Events in the recent past – perhaps over the last ten years – have left me with questions about the future of social work practice and social work education. Events in the more distant past provide some clues about progressive ways forward, or at least some pointers about approaches which are best avoided. As I have argued in this blog space for some time, the origins of child and family social work are linked to late nineteenth century responses to problems inherent to the capitalist mode of development (Ferguson, 2004).
Liberal political theory was – and is – the key ideological support system for capitalist social relations: for naturalising and normalising an extractive and exploitive mode of economic and social life. Considerable effort is expended in promoting the belief that everyone can thrive under liberal capitalism. This isn’t true. In capitalist societies a significant number of people are inevitably pushed to the social margins. This is a simple objective reality that has remained constant over time. For the most part, these are the people serviced, or targeted, by social workers.
There are other historical constants. The state has consistently sought to divide marginalised social groups from the mainstream working class (Jones, 1984). The idea that social deficits of various kinds (such as child abuse and benefit dependency) are reproduced by socially inadequate families who have failed to exercise appropriate choices in a ‘free’ liberal society is a powerful and persistent fantasy. It was present in the remoralising activities of the Charity Organisation Society and the child rescue movement which arose in England in the late nineteenth century. Importantly it was also present in the formative demographic research carried out by Charles Booth in London the 1890s.
The scientific imperative to classify and categorise people into distinct social groupings has continued to be employed as a means of dividing the deviant from the good citizens of middle New Zealand. It re-emerged with a vengeance in the policy documents associated with the lengthy process of National-led child protection reform from 2011 to 2015. The inadequate category D of costly and inadequate service users imagined by the New Zealand Productivity Commission is the contemporary equivalent of Booth’s class H of immoral and vicious paupers. The same discursive processes are at work. Both have eugenic roots (Flanagan, 2018) and both disguise the way in which capitalism creates social suffering.
It is this thinking which generated the safe, stable, and loving homes at the earliest opportunity formula associated with the Expert Panel process. It is now widely recognised that this policy and practice approach generated unequal outcomes for whānau Māori. History could have told us this if we had bothered to look. The radical spike in state care for Māori in the 1970s resulted from the positioning of Māori on the frayed edges of the working class. It was about rescuing the children of the poor. We went back down that track with the modernising child youth and family project and we should have known better.
Institutionalising the children of urban whanau Māori was, in turn, the result of a legacy of colonial dispossession. Cultural assimilation facilitated the imposition of liberal capitalism upon a communal people. We called it modernisation (Harris, 2007). This was part of a wider strategy to separate Māori from their land to provide wage labour for a capitalist economy (Poata-Smith, 2002). Post war urbanisation saw Māori disproportionately located on the impoverished margins of the working class. Their children were taken into state care as a direct consequence. Demographic factors, cultural stress, systemic racism, and relative poverty all played their part. Sorry, but that is what happened.
In combination with racist practice, economic and demographic forces combined to produce a legacy of abuse and incarceration for Māori which continues to resonate in contemporary inequality and social distress (Cook, 2020; Sutherland, 2020). None of this was uncontested. The Māori resistance which produced Puao te Ata Tu in the 1980s was the same resistance which challenged the racist practice of the late 2010s. Puao te Ata Tu gave a semblance of power without real authority or resources. Will things be different this time?
We have a new OT Chief Executive. We have a new group of professionals apparently looking into things. However, we still have a socio-political system that systematically reproduces social inequality and we still have a living legacy of colonisation, impoverishment, and alienation. What we do, or should, recognise is that targeting and blaming a section of the working-class population for the deficits of the capitalism is an arse about face way of understanding causation. This is no place for social work to occupy and it is time we kicked this sort of thinking back to the nineteenth century where it belongs.
We do have a rising tide (again) of Māori energy to reclaim authority over service provision, design, and delivery.
Our call, and the key recommendation in this report, is for a total transformation of the statutory care and protection system. By that I mean nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responsibility, resources, and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori. (OCC, Part 2, 2020, p.6)
In embracing this opportunity, we also need to grasp the fact that poverty and inequality are economically and politically reproduced. The Richardson benefit cuts of 1991 sacrificed the well-being of two generations of New Zealand children on the alter of economic dogma. Child abuse and the ‘detect and rescue’ child protection system is fueled by social inequality and social breakdown. This is a function of capitalism. In my experience the adult clients of the child protection system are multiply stressed young brown women parenting in poverty. Why wouldn’t they be?
Child protection is complex. Children suffer hurt from adults. Adults suffer hurt from punitive and racist systems. I am confident that people are telling Kelvin Davis that cultural practice models – mātauranga Māori driven solutions – are clearly a big part of the answer. As Naida Glavish has articulated, Māori providers can build trust: get closer to their own people. The time for lip-service has passed. However, I also hope somebody tells this ‘kind’ government of ours that liberal capitalism is systemically flawed and will not deliver social justice for alienated Māori or anyone else on the edge of the capitalist social form.
This is not a comfortable truth for politicians within the soft neoliberal rubric of contemporary politics (Žižek, 2014) but … well … I think that the time for ‘let’s pretend’ has also passed. Perhaps it is time for real changes in governance arrangements – if we are serious about meaningful Māori authority (Potter and Jackson, 2017). It’s not over till it’s over, and somehow I don’t think that history is over yet.
Where, then, does all of this leave the social work profession in a world troubled by suffering and strife – a world with its back against the wall, ravaged by a global pandemic? Way back in 2004 Ferguson proposed that the rehabilitation of child protection (and perhaps social work itself) requires a deep appreciation of the historic and contemporary nuances of applied practice: “It is no exaggeration to say that the very future of social work itself rests on reaching a deeper understanding of child protection” (p.7).
And what of the wider historical, political, and economic context? More recently Maylea (2020) has asserted that social work is a hopelessly conservative and conflicted profession that should be ‘pushed into the sea’:
The reality is that a toothless, depoliticised social work serves the agenda of the right, providing an ineffective cover for inequality while failing to address it. Only by clearing the field of battle can other, stronger forces progress the struggle against inequality. (Maylea, 2020, p. 3)
In response, Garrett (2020) has argued for a reclamation of solidarity and dissent: that “…we live in an interconnected world that can only be economically and relationally sustained if we are collectively committed to socialist ethics and values rooted in interdependency, mutual caring and solidarity”(p.15). He argues that a ‘dissenting social work’ is an integral part of a wider struggle for liberation on many fronts and in many forms. In this analysis social work becomes “…in Gramsci’s formulation – part of the ‘earthworks’ and one of the trenches of civil society where battle must be engaged (Forgacs, 1988, p. 52).” (Garrett, 2020, p. 15).
Is this possible? What do you think? And what might all of this mean in the Aotearoa context – right here, right now?
Image credit: Ron ron
Ferguson, H. (2004) Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Cook. L. (2020) ‘Brief of Evidence of Statistical Window for the Justice System: Putting a Spotlight on the Scale of State Custody of Generations of Māori (July 2020)
Flanagan, K. (2018) ‘ “Problem families” in public housing: discourse, commentary and (dis) order, Housing Studies, 33(5), 684–707.
Garrett, P.M. ‘A World to Win’: In Defence of (Dissenting) Social Work—A Response to Chris Maylea, The British Journal of Social Work, 2021; bcab009,https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcab009
Harris, A. (2007) ‘Dancing with the state: Māori creative energy and policies of integration, 1945-1967. [Doctoral Thesis: University of Auckland] Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/2605
Jones, C. (1983) State Social Work and the Working Class – Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare State, P. Leonard (ed), Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.
Maylea, C. The end of social work, The British Journal of Social Work, 2020; bcaa203, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcaa203
Office of the Commissioner for Children – Part 2 (2020b) ‘Te Kuku O Te Manawa – Moe ararā! Haumanutia ngā moemoeā a ngā tūpuna mō te oranga ngā tamariki’, Available from: https://www.occ.org.nz/publications/reports/tktm-report-2/
Poata-Smith, E. S. (2002). The political economy of Māori protest politics, 1968-1995 : a Marxist analysis of the roots of Māori oppression and the politics of resistance (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10523/151
Potter and Jackson, M (2017) ‘Constitutional Transformation and the Matike Mai Project: A korero with Moana Jackson’, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa. Available from: https://esra.nz/constitutional-transformation-matike-mai/
Sutherland, O. (2019) ‘Witness Statement of Dr Oliver Sutherland’, Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith Based Institutions. Available from: https://www.abuseincare.org.nz/library/v/61/statement-of-dr-oliver-sutherland
Žižek, S. (2014) From the end of history to the end of capitalism: Trouble in paradise, London: Penguin.