As many others will be doing at this uncertain time, I am hunkering down and wondering about the state of the play in the world as I know it. On a global scale the hypocrisy and ultimate futility of the US project in Afghanistan is gobsmacking. On a bigger scale still, the growing evidence of a planet pushed to breaking point by the extractive profit driven commodification of all things is chilling. Closer to home we have a virus to surround and conquer. It does seem that our politicians and public health specialists are close to being on the same page and we can have some confidence that this outbreak will be isolated and extinguished. We also have winds of change blowing through the bureaucracy of our state child protection system in Aotearoa. In this blog post I want to touch on the indirect connections – the conjuncture – between some of these things.
There is a troubled relationship between social work and science. Although western social work is not separate from the historical development of Enlightenment science and what has come to be understood as the project of modernity, it has always sat uncomfortably within this schema of knowledge. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650) science has advanced a claim to objective truth – that the tool of scientific reason is a mechanism for naming, understanding, and controlling the world (Hyslop, 2012). There are more than a few problems with this belief system.
Given the extensive and harrowing testimony presented to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State and Faith-Based Care we should not be surprised by the recent whistle-blower evidence of physical abuse in a Care and Protection residence. I have read copious case records of young people placed in institutional care settings in the 2000s which document incidents of violent and coercive behaviour by residential staff during this period. Not all staff were guilty of this sort of practice and it didn’t happen all the time.
Any such behaviour is unacceptable and indefensible, but we don’t really need our politicians to repeat these platitudes to us – we already know that. What we need is a plan to abolish the residential incarceration for children in need of care. Andrew Becroft is right to point out that secure residential regimes are not fit for purpose. They are challenging workplaces. Staffing gaps tend to be filled by casual contracted workers. High needs young people grouped together in rule saturated behaviour management systems form hierarchies and actively push back against the system. They are gold-fish bowls – small prisons for kids – and they don’t work. All too often staff end up controlling children with bullying and intimidating practices of their own.
I have read the pre-publication Report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2915) – Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry – with great interest. It is, at least potentially, a ground-breaking report. It signals the possibility of significant systemic change to the child protection system in Aotearoa – especially for Māori. The report should, I think, be read by everyone with an interest in this future. The core recommendation for a transformational transition authority is, I believe, a challenge and an opportunity which must be grasped by the state.
Events in the recent past – perhaps over the last ten years – have left me with questions about the future of social work practice and social work education. Events in the more distant past provide some clues about progressive ways forward, or at least some pointers about approaches which are best avoided. As I have argued in this blog space for some time, the origins of child and family social work are linked to late nineteenth century responses to problems inherent to the capitalist mode of development (Ferguson, 2004).