Who is seen and heard in social work?

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:

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. 

16 replies on “Who is seen and heard in social work?”

Re ” 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.”
Yes, That is the reality. Its about “containment”. I compare those spaces and systems to ‘gulags’ because this is the function they serve; and which is the lived reality. What does sting is the last part of the statement. NZ Public dialogues also make it about “race” when Its really about something else – “exclusion”.

Could I rephrase that please – That they couldn’t do much about it even if they wanted to, [and keep their job that is].
It is also a fact that where you get ‘vulnerability’ predators will smell it out and feed on it. The system was ‘constructed to be ‘predatory’. ‘Safeguards’ as a concept did not exist.

I am not surprised by the findings of the Redress/Royal Commission Report December 2021.
“He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu” would explain the marginalization of people who need care. Healthcare-Industrial-Complex is designed to offer minimal care to Social Work’s “clients”. Whenever oppressed people are labeled as ‘clients’, the whole process becomes a charade for care. Health, like education, is a commodity that poor and marginalized patients cannot afford. Unless the archaic-predatory system is deconstructed, the crisis of social work will not be resolved.
See: Mohan, Brij. 2018. The Future of Social Work: Seven Pillars of Social Practice (New Delhi: Sage). also, Rediscovery of Society: A Post-Pandemic Realty (NY: Nova Scientific Pub.)

Rant. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I still think its economic class in the end. But NZ is weird isn’t it? Thinking of the size of our country, how beautiful it is/was and how basically good much of our population is. I think we could agree on that. Like there’s a simplistic concern for others – I still think its here. The level of social and economic injustice should be unbelievable in our country. Greed, self-interest, self-aggrandising – all across the board in NZ. I’m on LinkedIn and I’m overwhelmed by the level of puffery from folks I’ve known for years – good people and quite humble in the past – now in bigshot roles and so damn full of themselves – I’ve lost a lot of mates! LOL. I mention this because most people I know and I’ve worked with and became friends with 20 plus years ago – are all in the caring and social good fields – which means something important to me – but as leaders I know these folk care only ab out climbing, power and high financial reward. It makes me sick. And I’m sad about it too. None of us are perfect, always happy, always competent and always on top of the game. Some of us get unwell too. I presented a submission to the RI as well. Basically I gave my life story. There’s a lot of violence, physical, sexual, mental – much of it in institutions – mental units, boarding school, school, police assaults in cells. Much of it through just being poor as a baby and child – living a life of economic poverty as I was growing up. Usual Maori mum – men treat her badly, leave her to do the work, care, love, smacking, swearing etc etc. One mum, seven kids, one died, one adopted out. None of us went past 4th form (although I took a few degrees later in life starting at age 28 – I think my university experience was the best thing that ever happened to me btw). I loved the university – in the 1990s anyway. 100k student loan later – still working class, still jobless. Diagnosed with Bipolar 2, ADHD and something called complex PTSD. None of them recognised by the likes of the MSD, ACC and that crowd. All I do is fight now. Fight and volunteer at a community centre. I’m OK with this life but I do worry about other folks now as there’s a sense that the resilience and strength that I think I have (up and down) isn’t shared by hurt people today. I can speculate but I better not – strange climate today. Let me think a little more.

Ian, I think your article makes sense. It’s clear and pure and exactly what is needed more of. I am going to try and respond to it succinctly!

Tena koe Ian

I am reminded of Bacchi’s post structural perspectives (absent from the majority of social work practices), and how in our social work practices we give little consideration to the role and contribution of government to the past, present, and ongoing oppressions from the state. Our dominant state-led welfarism focus in social work, doesn’t lend itself to structural or systemic change.

The focus of inquiries (though needed) is often on those affected (the others, those over there, etc.); with resultant policy changes reflecting change ‘to them, for those over there’. We continually fail to address the multifaceted way in which government historically and presently is the primary political and social contributor to our child welfare abuses.

Yet when the dust settles and policy responses are made – government is continually positioned as external to the problem; policy responses locating the problems with those individual, family, community – over there.

The location and primacy of the problem cannot sit with those individual, families, and communities who have been subject to decades of systemic oppression – it must sit with government, government agencies, and those who contribute to state-led oppressive systems.

How can we ask those who are oppressed to do better in a system that systematically seeks to do them harm? The oppressive structures (of government and state led practice) continue with our dominant practice typology of social welfarism, enacted via the mechanism of state-led social control. Again it continues to locate the problem with individuals, families, and communities. The net result is a political maintenance and a continuation of state-led oppressions.

Welfarism as part of the discourse of social work doesn’t lead to structural and systemic change. Increasing someone’s paltry benefit with a one-off payment to assist in keeping their head above water will never assist in moving the person thru poverty. Welfarism (which may be needed) can never address the structural factors that contribute too and maintain the person in poverty.

Structurally led policy and social work practice responses that address government’s role in state led oppression is essential to create the social and structural change that we all know is needed.

I have only seen one small glimmer of this in the recent ‘terms of reference’ from the productivity commission looking at the ‘persistent drivers of disadvantage’. Here they speak directly to those structural contributors of government that continue to drive ‘disadvantage’. Let’s be real and just call it what it is – ‘structural contributors of government that drive state-led ‘oppression’.

Nga mihi

Hi all. Can someone explain why people who are great at working with people with difficult lives – people who are/could be capable of working w such ppl, assisting them to change their situation for the better, long term, confident, as secure as possible across the board – with or without formal SW training & education – but with heart and resilience & a focus on the challenge not the regulation and administration – why can’t they be social workers? I know plenty of ppl who have extraordinary compassion & self taught skills, courage and self defence smarts who would be ideal with the toughest cases – I’m serious!

Kia ora, Sean. I hadn’t seen anyone respond to you so thought I’d reply – apologies if you’ve already had this answered. In a broader sense, there’s nothing stopping people from ‘doing’ Social Work, however, since the introduction of the Social Workers Registration Board, people cannot be called a ‘Social Worker’ unless they are registered. Registration requires a Social Work degree (there is a pathway for those with relevant experience – but I believe it still requires some study). This has been part of a drive to ‘professionalise’ Social Work practice and ensure that all Social Workers are up to expected standards. There have obviously been some concerns that this excludes many people (especially non-middle class) from the Social Work profession, and that registration may be a way for future governments to control Social Workers to prevent criticism of government policies. The cost of registration and practice certificates is a cost on not only Social Workers but also community organisations that they work for. This cost is likely to significantly increase (again) in the future. Hope that helps.

Hi Seann

I remember back to the early-mid 1990’s and the then ‘professions’ obsession with becoming or seen to be professional. I remember it and with regret was part of it. Back then, the ‘profession’ was obsessed with the idea of its ‘social work identity’, with papers and discussions circulating about what is/was our social work identity.

This was also the era of new managerialism, social work became about managing people, alongside the birth of the NGO and its contracting service approach to welfare. ‘Specialisms’ in social work became a thing, as we felt more insecure about our role and place in things. Rather than looking to ourselves, we looked outward – seeking reassurance from other professions, government, etc.

In hindsight the professionalization of social work was birthed out of insecurity.

I remember vividly discussions within the association for and against professionalisation. As a member of health social work at the time – we were a loud voice, who felt the voice of social work wasn’t being heard; drowned out by ‘those other professionals’. Our response sadly, was to become more like them – and ‘social work specialisms’ was born. Ironically over time our practices replicated all that we disliked about social work. It could be easily argued that in our process of professionalisation, we became part of the oppressive machine that we rallied against. Insecurity and fear have a funny way of doing that.

Looking back it was very alluring and divisive. Like all things we justified it. We aligned ourselves with arguments of more pay, feeling more heard, feeling more special (clinical social work and social work specialists became a thing). It certainly helped with building an identity, the question is ‘Was it the one we wanted?’

Risk focused practices coupled with professional development (as a risk mitigation tool); but reframed as developing our individual selves in or individual practices – continued to reflect all that we intrinsically dislike about contemporary and neo liberal social work practices.

As newly minted professionals, finally recognised by the state and aligned with the state, we had finally arrived!

But in truth, the destination isn’t what I hoped for – having ‘soul’ isn’t a prerequisite for professionalisation; and it appears along the way ‘the profession’ has sold important parts of its social work soul.

Nga mihi

Kia ora Jimi – Thanks for your contribution – yep, indeed, need to be careful what we wish for (for sure!) and yes ‘professionalism’ is a mixed bag indeed – and the identity we really want is something those with an interest in the status quo are never likely to provide us with. Radical social work threatens vested interests by definition and the system is much more comfortable with tame professional technicians than those who question the basis of power differentials in a class society – stands to reason Jim, lol. I do think that the RC Abuse Inquiry should be a time of re-thinking and re-imagining – we can try to just shrug off the past, but the future is embedded in it …

So good to read these responses to Ian’s pithy article. ‘State-led oppression’ – it’s so true but how much of it is conscious oppression and how much of it a result of the State ducking and diving when criticism is levied at it? And how much of it a result of decision makers being informed by policy advisors who have never been near a social work recipient or even a social work office? Or is it that the system is so geared to being ‘successful’ in society that it can’t begin to recognise the reality and numbers of those unable to clamber onto the ladder or even to spend one day without extreme stress and deprivation? It’s all about competing for resources and trampling those behind us as we elbow our way forward. That needs a lot more than a mostly kind but misguided society. Racism and ignorance exist through all levels of society and, hand-in-hand with get-me-ism, neo-liberalism (still with us because never rejected) and risk aversion, are a toxic force.

Thanks for that thoughtful and thought provoking contribution Deborah. Yes it is always good when people engage with the challenges in this complex context. Change is brewing as always – even in these difficult times.

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