Fronting up to the Abolitionist Critique

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, 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.

4 replies on “Fronting up to the Abolitionist Critique”

Nice one Ian.. Thank you again. Just a few comments.

You write:

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.

I respond:

Sorry! We have been speaking about this for so long it is now becoming an eye rolling scenario. If we are social workers and true change agents, then none of this is an impediment. What it should be is a challenge to overcome, to fight even harder.

You write:

Risk, hierarchy and organisational anxiety smother compassion: too much cautious reason drives out courage, heart and solidarity.

I respond:

Yes it does and it shouldn’t. If “organisational anxiety” smothers ones compassion, smothers ones fight, smothers ones will to do whatever it takes for a more equal society, then one is in the wrong job. Move over and make space for someone that will not be smothered.

You write:

How, if at all, can social workers break these chains?

I respond:

How about we (social workers) start by holding ourselves accountable? By having a quiet word when we see one of our own not speaking up?
It is not good enough anymore. We have 700 children, in this city alone, who are homeless!

I do not believe those 700 tamariki would like me (or anyone one of us) to feel smothered, to be silent to be anything other than their biggest advocates – no matter what the outcome.

Spoiler Alert – the dominant practices of social welfare aren’t practices of social justice!

Given we are currently located in 30 plus years of eurocentric, neo liberal, service centric, individualised, managerial practice – this has invariably contributed to our current understanding of what we think social justice is and looks like in social work.

Unfortunately our contemporary ideas of social justice in social work have devolved to reflect the current ideology manifest in dominant social work practice.

The dual focus as described in the ANZASW Code of Ethics mandates our engagement with practices that are ‘empowering and enabling’; and ‘engaging in actions that change the structures’. When looking at the dominant social work practices how much of this is embedded in contemporary social work practice?

Social workers frustration in not being able to (or knowing how to) engage in Social Justice Social Work practices reflects the dominant ideological creep of what social work has now become. This invariably produces tensions.

As our dual focus has eroded over time, so too has our understanding and ideas of what social justice is as an intrinsic part of social work practice. Unfortunately social works engagement with social justice has become diluted, with dominant practice types not reflecting either focus of social work.

Over time we have confused social welfare activity with social justice activity. Mostly because the majority of social work activity has become solely located within an individualised, service centric, welfare context. The absence of a structural lens (as part of our dual focus) has contributed to the absence of a social justice lens in social work.
Our dominant social work practices have become about processing people.

I suspect many social workers might struggle to articulate what a Social Justice Social Work practice would look like, particularly if their current practice doesn’t reflect the dual focus of what social work is. Some may defer to some individualised activity which is all their practice context allows for. Unfortunately, this isn’t social justice.

The contemporary social work literature here is rather lite in terms of Social Justice Social Work practices and methods – in meeting our obligations of social works dual focus. Much of the literature around practices and methods stops in the early 1980s’. Not surprising given where social work is currently located amidst 30 plus years of ideological creep.

That we need to give consideration to social justice rather than it being embedded in our everyday practice is itself a sad indictment on the professions relationship with social justice.

But it is also an opportunity. An opportunity to identify and articulate what are the methods and practices of Social Justice Social Work practice?

-How does my practice/ my team/ my organisation reflects the dual focus of ‘empowering and enabling’ and ‘engaging in actions that change the structures’.
-What is my/ my team/ my organisations position on social justice social work activities such as practices of dissent, subversive practices, social action practices, and practices of civil disobedience?

Maybe it’s time for a reimagined social work equivalent of a little red book! Lol!

Nga mihi

Tēnā kōrua Jimi &Luis – Good to see a bit of energy for fighting the good fight. We are going to need this as the political winds shift to the narrow right, here and overseas. There are a lot of structural barriers that prevent social workers engaging with radical politics / political change (why wouldn’t there be(?) when you think about it). Education that helps people to think and then looks at what can be done is always useful. Gramsci argued that the state uses education to foster a consenting common sense – “… to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes” (Prison Notebooks). This is why the abolition argument is interesting because it gives us the chance to at least conceive of something else – what another social work might look like. Anyway, the show goes on – Kia kaha! Ian

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