In social work we are sometimes prone to the lure of mantras, because they can help to keep us focused – help to ground us and simplify our complex jobs. By mantras, I mean the idea of neat and self-evident truths that can fundamentally inform or guide our practice. Politicians are also attracted to slogans. The pervasive concept of evidence-based practice is perhaps the most obvious current example of this. Who would argue with the idea that policy and practice should be guided by the notion of ‘what works’, and what can be shown to work? This is common sense, is it not? However, like all short forms of doctrine, such mantras always conceal as much as they reveal. Who defines the nature of problems? (Hibbs, 2005). Accordingly, what practice and policy outcomes are we looking to measure? Who decides what counts as evidence? (Pease, 2009). Ultimately, whose interests are served?
Pure or neutral concepts don’t really exist because they are applied in a social and political context which is constructed by relations of power. In order to understand power interests we need to look below the surface of social relations. Arguably this insight is what distinguishes the identity of social work. Understandings of behaviour in the social world are informed by deconstructing the wider social and political context. Such an analysis can be discomforting, partly because it often takes us beyond assessments of good and bad; beyond simple black and white narratives. Social workers are required to engage with complexity.
This approach is also what gives social work its radical potential – its capacity to trouble the status quo by exposing concealed assumptions. We are potential canaries in the neoliberal mine. The current drive for trauma-informed and child-centred practice is a good example of a particularly powerful self-evident truth. Who could argue that the welfare and best interests of children must be kept at the centre of child welfare social work? Who would query the need to disrupt inter-generational cycles of trauma? However, if we begin to examine the wider ideological context, some troublesome issues are brought to light. In relation to the design of new statutory practice processes, the introduction of fresh tools or the elevation of practice principles like the contemporary mantra of child-centred practice, it is critically important to ask the question, ‘why now?’ in this place and time? (Garrett, 2009, p. 880). Is it a coincidence that the child-centric practice emphasis that colours recent changes in the law and related practice frameworks for state social work in Aotearoa-New Zealand has been accompanied by a renewed focus on parental responsibility for child well-being in a society riven by systemic social inequality? (Hyslop, 2017). Clearly children have a right to love and care and parents are normally the primary source of nurturing and security. But is it that simple?
No, it isn’t. Social workers realise that needs and responsibilities are met within a wider setting that reaches beyond individual choice and moral character. The capacity of caregivers is affected by the cards they have been dealt: by income levels, access to adequate and affordable housing, community supports, health, education and social services. In an economic context of relative deprivation and disadvantage, what does it mean to say we are ‘here for the child’? Children are more than an abstract bundle of rights that can be separated from the wider social context of family circumstances. So while some argue that we should be more ‘child centred’, the way to actually change things for the child (as well as their parents) is really to be more ‘context centred’ – alert to the ways that the context of family relationships, material and social resources, and community factors affect childhood experiences. These are the targets for change. Often tragic child death cases are used as evidence that professionals had ‘lost sight of the child’. The more common factor is not that the child was not focussed on, but that there were crucial pieces of information not known to the child protection service. These are not the same thing.
Of course we are motivated to deal effectively with abuse and neglect but we need to recognise the struggle that goes with parenting in poverty if we are to create sustainable change. And as social workers we need to unpack the hidden dogma of individuated neoliberal choice and self-responsibility that lurks behind the simple mantra of child-centred practice. We need to recognise that parental capacity is impacted by the social and economic policy choices which we make collectively: as a society. Slogans that serve to conceal such complex realities may help us to sleep at night, but for how long?
Hibbs, S. (2005). The determination of ‘problem’. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 17 (2) 32-37.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand: A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800 – 1817.
Garrett, P. (2009). Questioning Habermasian Social Work: A Note on Some Alternative Theoretical Resources. British Journal of Social Work, 39, 867-883.
Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based practice to critical knowledge in post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman, & Pease, B. (Eds.), Critical social work: theories and practices for a socially just world (pp. 45-69). NSW, Australia: Allen &Unwin.