The question of whether the Aotearoa statutory social work agency Oranga Tamaraki can be reformed or whether it should be abolished and replaced with something radically different is an issue that has drifted into the fog in recent times. In this post, I’d like to blow away some of the smoke and refocus on this fundamental question.
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.
In this final RSW post for 2021 Neil Ballantyne and Ian Hyslop reflect on the conflicted and generative relationship between social injustice and social work. It has been a difficult year for many. Our old certainties have been challenged as the pandemic has spread suffering globally, particularly, as always, for the poor and dispossessed. The title of this post – “Ka whawhai tonu mātou” (struggle without end) is taken from the title of Ranginui Walker’s classic text. It was the cry that met British soldiers as they invaded Ōrākau Pā in Kihikihi, in 1864: “We will fight on forever”.