An Alternative History of Social Work or Is Registration worth it?

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.   

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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

20 replies on “An Alternative History of Social Work or Is Registration worth it?”

Thank you for this very important and reflective post. The continuing neoliberal individual focus and contracted service model has certainly affected how we as Social Workers are able to respond to the people we are trying to support and their wider communities.
I had hoped that since the SWRB can now take care of competency issues that ANZASW would truly be able to act as our representative association.
In the recent past everytime there was a law and order/justice issue Greg O’Connor from the Police Association was on the radio/tv giving his opinion. The media saw his views as valid and important.They sought him out. We desperately need ANZASW to be such a voice. They need to be heard speaking about the ongoing injustices of the Tiriti O Waitangi, the benefit rate disgrace, the biomedical model of mental health, the housing crisis, the privitisation of our caring services as well as the role gangs play among our disaffected populations.
Regarding the trauma focus I agree that it is the flavour of the present moment but strongly support Social Workers to bring their systemic and social justice focus to such work. We understand the intergenerational traumatizing effects of colonization and need to be at the table of such important work. Otherwise the biomedical deficit model of our current mental health services will prevail and blame the victims and attempt to change them individually.
Thank you once again for your important post and to Reimagining Social Work for their continuing challenges to each and every one of us as Social Workers.

Thank you for your encouraging comments, Anne. I agree with what you say about ANZASW, and I hope that it does more of general advocacy work. It would be good to see local branches doing this as well.

Helpful reflection and analysis. I suggest a ‘both / and’ approach is valuable. Critical structural analysis and a focus individual practice – aren’t opposing forces. I’m in a leadership role in med size NGO. We are committed to social justice and I expect social workers to have this lens over all their work. Challenging institutional oppression and creating opportunities for individuals and families to step into a better life is what we need to hold / help give effect to.

It’s good to hear your positive outlook, David, and that your NGO uses a social justice lens in your work. My worry is that the tight ties to the funder put limits on NGOs to really challenge the system – but maybe you have more freedom than most NGOs. I know that I felt constrained in my work by things like ” the importance of maintaining good relationships with other social service agencies” or “keeping within what the government and local power brokers feel comfortable with”.

Amen to that sister!
I hope that SW’s can rise in the very near future to fight for the huge injustice that is on our own doorstep and that is the massive gap in salary between the government/dhb sector and the NGO sector.No matter who you work for -this should be a collective rise up and cause for all of us.For too long our NGO leadership have accepted contracts that have payed peanuts and resulted in their workforce being labeled and treated as the poor cousin in the profession-we alongside our employers need to make a stand and say…”to do this work we need to pay our qualified,experienced staff the same as our colleagues across the road-surely?” We cannot and should not be shrugged off as second rate any longer.
If anyone reading this believes it is ok for a recent grad at OT to earn 20-30 K more a year than a experienced,qualified SW with leadership responsibilities(NGO)then please dont respond-however if you believe this reality is not ok-please make some noise and be in touch as there is movement happening and collectively lets see if we can rise up for a cause worth standing for!

Thank you Jackie for your truth.

Thanks, Phillip! I have long believed that unions need to put their energy into organising the NGO sector. There are many barriers, including fear from social workers, unease from employers, and even a lack of awareness by social workers about the importance of the union struggle. I hope you are right about there being movement happening – I am happy to chip in with my experience from organising in two NGOs.

Hi Jackie
We have the opportunity to do a video piece (professionally done)through Social Link around the topic of inequality of salary and the lack of ‘real’ contracts to back this up in the NGO sector.There is a need for more voices and so far the silence has been deafening,which is of a real concern.Would you or others reading this be willing to place their voice /face before the camera to speak to this huge injustice that has been allowed to be carried out for many,many years.(This ,if they choose-can also be done with anonymity. I look forward to hearing from you(and others,hopefully)soon.
Many regards

I’m someone that needs time to compose my thoughts, so video wouldn’t work for me. I’m very happy to discuss ideas either by email or on the phone.

I’m glad that you enjoyed it, Karen. Yes, feel free to share it. My original conclusion was slightly more pessimistic than the published one, but then I was writing with the weight of over 30 years of frustration behind me. If this blog can contribute to a sharper analysis of social work vis a vis social action then I am happy for it to be shared.

Awesome….You dare to say it profoundly in even this snip bit “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”.

Thank you for remembering that pain of living in poverty, endorsed isolation (communities were encourage to report of ‘benefit fraud) experiences which often become fragmented across time as I lived on the DPB at the time; I remember making the choice to live on instant coffee while having brown rice and peanut butter sauce daily for children

I appreciate your affirming structural issues as out weighing the efforts of individuals, yet I have sustained belief in the power of individuals to change the world, (they are the only ones whom ever have). I think of many of those whom began world wide web, Google, HART, Anti Vietnam war protest , Hikoi against poverty, Kohanga Reo, Women’s Refuge, Rape Crisis, and the 5 Wananga education based providers which are ‘usual’ in our communities today.

As a social worker and community member my active local branch and roopu has remain an immense source of power for individuals, relationships and social change; This is where we work to decolonize social justice social work and social change.

Hi Merrill, thank you for your kind words. It was not just communities that were encouraged to report ‘benefit fraud’. That expectation has been laid on social workers as well over the years, and leads to ethical dilemmas, tho sadly not all social workers have seen it as a dilemma. I agree about individuals working together collectively to change the world – but all your examples are external to social work. I am glad that your local branch and roopu are active, but I don’t think this is reflected around the country. My impression is that branch activity is greatly reduced from what it was. Looking to the future, I hope that social workers take the opportunity presented by election year: help all their clients (that want to) to be registered to vote, and link the personal to the political with clients both individually and in groups. And don’t get distracted by discussions about what constitutes social work and scopes of practice!

I agree with your reply Jackie absolutely -Thank you. Bear with me in my response…

I see that in my comments I am utilizing an enduring, an older notion of restoration of relationships of meaning (this informing or grounding my cultural meaning of ‘social work’) , one embedded with social response, responsibility, movement , social action; I did not clarifying the personal cultural meaning as a responsibility, response within a village of meaning, rather than a title-noun belonging entirely to a profession (in fact I am suspicious of the latter).

It is reasonable then that social actions in my example,form the blessed unrest (I refer to Stephen Hawken’s work, 2007 on social movements) of social action. That ‘socially just’ social work is of necessity grounded within and by local people and dispossession, rather than….. It is the skill for us to support each other, to not get distracted by the ordering of social work as a ‘profession’ remains essential space for those is us seeking to participate in the current modernistic project called ‘scope of practice’ conversations run by SWRB, and ANZASW. Your work with words to redress the subjugation of people, groups, communities, cultures is invaluable. As the American Poet wrote” how can I tell you who I am, if you do not believe that I am real?”Bakara

Your skill and written work is invaluable for engendering local voices, and within the International Indigenous Voices in Social Work to my mind. I would like to share your article further and on wards with your agreement. Is this agreeable to you?

Yes, Merrill, you are welcome to share this article if you think that it would encourage debate about the ideas in it.

Kia ora Jackie
Thank you for your inspiring comments and analysis and the sharing of your experience which echoes much of mine over 40 years.
The SWRB is a tool of the State to ensure social workers comply with the many pieces of legislation such as the Privacy Act and the Vulnerable Children’s Act which do not have social justice and social change as fundamental underpinnings. Practising Certificates and declarations of Complaints Procedures for clients/whanau mean nothing to the whanau we work with.

Kia ora Adrienne: thank you for your comments. I believe that safe practice by social workers comes from excellent initial training, supportive mentoring when first practising, employers who are committed to ongoing training, and access to both internal and external supervision. Then as social workers we can truly use reflective practice and be inspired to be the best we can be. Nga mihi Jackie

I agree with Jackie’s comments about tight ties to the funders. I agree too that we need ANZASW to vigorously challenge the funding models of social work inherited from the last government and blithely followed by this government. I believe social workers should be calling for the repeal of the Vulnerable Children’s Act, the dismantling of Children’s Teams along with the changes needed to Child Youth and Family (I will not call it Oranga Tamariki). I have recently worked in an NGO that has a case work database – trauma informed – that seems very similar to CYRUS (the database of Child Youth and Family) The information social workers are required to enter/complete about whanau/clients is detailed and seems to fall into a big hole – no feedback given to front line social workers and no justification given to social workers about why the data is collected. Its seems to me that it could be linked, somewhere along the chain, to the previous government’s agenda about collecting data about the “top” families and their perceived deficits and the cost to the “taxpayer” of those deficits. We need ANZASW to help us collectively organise to reject this way of working and demand that the funders do the same.

Kia ora -I support such wonderful acts in the previous two writers, he reimagining of meaning in our /your/hapu/community Social work.
For these actions begin both the necessary recognition (and readdress) to structural blindness which ‘capture’ social justice therefore the balance of science and art of social work

Wow Jackie. This is a thought provoking article and I fully agree. It’s just come to my attention by a reshare on Facebook today. I’d love to talk with you more about this – could you please send me an email so we can connect?
Kaiwhakahaere Chief Executive, ANZASW

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