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), 684­707.

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,

Harris, A. (2007) ‘Dancing with the state: Māori creative energy and policies of integration, 1945-1967. [Doctoral Thesis: University of Auckland] Available from:

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,

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:

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

Potter and Jackson, M (2017) ‘Constitutional Transformation and the Matike Mai Project: A korero with Moana Jackson’, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa. Available from:

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:

Žižek, S. (2014) From the end of history to the end of capitalism: Trouble in paradise, London: Penguin.


Tena koe Ian

I suspect we are at an uncomfortable crossroads in terms of social work practice and social work education, which is a good thing!

As a social worker and social work educator I see that our dominant current social work practice types no longer reflect the definition of social work. The IFSW is clear “…social work engages people and structures…”. The key here is ‘structures’. Our dominant practice types have become welfare work with individuals. Given the neoliberal social work which dominates our profession – we simply don’t engage with structures and the majority don’t do social justice social work.

“I practice social justice with my clients” readers may cry! Sorry to burst your bubble, but chances are what you’re practicing with the individual or family is an individual social welfare response. Yes, this is needed, but this is not a social justice social work response. Social work must include addressing structural discrimination and oppression in all our practices, our communities, our organisations, relevant government ministries, policies, and law. Social work practice is both personal and political. If Social Justice isn’t being practiced by us and our organisations, then we are remis in calling it social work. Addressing structural discrimination and oppression is a fundamental and necessary part of our social work practice. A good critical reflection to ask ourselves and the organisations we work with could be; ‘how have you addressed the poverty at a structural level this year?’

If this makes the reader uncomfortable, it should, as it does me…

Our dominant practice types in the statutory areas of child, justice, and mental health have devolved into primarily ‘policing functions’. Like the Police, these policing roles maybe needed but in good conscience they bear no relation to the definition or complete practices of social work. It doesn’t take much to compare current job descriptions of statutory services to see that it bears little connection to complete practices and definitions of social work.

Social Justice social work is a core fundamental and defining feature of social work. If our practices are not engaging in structural oppression and discrimination, then we are not fully practicing social work. I would suggest that for many, the reason isn’t a lack of desire, but that the social welfare system (and social work education) of the last 40 years, has eroded the space, skill, and knowledges for social workers to enact social justice social work practices. For many social workers – I suspect they wouldn’t know how to do this, where to start, or what to do.

If we want to continue in our work and not engage in structural oppression and discrimination then by all means carry on – but don’t call it social work, maybe social welfare officer (now that’s a blast from the past). But for those who want to engage with structures as is ethically and legally mandated by our profession, then at your next supervision, peer or group supervision take the following terms and start to unpack them – ‘critical social work practices, structural social work practices, radical social work practices, extra-legal social work practices, professional resistant social work practices, indigenous social work practices’.

Ian, I think the profession has lost is way – primarily because we’ve neglected the primarily defining feature of our practice – social justice social work. I’m hopeful we can let ourselves get uncomfortable with this, dig deep, and rediscover how we can do social justice social work practices.

Nga mihi e hoa

Jimi McKay

Kia ora Jimi

Thanks for your thoughtful contribution as ever. As Maylea suggests, the breadth of social work is both a strength and a weakness, making it hard to find a clear place to stand politically. And social work can’t avoid its political location or its less than spotless history.

However, even in statutory practice with all its supposed obligation of political neutrality there is a need for social workers to think, understand their context and make their voices heard individually and collectively when necessary. I think you are right that we need to continue to teach critical sociological analysis, tools for dissent and advocacy in relation to structural change.

Don’t get me wrong, the last National-led government gave us the social investment model with all its nineteenth century poor-bashing overtones and I don’t want to go back there. But we also need to be wary of the current message that kind capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. A lot more could be done to make decent housing accessible and affordable for example. The commitment to never considering a capital gains tax is difficult to fathom outside of it representing some sort of line in the sand, guaranteeing unearned income from private property as the liberal birth-right of ‘middle New Zealand Kiwis’ – which itself is a pretty dodgy construction if you ask me!

It is really important to have these critical conversations. Assuming social workers are hopelessly ham-strung is a pretty debilitating position and taking the conservative approach that our on-paper commitments to social justice take us outside of politics is naive. There are always tensions and contradictions and you are right that discomfort spurs change.

Liberal politics has always sought to exclude those who capitalism pushes to the margins and social workers have something to say about the root causes of inequality and social suffering. Garrett argues there is a world – a different world – to be won. He may be right but social justice for the excluded is not about to be presented on a plate. He suggests that social work is one of many sites of conflict – the flurry of battle comes and goes Jimmy – but it never seems to end. As social work teachers we too must continually think and re-think our war of position – we too have our challenges, contradictions and opportunities and fighting alone never the best of strategies in the long run.

Great to see the debate about the future of social work and Jimi’s comment that perhaps we should call ourselves social welfare officers, as this more truly reflects the realities of what social workers do. I retired a few years ago after 40 years of being a social worker, starting in the late 1970s. I have spent much time and sleepless nights reflecting on the wrongs I have been part of and how powerless I have felt in progressing social justice. I do think that a sense of social justice lets us practice in ways which can avoid the worst of attitudes and actions, if our agency’s policies allow that. And encourages us to take what action for social justice we can, even if that needs to be in our own time. If capitalism is to be replaced by a fairer system, then at least social workers could avoid getting in the way of change. I know that doesn’t sound much, but it’s better than nothing. Social workers are so hedged in by the twin pillars of professionalism and agency policies that I don’t think that much more than this is possible. I would be delighted to be told I am being too pessimistic here!

Tena koe Jackie
I was being somewhat facetious with my welfare officers comment – but if the shoe fits…. and for the past 140 years it appears to have fitted well for some at the expense of others.
Yes, the majority of our current practice types reflect an absence of social justice which is a core fundamental component of social work. Again, a myriad of reasons written as to why this is.
Given our new legislative requirements – I think its timely for the profession (not government bodies, or ministries), to articulate the ‘practices’ of social work. Some work has already begun on this around readiness to practice. Central to the conversation must be how does our practice embed and reflect Mātauranga māori; and how does our practice embed and reflect Social Justice.
I think it is the responsibility (me included), of members of the ANZASW, TWSAW, CSWEANZ, and PSA – as non-government stakeholders in the profession, to pause, consider, and articulate what are the baseline expectations and practices for social workers (and their agencies) in terms of social justice?
Another key here is ‘the agency’. As it currently stands, the legislative requirements are centred around the ‘individual social worker’ being held to account; with no legal mandate required from the agency/ service they work for. This is problematic, as there is no legal expectation/consequence placed on the agency (as the barrier) to enacting social justice social work practices. And what we know from the literature are that the barriers to enacting social justice and Mātauranga māori in social work are themselves the agencies systems and structures.
Could be time for a national hui whanau?
Nga mihi nui e hoa

Perhaps it would be easier to see the future for social work if we stopped using the word ‘profession’ and started using ‘job’ instead. There are few social work job descriptions which mention social justice, let alone having it as the main course. If social work is a socially constructed occupation (vis Malcolm Payne), then it is the Government (the principal funder) and its agencies (OT, DHBs, dependent-on-Govt-funding NGOs) that call the shots. Social workers are no different from any other workers: if we don’t do what the bosses want, we are at best marginalized and at worst sacked. I can think of three times in my own career when things went down to the wire on social justice issues- the result was a win, a lose and a draw- but I certainly felt the full force of the threat of no job, no pay coming down on me. And like any worker, I needed to eat and have a roof over my head. So when our employers are more interested in us ticking off KPIs and getting that patient out of that bed yesterday, it’s one huge contradiction to expect social workers to make social justice a priority. And why would we when our employers don’t expect that of us?

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