A surfeit of inexpert opinion and the legacy of failure to invest in social work?

On April 1 the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley announced that an independent review, led by Paula Rebstock, would develop a business case for a “new operating model to modernise CYF, enhance its governance and assurance, and will have a wide-ranging brief to consider all aspects of CYF operations”. With not one shred of evidence presented, as is frequently the case in this current regime, Minister Tolley opined: “New Zealand used to be a world leader in the field of child protection, but I believe we are now eight to ten years behind in our thinking”. In the follow up the next day, the mainstream media failed to find any expert opinion other than the usual suspects.

The “experts” on Tolley’s review panel went to ground, perhaps with a long reading list so they could speed-read their way to some minimal level of knowledge about child protection social work, in which none are qualified? The mainstream politicians responded with vague support. It even took the Greens nearly a week to note in a blog by Metiria Turei that a review led by Rebstock could hardly be a good thing. It took bloggers and activists in many other spheres to raise a critical interrogation of this truly alarming development. This blog got the party started with a series of blogs (see here for a summary) and the new blog run by the Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand was launched.

Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills was one of the few people with an understanding of child protection who was asked to comment. Commissioner Wills spoke eloquently about the demands on child protection social workers and the needs of the children they work alongside. He then made an extraordinary statement:

“Currently,” he told listeners, “you can graduate from a university with a degree in social work in New Zealand and know very little about child protection or domestic violence or the impact of abuse and neglect on a children’s development … That’s not ok.”

As I have observed over my social work career, everyone is an expert on social work, and many of the self-appointed, like Dr Wills sadly on this occasion, do not let the absence of any facts get in the way of a good sound bite. I am a social work educator and researcher, with 20 years’ experience (and 14 years in practice), and I could write Dr Wills a long description of the extensive coverage of family violence, child protection and so forth in the degree programmes in my department but we would prefer to have that conversation in person. Dr Wills is welcome to come and sit down with my wonderful colleagues and students and I am sure that welcome would be extended in any school of social work.

Much has been written over the past two weeks about the needs of social workers in their demanding roles, Minister Tolley acknowledges their work is challenging, though she seems to not know very much about it. Her predecessor Minister Bennett, in November 2013, launched a vague attack on social work, seemingly also fuelled by anecdote:

I think there has (sic) been questions repeatedly raised for me (sic) both within the Child, Youth and Family organisation but wider than that in all of those other organisations that are working in it, not just about the capability of those who are within the sector now but the capability of those who are coming out of the universities and tertiary institutions (Bennett –transcribed speech, 11 November, 2013).

Not so long before that I had sat in a room in Wellington with colleagues from the other universities being complimented on our programmes and our graduates, by employees of the same ministry. Hmmm, these Ministers along with the Commissioner for Children seem to have a big problem with social work education, but have they ever set foot in a school of social work or ever had an in-depth conversation with a social work academic? Minister Bennett failed to provide a scrap of evidence for her ‘controversial’ remarks. And then off she went to do nothing at all about social work education, just like every other minister. No discussion with the universities, no request to review the curriculum, no investigation of workforce development needs… Nothing. So what is the agenda? Inevitably this comes down to politics. The Minister probably wants cheaper graduates and preferably compliant bureaucrats who will be uncritical and apply interventions to families. Perhaps she will ape Martin Narey in the UK who fulminated here about some social work teaching that is “preoccupied with what is termed ‘non-oppressive practice’ and the notion that families that come under the auspices of safeguarding professionals are victims of societal inequalities who need to be ‘empowered’ rather than criticised”. The Narey report was also notable for its lack of evidence and its hasty, rather crude anecdotal style. Perhaps this is the briefing Minister Tolley has given Rebstock. After all there are plenty of examples in Cameron’s Britain to copy about how to criticise and smack down poor families and punish them for their poverty and social exclusion.

I have been reflecting over the last few days about how many thousands of dollars was spent just by my school alone in trips to Wellington to explain the impact of poor investment in social work to ministers and civil servants, the Tertiary Education Commission, anyone who would listen for five minutes. The schools of social work have argued tirelessly for realistic funding of social work education (Nash & Munford, 2001). Despite the demands of clinical teaching and supervised practicum, we are funded to teach social work at the same level as arts and humanities. In many institutions it is recognised that social work education can be intensive and is grossly under-funded. There is no funding to support agencies to provide clinical placements even though these are required by the Social Workers Registration Board in line with international best practice. Good clinical training is at the heart of professional education. Governments have failed for decades to make any investment in continuing professional development for social workers and there has been no profession wide workforce study since 1981(Rochford & Robb). There is no beginning practitioners programme with funding for additional support and education as there is for many other professions- teaching and nursing for example. Most social workers can access little more than a few hundred dollars for professional development, others have virtually nothing and the SWRB only requires that registered social workers complete a minimum of 20 hours CPD per year. This is less than the previous requirement, but the SWRB decided following an audit that more onerous requirements could put social workers in a difficult position if they were not supported by their employer to do so (Duke, 2012). Most employers cannot afford more.We have a very low rate of study beyond qualifying education. This is not healthy for a profession and has been generously addressed in other professions.

To finish, by way of comparison, let’s look at what happens in Scotland, (pop. 5.3 m), where social work is registered, the initial qualification is a four year degree or a qualifying master’s programme. So very much like New Zealand (pop.4.5 m) except there is protection of title unlike here where the national government has failed so far to require mandatory registration, despite broad agreement across the sector that this is desirable, and would bring social work into line with other professions. Here’s how the Scottish government (in whole or in part) supports social work related initiatives to develop the workforce:

The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services: promoting innovation and knowledge for practice

Social Services Knowledge Scotland: includes a social services knowledge management strategy and workforce wide access to journals)

Scottish Social Services Council: a properly funded registration body that extends registration to all residential child care staff and includes workforce planning data and a continuous learning framework.

Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children: offers an MSc in Residential Child Care and publishes the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care.

The Child Protection Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

Minister Tolley we can do better. We can resource social workers and others to work creatively and collaboratively with families. But please let us see your government put some resources into social work rather than oblique attacks,blaming and punishing the messengers. You have not been listening.

Liz Beddoe is a social work educator/researcher at the University of Auckland.

The views expressed in this blog post are her own and do not represent views held by her employer or any association to which she belongs.

Previously posted in Social Work Research in New Zealand

References

Beddoe, L. (2014). A matter of degrees: The role of education in the professionalisation journey of social work in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 26(2/3), 17-28.

Beddoe, L., & Duke, J. (2013). Continuing professional development of registered social workers in New Zealand Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 25(3), 35-49.

Duke, J. (2012). Registration and professional practice. Social Work Now 51, 9-16.

Nash, M., & Munford, R. (2001). Unresolved struggles: Educating social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Work Education, 20(1), 21-34.

Rochford, M. W., & Robb, M. J. (1981). People in the social services. Wellington: New Zealand Social Work Training Council

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