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Looking forward: Can social work be a progressive force?

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.

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Ka whawhai tonu mātou! We continue to fight.

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”.

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Kahu Aroha – Opportunities and challenges

I read the Ministerial Advisory Board Report on Oranga Tamariki – Kahu Aroha – yesterday. The report is a mixed bag. It does not go as far in terms of devolution to Māori as it might have done and much of the detail remains unclear. It walks the line between two commitments which is likely to generate ongoing tension: strengthening the authority and capacity of  ‘Māori collectives and communities’ on the one hand and re-centering social work within the OT bureaucracy on the other. I will consider the relationship between these two initiatives and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities of each in turn.

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Residential Abuse and Child Protection Reform

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.

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Tough times

We have talked about the big picture : small picture stuff on this blog for some time. This is because it is THE question for social work – the key issue that we wrestle with in theory and practice. As suggested, these disturbing times are bringing out the best and worst of the human condition. The mounting social disruption and economic fall-out from the pandemic is severely troubling a world already severely troubled by the cumulative fall-out from global warming. The future as we have understood it in the main-stream Western narrative of progressive development no longer makes sustained sense – unless, perhaps, to the hyper-wealthy.