I have been thinking about some of the wider implications of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission; wondering about what might change as a result – and what might not. The legacy of suffering generated in the care system is, in many ways, a damning indictment of state social work (Hyslop, 2022, p.65).
If you haven’t read the December 2021 Redress Report (He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu), I’d encourage you to do so. Not only is the scale and detail gob-smacking, the minimalist and destructive institutional responses to revelations of widespread systemic abuse are equally troubling: “It is incomprehensible that human beings could behave like this towards another. What is just as baffling is how those in authority failed in their responses to survivors’ requests for redress.” (Royal Commission, p.5)
Despite this statement the Report does articulate the reasons for deep institutional blindness. Both the harm caused by abuse in the New Zealand care system over six decades or more, and the avoidant and damaging responses to redress claims, are directly related to the socioeconomic status and classification of people who entered state care:
The denial was fostered by the common and negative social attitudes of the time about race, gender, disability, mental health and the place of children, Deaf and disabled people. Many of those in care came from already disadvantaged or marginalised parts of the community.
A disproportionate number were Māori, the legacy of generations of monocultural and racist government policies, poverty, and the harsh sentencing of children’s courts, before which Māori appeared in large numbers. The children of Pacific migrants, socially and economically disadvantaged and targeted by racial profiling, were also amongst those in care. Deaf and disabled survivors and those with mental illness were systematically separated from society and placed out of sight in institutions or other full-time care settings, a result of ableist policies and beliefs. (Royal Commission, p.5)
The uncomfortable truth is that systemic structural inequalities are a function of the capitalist social and economic form. Further, a lesser social status and a lower level of human rights has been routinely afforded to those on the social and economic margins of our settler colonial society (Hyslop, 2022, p.146). New processes of transparency, holistic redress, attention to attitudes and cultural factors are all necessary but we also need to challenge the way that underlying relations of power, voice, status, and authority are reproduced materially – as an outcome of capitalist economics. The political task, particularly for social work as an occupation which claims to be focused on notions of human rights and social justice, is to alter the social and economic settings which generate material deprivation and social inequalities. To what degree is this possible?
Quantum change for social work requires some radical rethinking of practice settings. It has long been argued (and, also, denied and fudged) that the distinguishing feature of social work is that it specifically targets the lives of those on the edges of modern capitalist societies: the relatively impoverished and marginalised. Some years ago, Parton (2008) argued (following the theoretical work of Philp, 1979) that the social work project (at least in its idealist form) set out to re-include failing or threatening citizens, within prescribed limits:
Social work occupied the space between the respectable and the dangerous classes (Pearson, 1975; Jones, 1983) and between those with access to political influence and voice and those who were excluded. Social work fulfilled an essentially mediating role between those who were excluded and the mainstream of society … . (Parton, 2008, p.255)
Philp (1979) proposed that social work has occupied a particular niche among the modern professions since its formation in the late nineteenth century, performing a soft policing and/or surveillance function – ‘re-presenting’ some of those who trouble the dominant order of power and privilege as ‘safe’. This is said to be achieved by ‘humanising’ those who are perceived as threatening: presenting them as potentially sociable – as ‘potentially’ possessing universal human qualities and, therefore, human rights. He contended that this process was made up of three elements: the creation of subjects, the integration of objective characteristics and the function of speaking for the subject. I think that this last idea – the notion of ‘speaking for’ the individualised failing subject (to foster re-inclusion), is important for the discussion here.
Parton also argued (in 2008!) that the creation of narratives about the lives of ‘clients’ – the storying of life events, behaviours, actions and motivations – in visiting books, diaries, case notes, court reports – was increasingly being displaced by the assembly of information for the purpose of efficient risk prediction and population management. Both relationship and depth understanding are of lesser importance in a system driven by the logic of the database.
Social work’s view of itself has often been more optimistic than the reality of its social control functions. Twenty years ago, Dominelli expressed the potential advocacy role of social work as follows:
Social workers engage clients in exchanging knowledge about their life experiences so that their voices can be heard, and their stories can expose the inadequacies of official constructions of their lives. By supporting the creation of counter discourses social workers assist those outside their circles to understand the world from client perspectives. (Dominelli, 2004, p. 381)
Do they? Do we speak truth to power? What is your experience? It wasn’t the experience of abuse survivors who have struggled to decipher the heavily redacted official narratives of their own lives. I have always been disturbed by the way in which social workers and other experts document the lives of a certain section of the population – ‘constructing’ their worlds in ways in which they themselves would find bizarrely intrusive and profoundly dis-empowering. It is, I think, to do with social class, and with the casual arrogance of professional and bureaucratic power. Ultimately it has been about the administration of state violence.
It is when those with lived experience are permitted to speak for themselves that we are afforded a glimpse of the unequal social suffering that has ‘gone with the territory’ of our social and economic system over time – the way in which oppressive institutions have punished excluded people. We heard these voices in Puao te Ata Tu (Ministerial Advisory Committee, 1988), we heard them in the spate of inquiries into the Hastings OT uplift debacle, and we are hearing them in the Royal Commission process.
The question is, what difference will this make? In my recent brief involvement with the Abuse Inquiry I heard two things that made me think: both from abuse survivors. One person questioned the way in which the various assembled experts – lawyers, psychologists, social workers – had made a living, an ‘industry’, out of the lives of people like her. Another spoke of his experience in the Boys’ Home system – he pointed out that these institutions were populated by Māori, Pacific and Pākehā kids but they all shared the same experience – they all spoke the language of poverty.
Image Credit: giuliaduepuntozero
Dominelli, L. (2004). Social work: Theory and practice for a changing profession. Cambrdge, UK: Polity Press.
Hyslop, I. (2022). A Political History of Child Protection – Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Ministerial Advisory Committee (1998), ‘Puao te Ata Tu (daybreak) – The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare’. Wellington, New Zealand. Available from: https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/archive/1988-puaoteatatu.pdf
Parton, N. (2008). Changes in the form of knowledge for social work: From the ‘social’ to the ‘informational’? British Journal of Social Work, 28(2), 253-269.
Philp, M. (1979). Notes on the form of knowledge for social work. Sociological Review, 27(1), 83-111.
Royal Commission Abuse in Care (2021), He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu – From Redress to Puretumu Toro whānui.