We live in critical times. The unequal distribution of wealth and privilege (and the resulting unequal distribution of social suffering) continues to impact upon the stability of the world order. Arguably there is, at least, an increasing awareness of the social, economic, and environmental challenges which we are faced with collectively: as a planetary species. However, understandings of causes and solutions are, as always, contested. It is useful, I think, to attempt to unpack some of this complexity. Bear with me – I will return to what this unpacking may mean for progressive social work.
Author: Ian Hyslop
Beyond the care-control bind?
Some critical imaginings on a wet afternoon in late November, Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. Can social work escape the care – control (help – surveillance) bind? Social work services are provided to a particular section of the population – those at the bottom of the social and economic heap. Social work ‘assists’ those at the margins to cope/survive. However, the ‘position’ of those who are constructed as ‘clients’ is structurally generated – a function of capitalist social and economic relations. Capitalism is unjust by definition in terms of process and outcomes. It requires an exploitative relationship between owners and workers. It is a system that produces and reproduces inequality. What the experience of social work practice does do – for those with eyes to see – is expose the human consequences of structural injustice. However …
Haere Whakamua, Haere Whakamuri
I have read the Ombudsman’s opinion in relation to Malachi Subecz. Like Emily Keddell I think there are some critical implications about the need to better manage and better fund the transition of our state child protection service. Change in child protection needs to be made with care simply because people get hurt in this work; more specifically children sometimes lose their lives. This does not mean reform is not needed. It is.
People wonder all the time why it is that child protection workers fail to identify and act on risk. How do mistakes that are so obvious in retrospect occur? The answer is that the reasons for this are mostly systemic. Child protection systems are complex and do not always behave rationally, at least not in the sense of clearly and consistently adhering to legally mandated procedures. Such systems are always applied within a political context and the perverse imperatives within the system are not always fully apparent to those who act within it. The disturbing thing for me is that this scenario is so familiar. I have seen this avoidant, minimalist, defensive practice before – in the 1990s. And many of the contextual drivers are the same.
Criticism of social work as a controlling professional regime concerned with the management of the threatening classes is not new (Maylea, 2021). At best, social work has proven to be an ambiguous occupation:
For example, it is common to state the intentions of social work as helping people to accommodate to the status quo and as challenging the status quo by trying to bring about social change. This dissonance is intrinsic to social work, to its essence. (Epstein, 1999, p.9)
Social workers ‘see’ the consequences of systemic inequality and this experience has the potential to radicalize and fuel dissent.
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)