Time to fess up

A guest post from David Kenkel :

Alongside the story of social work as a force for social good is a more terrible history of social work as a force for controlling populations in service to the interests of political regimes and dominant cultural groups. For instance, the 20th century saw social work actively complicit in the social control function of right-wing and fascist governments. It is perhaps past time for us to be open about these histories if we do not wish to repeat them.

As Ferguson, Ioakimidis & Lavalette (2018) assert, post-WW.2 hundreds of thousands of children were uplifted by social workers in Spain and Greece for the sin of having parents with left-wing leanings. Many thousands of adults were forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions for suffering from the supposed mental illness of socialism. In Greece, how to fight the insidious influence of communism was on the teaching curriculum for social work students until the mid-1960’s (p.61).

These authors also point out that social work has also been an active player in attempts to destroy indigenous cultures throughout the world. Typically this has involved the removal of children from indigenous communities and their placement into dominant culture institutions or families.

Until very recently this was justified as ‘in-their-best-interests’. This is not ancient history; it is recent and brutal and still with us in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019.


Social work as a profession (and the governments that pay social workers) tend to be besotted with the science of ‘who-knows-best’. Our profession tends to forget that the science of ‘who-knows-best’ in any social arena is ‘always-also’ the politics of ‘who-knows-best’.

As in the recent justifying talk of placing traumatised children in safe, stable and loving homes in Aotearoa New Zealand, the removal of Spanish and Greek children of the left was ideologically rationalised as the compelling need to free them from dangerous ill-thinking parents and to ensure their futures with wholesome right-thinking carers. In ANZ, as in Greece and Spain, the politics of oppression is over-written by saccharine discourses of individual children’s well-being.

Ideological trickle-down

There is a form of trickle-down effect that is not economic, but instead to do with how the dominant political ideology of the day spills down the slopes of our hierarchical society to affect the lives of everyday people. In the instance of social work, ideologies trickle down to determine policy and then trickle down to the selection of research to justify policy, which then trickles down to the practicalities of who gets funded. For social work the final level of trickle-down is how practice is taught and conducted on the ground. Political ideology and what is encouraged to be understood as ordinary and normal are intimately linked (Kenkel, 2005). The social work profession is no more immune than the ordinary citizen to this kind of pervasive encouragement to adopt (and in Social Work’s case enforce!) the cultural norms and common understandings of dominant interests.

No accident

It is no accident that our previous Government’s commitment to seeing social issues as not structural, but as individually generated, led to a wholesale (well researched) commitment to individualising and responsibilising modes of social work intervention such as ‘trauma-informed practice’.

At this moment of potential change in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is important to remember that we are not yet three years removed from a whole-of-government approach to welfare that was obsessed with social investment; a focus on supposedly evidence-based best practice involving the fixing of individual trauma and the ruthless concealment of structural poverty and colonisation as primary drivers of inequality and struggle.

Policy planks

It is also important to note that the primary policy planks of the current reforms to welfare in ANZ are still those developed by the last Government. The question of why social work policy is still being driven by a right-wing agenda determined by the previous regime is an important one.  The answers are (I sadly suspect) reasonably simple:

Firstly, the ‘sunk-cost-fallacy’ – where so much money has been invested into an approach that it seems impossible to step back from it.

Secondly, the employment of multiple consultants at MSD / OT who are career specialists in individualising approaches to social services: technocratic ‘experts’ who remain on contract and are deeply embedded in supporting previously set directions for social work.

Thirdly, a naivete on the part of new MP’s; meaning that they do not understand how hard it is to deflect policy direction, and, how skilled Wellington bureaucrats are at making the unpalatable seem plausible to the point of inevitability.

Frankly, this government needs to do better. This will take political courage, a willingness to confront entrenched in-house interests and to challenge a social work ideology that looks to betray the aspirations of Puao te Ata Tu.


Ferguson, Ioakimidis & Lavalette (2018) argue that instead of relying on the all too often politically embedded rationalities of science and psychology, social work needs to return to its activist and collectivist roots. At its simplest, this means alliance with those we work with and the clear-cut understanding that social structure determines social outcome. In describing the social work history of Greece and Spain they state the following:

It is important to highlight in these circumstances, social work was conceived, developed and presented as a respected ‘science of charity’ in opposition to the principles of solidarity inspired by socialist movements (2018, p 60).

As Kendra Cox articulated some time ago on this blog, we need to be more than cogs in state regimes designed to punish the non-compliant. If social work in ANZ is to escape being another dismal example of social work’s propensity to serve right-wing capitalist ideologies, we need to pay heed to the ideas of activist practitioners. Alistair Russell (2017) argues for competent solidarity, asserting that when social work languages the people we work with as ‘clients’, we lose sight of the fact that those we work with are people just like us at the mercy of larger structures that are exploitative by design. If social work is to resist being the tool of an oppressive economic juggernaut we must aspire to a vision and practice of solidarity with those we support. Social work as a profession might consider dropping the word client as a first step.

History and the future

To move forward with integrity we must acknowledge our history of harm. As much as we might desire to be a source of liberation and assistance, social work for many peoples in the world has been (and continues to be) a cause of social suffering. Social work educators need to equip graduates with the tools to struggle for a social work that imagines a different world, not one that merely cynically adapts to the world as it is. If we wish to do better in the future, we need to both acknowledge our complicity with policies that have harmed children and whanau in Aotearoa New Zealand, and our complicity in the violence of colonisation.

If we acknowledge this history and shift towards a position of struggle with those who suffer  under the burden of oppressive social, cultural and economic structures, only then can we can begin to move into the future as a profession genuinely committed to the empowerment and liberation of people.

Image credit: Nicu Buculei  Freedom?



Ferguson, I. Ioakimidis, V. & Lavalette, M. (2018). Global social work in a political context: Radical perspectives.  Policy Press. Kindle Edition.

Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority:  Narratives of the future. Thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy.  Massey University New Zealand.

Russell, A. (2015). Radical community development: we do talk politics here. Whanake: The Pacific Journal of Community Development. 1(1), 58-64.

7 replies on “Time to fess up”

Holy moly! What a refreshing read close to the time for our cyf march to parliament next Tuesday…refresh for sure. Thank you to the writers with vision.

Hi Jim – Hope all is well. Thanks for the affirmation. Post is by David Kenkel – I set it up and forgot to add his name – fixed it now. I think he right that social work thinks of itself as kind of innocent and neutral and, of course, it nothing of the sort. As old Paulo pointed out a long time back, not to kick back against the abuse of power when you can ain’t neutrality; it is to take the side of the oppressor – a lot needs to change e hoa but there is movement in the air.

We have a unique opportunity now to participate in creating the reforms we want.
It is now public knowledge about how bleak our ‘ welfare experience ‘ can be for many people on the receiving end of NZ’s welfare processes. Along with this is the equally challenging experience of keeping a roof. Children can be uplifted if the parents are unable to provide them with a stable place to live.
The double economic pincers of unemployment and homelessness merge with our social security system like a chainsaw. Homelessness has become a common sight. More people are unable to access a roof, this becoming an overwhelming responsibility. Most people who are eligible for public housing find themselves years on waiting lists. If they do get a tenancy, HNZ can end tenancies for more reasons than could happen in the past.
Sometimes tenants are offered a purchase deal, but they face a reality that offering people in a (for example) HNZ property an option to buy a property does not mean that they will be in any position to take up the option.
It more likely means that the tenants will have to move on, and not necessarily into another HNZ tenancy, or be guaranteed to be together as a household after they move on.
The baby uplift incident need not have happened, especially in the way it happened. Especially in the face of this statement…”the employment of multiple consultants at MSD / OT who are career specialists in individualizing approaches to social services: technocratic ‘experts who remain on contract and are deeply embedded in supporting previously set directions for social work.” These people are supposed to be “experts”- and this looks like failure. Taking into account that they are ‘ experts ‘ it make no sense that this baby uplift was allowed to happen.
A focus on involuntary child uplift as a common component of welfare social policy in some of the world’s most recent authoritarian regimes. Welfare regulation systems are unique in that they act within the wider community by applying extra “lifestyle” (sumptuary based) regulations which focus extra social restrictions on sections of the community, selected mainly by economic status, and can regulate lives in ways which often effectively separate people receiving social assistance from some vital social networks. Access to these networks can be an essential component of, for example a job search. Being made to feel welcome in a neighborhood is a major component of personal well being.
Having such a system of uncontrolled discrimination against vulnerable social groups accepted for decades erodes the “mental heath” and capacity for compassion of whole communities, to a point where baby uplifts are considered vital for the system to keep children safe, and engineered in the most chaotic and brutal way imaginable. There are other options, but these do not produce the adrenaline impact that a brutal baby uplift on public media has.
Brutal drama does have a psychological impact on the collective psyche. Are people asking if child uplifts have to happen in this way? or if they have to happen at all? Or are they supporting this action by wagging a warning finger at their daughters and not giving the matter any more insight?
Often it is faith based institutions which have a tradition of foster care and adoption services as a component of their outreach. Has it ever occurred to them that in supporting this status quo, it will also contribute to decisions (particularly young) women make about abortion. The women know they could be treated with disrespect if they follow through with a pregnancy, even if couples are able to remain together.
Without the participation of people who have experience of and/or whose lives will be on the receiving end of these social policies any resulting welfare system will perpetuate what the system is now; being the product of the collective imaginations of people who may never have to live in fear of being on the receiving end of their policies.
One aspect which people do not talk much about is the fact that when you receive NZ welfare, in almost any form, your lived experience often looks more like 1920 when everyone else is living in 2020….

Thanks Jayne,
you make some incredibly interesting points. I was very struck by your statement:

“Having such a system of uncontrolled discrimination against vulnerable social groups accepted for decades erodes the “mental heath” and capacity for compassion of whole communities, to a point where baby uplifts are considered vital for the system to keep children safe, and engineered in the most chaotic and brutal way imaginable. “

I think you’re right, the capacity of the public and all the various services that purport to serve public well-being lose imaginative sight of other possibilities.

What particularly gets lost under neoliberal regimes is the possibility to imagine that we could live in a society of warmth, and mutual care with housing, education, health, and income all of a sufficiently high standard that nobody’s life is blighted by poverty and marginalisation. Anybody who has spent any time at all examining the social drivers of child abuse quickly becomes aware that poverty and marginalisation, and in New Zealand’s case colonisation, underpin abuse and neglect.

Keeping’s children safe should really be a function of how the entirety of society operates, leaving it to social workers is a poor default but one that is somewhat inevitable under neoliberal conditions.

Neoliberalism as an ideological apparatus has a particular talent for promoting the subtle and widespread notion that no other options exist other than rapacious self-interested capitalism. And, it is in those conditions that the frequent uplifting of children from the poor and marginalised comes to seem a sensible and inevitable necessity.

Thankyou so much for that clarification.
I recently viewed a documentary on Ceausescu – and took away from that the comparisons in structure between the system common in many authoritarian regimes and that which is imposed on the lives of many more people living under that regime and compared this to what people who receive government assistance in western countries were experiencing, using NZ as a standard for examination. The matter seems to be one of “degree”.
Living under the regime of social services assistance even in most western democratic developed countries comes with a (mostly covert) regime of spying, fueled by opportunistic hostility and downward envy often imposed by willing actors in the wider community.
This adds a new social control dimension to minute’ of everyday ‘normal’ activity. It is enforced through civil regulation which holds a reduced capacity for verifiable defense or judicial process. Perceived breaches however hold potential for formal indictment – For example- it can mean that on receipt of welfare entitlements (in public perception) it is forbidden for a beneficiary to continue any ongoing intimate relationships, and thus calls into question ANY personal relationship they may choose to continue – but primarily this concerns any public perception affecting value judgements about relationships between the SS recipient, spouse, and close family. School and workplace bullying is also related to this sphere of economic and social status. Despite the increase in use of professional and psychological consultation, service provision remains rationed to the “most needy” , and as a result so far the bottom line is that most victims choices remain within the “harden up” variety. Calling Police for help with violence raises the spectre of child uplift.
By contrast, unlike the sphere of social security, workplaces and some schools are slowly recognizing the cost of bullying, regulating defenses, and workplace relationships. For many social security recipients, even if these measures were initiated, there remains unease that they would be administered to prioritize social control.
I did not go out of my way to seek out this film, it came to me via YouTube. Romania: The Spectre of Tyranny | Al Jazeera World
The “boot-strapping” mentality by its public rhetoric, seeks to wrestle the last ounce of humanity out of the NZ system of welfare entitlements; more particularly because of the mentality by which it is administered. But this could not happen without deep seated co-operation of the system designed to achieve social control by rewarding social and familial deceit and abuse.
I in no way believe that NZers have advanced very far down the pathway of a universal Police State, but dealing with oppression and abuse perpetuated by random members of the public is a reality about how the way NZ polices welfare administration affects NZers who are experiencing periods of vulnerability in life.
To clarify I would like to be more specific about this-
We have had a fair share of politicians grandstanding on the ‘get tough’ ticket . Its hard to tell whether they’re doing it intentionally or have just been sucked in by the ideology. As we can see, it can happen to whole countries. It calls the NZ politician’s social responsibility into into question when they attempt to peddle this S**T. Among an ‘aware’ community such actions should cost them votes.
It is understandable that many of their followers will be tempted to use the welfare fraud reporting system sycophanticly, to gain credibility with social services and social superiors.
Research shows that this behavior comes with a built in psycho-logic reward for what is commonly known as “dobbing in a perpetrator”, which has a similar effect to scoring a winning goal in the local soccer club match. The scary part is that research has shown that this “psycho-logic reward” if it is unfiltered by regulatory boundaries, intensifies to the point where it affects community mental health, incentivizing the process of focusing on “the vulnerable” and using the dobbing in process as a “fix”or “high”.
The “high” is further fed by manipulating processes culminating in preventable high drama incidents such as the recent child uplift. Polarized families have a tendancy to gang up on vulnerable family members. This is a real disruption to the use of “Whanau foster placement” processes. The process is that seductive – I have examples of how unwise management of placements can go wrong.
Often public discourse is shut down by raising distracting arguments about “unintended consequences”. It may be an unintended consequence that wider community living under this type of administrative structure causes people to be coerced by the social environment to turn against each other. The fact that this is “unintended” has no bearing on the severity of the social impact. It calls the competence of these “highly skilled” policy design consultants into question.
This leads to a peer/social hierarchical led social process of oppression where the specific social code, and the policing associated with the eligibility criteria which social service recipients have to adhere to is “weaponized” against them, trapping them.
When trapped within this system people of all ages do die prematurely – either by suicide or domestic murder, or self neglect. Living in a HNZ tenancy in the past 30-40 years was and in some cases still is dangerous.
It is critical that NZers take this opportunity to re-examine and rethink the entire child, young person’s, family and household welfare distribution system to reflect human rights based considerations.

Thanks Sheilagh and Jim, I appreciate the support. We are in a very strange time for social work, with some opportunity to derail the shift of the social work profession toward the neo-liberal worldview. Can sometimes seem that we have shifted rather a long way from the lofty aspirations expressed in documents such as IASW Definitions of social work.

We need the radical edge more than ever I think!

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