A guest post by Jackie Newton.
Jackie identifies as a feminist and a socialist. In this post she reflects on her social work practice journey over most of forty years (1978-2018) – in and against the state – with DSW, CYPS, Health at all levels, NGOs – in cities, provincial towns and rural settings.
Looking back, she feels that the radical potential of social work has been unhorsed by structural barriers set within the politics and economics of liberal capitalism. This post questions what might have been and asks us to honestly consider where social workers can stand today.
The 1980s was a tumultuous time for social workers, in common with everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand. First there was the Springbok tour – exhausting as well as exhilarating – with many lessons in organising resistance to oppression. Then there was the excitement of the election of the Labour Government in 1984, with so much hope for a better future! Then bewilderment as this Government adopted Rogernomics and Aotearoa New Zealand competed to win the Olympic gold medal for delivering the most hard-line version of neoliberal restructuring.
How did social work and social workers respond, given our commitment to advocacy for progressive social change? Or, as the International Federation of Social Workers puts it: “Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.”
Obviously, there was only one way forward! Social workers formed a network, powerful through its diversity, across workplaces from DSW to Hospital Boards to NGOs. Each had something to contribute, with information about how the neoliberal reforms impacted negatively on their clients. Social workers not only collated information about this, they also involved service users, so that their voices were heard daily in Ministers’ offices.
Social workers used their theoretical and practical knowledge to challenge the underlying assumptions behind right-wing economics. They got the message out there at a time when the national media was sycophantically bowing before the convincing rhetoric of the Government. Social workers were active in their unions and communities, linking the two to form a powerful voice that refused to be silenced.
They used all the lessons from the Tour, the anti-racism movement and their own ingenuity to promote a different progressive vision for the future. The great spin-off was that, quite naturally, social work moved from mostly individual case work to more of an emphasis on conscientization; working with groups of people in the same situation, learning from them, engaging in the development of Freirean praxis.
Sure, there were some social workers that wanted to go down a different route, making social work more of a profession. It was not the time or place for this, and, frankly, there was considerable doubt about the benefit of putting effort into something that ran the risk of distancing social workers from the realities of their clients’ lives in so many ways. To be true to itself, social work needed to concentrate on social justice and do its bit to resist the onslaught of neoliberal economics and the narrow world of exploitative private interest it represents.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So … of course that line of stars divides a dream from the reality. Social workers did not collectively organise effective resistance to the right wing revolution from above. Instead, social work went down the route of turning itself from a job or vocation to a ‘profession’ – with the last step being taken with the amendments to legislation for the Social Work Registration Board in February last year. Social workers celebrated, but was there really cause for celebration?
The main justification behind the change to the legislation was to make sure that clients were safe from incompetent social workers, backed up with a transparent complaint procedure. Yet most social workers work for large organisations – Oranga Tamariki, the DHBs and NGOs like Presbyterian Support – which already have their own in-house training and complaints procedures, not to mention recruitment processes which give some assurance that the social workers they appoint are safe to practice.
The context for our clients is harm that is rooted in the structural rather than in anything that individual social workers do. This goes back to the appalling neglect by Governments over many years of two key factors: the provision of housing and the level of benefits. Have we forgotten that the benefit cuts in 1991 meant that the poorest 25% of households lost around 24 percent of their income, and that benefits have never been restored to their former levels?
Then there are the structural social work-specific factors, which lead to harm for our clients:
- The chronic under-funding of DSW/CYPS/CYFS/Oranga Tamariki (OT) in its many incarnations which resulted in social workers having little room to breathe let alone do thoughtful case work.
- The role of the last National Government in initiating the Modernising Child Youth & Family Report which recommended that children be placed at an early stage in ‘stable and loving families.’
- The failure of the current Government to anticipate that increasing the wages of social workers in OT might impact on NGOs, leading to difficulties in doing the work needed to support families to keep children safe.
- The current lack of mentoring for new social workers to bridge the gap between academic training and front-line social work.
And let’s also reflect on the central contradiction where social work declares its commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi yet works within laws and management practices which have racist outcomes, including:
- The Subsequent Children provisions which bypassed the usual procedures of the former Children Young Persons and their Families (CYPF) Act 1989 and which affects Māori disproportionately.
- The failure of successive Governments to implement the provisions of the CYPF Act 1989 that were aimed at supporting Māori to care for their own, which directly related to the Puao te Ata Tu report of the John Rangihau-led advisory committee.
Is it any wonder that te Ao Māori is up in arms about the role that social workers play in taking Māori children away from their whanau? And where are the social workers that are daily speaking out and lobbying their MPs and the relevant Ministers of the Crown every time legislation and practice like this – through omission or commission – conflicts with social work ethics?
And do we really think that an Annual Practising Certificate and Continuing Professional Development are going to be the finger in the dam holding back the flood of structural issues that make life so dangerous for our clients right now?
Yes, of course there are social workers that work hard for social justice and manage to incorporate social action into their daily working lives. But most of us muddle through; heads down, obeying the rules, maybe feeding our concerns up to the likes of ANZASW, but essentially making a living and hoping that nothing goes too drastically wrong on our watch. We do this because we can.
How many job descriptions put social action as central to what we do as social workers, and measure this? How many employers would welcome social workers really implementing social justice with their clients? Ask yourself why. Because social work is a job, dictated by what the employer wants and is willing to pay for. And this trumps social work aspirations to social justice, because the structural always trumps the individual.
If anyone disagrees with this assessment of contemporary social work, I suggest that they look at the training opportunities in ANZASW’s regular email. I see training on trauma – lots of that, the flavour de jour – and on different counselling approaches such as little figures, play therapy, family therapy, interactive drawing therapy and so on ….
Where is the training on how to make social action a priority, without losing your job? Or when ethically to walk off the job? How to make social justice such a priority that legislators would not dare expect social workers to implement legislation such as the Subsequent Children clauses of the OT Act? (Okay, since drafting this post last year, there has been the odd training on social action, but nothing compared to individual-focused training).
We could have been a force to be reckoned with. We are not the collective group we might have been – and this is not the country it could have been.
I fear we may have lost that opportunity now that social work has joined the ranks of lawyers and doctors. It may be that our assumed mantle of social action (if it ever was so central to social work) will pass to the likes of family workers for NGOs, whanau-ora navigators and youth workers, and to people taking political action outside social work. Perhaps it is high time to stop pretending and take social action out of the definition of social work.
# Comments and discussion on this post is welcomed!
Image Credit: tind