Social workers, if we know anything, understand how systems – causes and consequences – are connected. At times of increased economic and social pressure it is those with the least who suffer the most in our system. Anecdotally I hear of rising demand for refuge from intimate partner violence and of increasingly strained resources. The shortage and unaffordability of decent housing continues to be a major problem in Auckland. The demand for emergency housing has been further stressed by the needs of families displaced by the floods and land-slips experienced over the bizarre Summer. Practitioners tell me about problems that they have little capacity to address. This is the rub, is it not?
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.
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.
We have protesters camped around Parliament. They say they want freedom. They are not the only ones. But freedom to please yourself regardless of the interests of others in a society structured by privilege and money isn’t any kind of freedom at all: it is merely a recipe for intolerance and injustice. Freedom for Māori to exercise their collective sovereignty and freedom for workers to organise and protect themselves from exploitation are the freedoms we should be focused on as a society. Sadly, I don’t expect to win any arguments with the freedom mob here. However, this post invites readers to think about progressive social change in Aotearoa through a wider lens.