Change is needed in child welfare and in social work more broadly if we are to begin to realise a social justice mandate. It has become blindingly obvious that there are fundamental disjunctions between the way that the profession of social work likes to see itself and the reality of policy and practice. In this post I want to examine some key narrative threads and pose some questions.
In the liberal western democracies, and particularly in the post-war Anglophone world (Australia, Canada, UK, USA, Aotearoa), the profession of social work claimed, with some justification, to be concerned with supporting the needs of those on the margins: with assisting those unable to take a trick in the capitalist game (Hyslop, 2016; Parton, 2014). Personal social services were structured as the individualised, relational arm of the Welfare State. At least this was the authorised version: many of those on the receiving end of social work in this era perceived social workers as middle class people meddling in the working class experience of poverty and inequality (Jones, 1983).
The dominant story goes on to suggest that the inclusive vision of the egalitarian state has been undermined by almost forty years of neoliberal politics. Neoliberalism is best understood as ramped up or unfettered capitalism. As a result, street dwellers and rough sleepers are now a feature of all the major cities in the western world.
These structural outcomes get redefined in the narrow logic of liberal politics and market economics as behavioural problems associated with deficient individuals and problem groups. State social workers, or more commonly contracted NGO workers, are focused on targeting, identifying and remoralising or treating such people as cost-effectively as possible. Social workers might see a bigger picture than this, but the eradication of structural injustice has no part in their job descriptions or employment contracts. They are largely muzzled.
Should we, then, aspire to return to the golden age of social work within an inclusive welfare society? The problem with this option is the dirty history that sits behind the veil of benevolent social work. Social work has always been too close to the state and to the oppressive, assimilationist and punitive agendas which run through the twentieth century and into contemporary practice. We are increasingly aware of this under-belly as attested to in Royal Commissions, research scholarship and popular movements.
In settler colonial states like ours, interventions in the name of child welfare have wreaked havoc with Indigenous family structures. Social work is tarnished by institutional racism, systemic abuse and by eugenic assimilationist agendas. Len Cook’s work, for example, documents the rapid and disproportionate rise in the institutional placement of Māori, particulary from the 1960s through to the early 1980s:
As noted with the earlier forced removal of babies from unmarried mothers, both Canada and Australia had parallel experiences, in their case with an intense focus on placing Indigenous children with European parents. In Canada that is referred to as the ‘Sixties Scoop’ and in Australia as ‘the Stolen Generation’. (Cook, 2020: 29)
So, no, any road back can’t be a straight one.
The child protection juggernaut is particularly problematic. In the U.S. (partially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement energised by the Police killing of George Floyd in May 2020) we have seen a fundamental challenge to what is seen as a punitive, carceral, racist child protection movement.
Dorothy Roberts (2022) advocates for abolition of the child protection system (‘family policing’ as it is referred to), arguing that abolition is essential in order to keep children safe:
The child welfare system cannot be reformed because it is designed to oppress the most marginalised communities in the nation and it is build on an ideological foundation that was set centuries ago to support white supremacy and settler colonialism. (Roberts, 2022, p. 229)
It can be argued that this critique is specific to the racist political history of the U.S. liberal context – slavery, segregation and white supremacy. However, the abolitionist perspective does raise significant challenges to the ‘report, assess, investigate, intervene’ child protection systems that operate in comparable jurisdictions across the world.
The emotive call to protect vulnerable children and the graphic consequences of system failure are powerful and recurrent drivers in policy and practice design. However, we know that poor, marginalised, racialised and gendered populations continue to be disproportionatley represented in the operation and outcomes of child protection systems (Bywaters, 2020). We know also that much that is done in the name of child protection continues to be counter-productive, and that this criticism is far from new.
Most child protection services in countries such as Australia and New Zealand have become demoralised, investigation-driven bureaucracies which trawl through escalating numbers of low-income families to find a small minority of cases in which intervention is necessary and justifiable, leaving enormous damage in their wake. The point has been reached in many places where we are exceeding the use of the State’s coercive powers to protect children without causing further harm. (Scott, 2006, p.1)
In Aotearoa the now infamous Hastings event generated public outrage and something of a crisis of legitimacy for the state child protection agency, Oranga Tamariki (Keddell et.al., 2022). The abuse of power exposed in this process has deep echoes with the history of colonisation and inequality for Māori, and the contested human right of Māori to look after their own – the self-determination promised by the 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi. As we know, a raft of inquiries after the Hastings melt-down recommended the redesign of a ‘by Māori for Māori’ child and family welfare system.
However, battles are one thing and wars are another. As yet we haven’t got the child protection self-determination transition authority envisaged by the Waitangi Tribunal. We have reform in train but in most respects the state has remained firmly in the driving seat. Oranga Tamariki has recommitted (*it is not as if they haven’t done this before) to incorporating Māori knowlege and world views into the operation of the current ‘report and investigate’ system: a practice ‘shift’.
There also appear to be a range of intiatives by the Government to contract / commission / co-design various aspects of the state system with/to Iwi, hapū or pan-Māori organisations. The over-arching rhetoric is around moving services (and responsibilities) away from the state and towards ‘community’.
Many questions remain. The extent of reform is unclear. Can the present-day successor of the colonial state address problems rooted in the structure and function of that state? (or more emotively, can the oppressor be the liberator / can the abuser become the saviour?). Not least, what is the function of social work in liberal capitalist societies that by their very nature reproduce systems that are predicated on exploitative economic and social relations? Once the state moves back a step, how do you prevent neoliberal capture?
I am begining to think a large part of the problem lies with the tradition of professional diagnosis and treatment embedded in social work methodology (Blundo, 2000). By contrast, when social or community workers operate alongside or in partnership with people in need, the ‘us and them’ postioning changes and the obligations of workers shift. Individual advocacy and wider political activism can go hand in hand but any hint of this is generally strangled and silenced within the tight employment rules and laws that shut state social workers up. Risk, hierarchy and organisational anxiety smother compassion: too much cautious reason drives out courage, heart and solidarity. How, if at all, can social workers break these chains?
Image Credit: think public
Blundo, R. (2001). Learning Strengths-Based Practice: Challenging our Personal and Professional Frames. Families in Society, 82(3), 296-304.
Bywaters, P. and CWIP (Child Welfare Inequalities Project) Team (2020). Child Welfare Inequalities: Final Report, Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield.
Cook, L. (2020). A statistical window for the justice system: Putting a spotlight on the scale of sate custody of generations of Māori’, Brief of Evidence Wai 2915.
Hyslop, I. (2016). Social Work in the teeth of a gale: A resilient counter-discourse in neoliberal times. Critical and Radical Social Work, 4(1), 21-37.
Jones, C. (1983). State Social Work and the Working Class (Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare
Keddell, E., Fitzmaurice, L., Cleaver, K. and Exeter, D. (2022). A fight for legitimacy: reflections on child protection reform, the reduction of baby removals, and child protection decision-making in Aotearoa New Zealand. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online.
Parton, N. (2014). Child protection and politics: Some critical and constructive reflections. British Journal of Social Work, 44 (7), 2042-56.
Scott, D. (2006) ‘Sowing the seeds of innovation in child protection’ – 10th Australian Child Abuse and Neglect Conference.
Roberts, D. (2022). Why Abolition. Family Court Review, 61, 229-241.