provide another angle: woke up this morning with a prose poem in my head and needed to let it go …

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He Pāharakeke, He Rito Whakakīkinga Whāruarua

I have read the pre-publication Report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2915) – Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry – with great interest. It is, at least potentially, a ground-breaking report. It signals the possibility of significant systemic change to the child protection system in Aotearoa – especially for Māori. The report should, I think, be read by everyone with an interest in this future. The core recommendation for a transformational transition authority is, I believe, a challenge and an opportunity which must be grasped by the state.

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