post by Rachel Wallis
In recent times, barely a week has gone by without media coverage of the teacher shortage or poor working conditions of nurses. The public are well-informed about the low salaries, high workloads and extra duties that are driving teachers and nurses out of the cities, and the profession. Representatives from the Principles Association, or the New Zealand Nurses Association are regularly interviewed regarding their concerns for their profession and it appears they are backed up by the general public.
Whilst I stand in solidarity with these statutory workhorses, I don’t see the same level of interest or advocacy directed towards social workers, who face many of the same challenges, and a few more of our own. Like teachers and nurses, we are actively engaged with children and families on a daily basis, using our skills to advocate for families struggling with the symptoms of deprivation and exclusion. They may be ashamed, mistrusting and traumatised, adding a further layer of complexity to our work. We have to employ a high level of critical thinking, and learn how to keep ourselves safe from burnout and secondary trauma.
When a child is harmed or killed, social workers (particularly Child Protection social workers) are often held responsible by the media. There may be many other professionals involved in the situation (Beddoe, 2018), yet the social worker is framed as the weak link; the person who missed something obvious or lacked common-sense. In the last DHB yearly review, there were 542 cases of serious medical mishaps by doctors, resulting in 79 deaths , yet the media appears to readily accept that, in the case of a Doctor’s oversight or mishap, “at times harm occurs“.
The death of baby Moko was a recent case where social worker oversight was a significant media angle. Six different agencies were involved with Moko’s family. The coroner found that these organisations failed to intervene in a timely manner. Moko’s mother’s lawyer made this comment regarding social workers: “This isn’t a job for well-meaning amateurs“.
The oversights mentioned in the report will no doubt have caused huge pain to the individuals involved and been a catalyst for reflection and change. We know that high caseloads and exorbitant paperwork expectations impinge on work quality and face-time with clients. But does the death of a child at the hands of his caregivers validate so many articles blaming poor social service support? Moko’s killers were not vetted by social services because it was a private arrangement organised by his mother. The female caregiver was an ex-early childhood teacher who the mother knew and had worked with. She was attending counselling. There were “eyes” on the family from various agencies but nobody was aware that her ex-partner, who had an enormously violent past, had come back into her life.
I’m not denying that there were significant professional mistakes made in the Moko case, but I’d argue that the contempt directed at social workers could more critically be directed at the structural harms in our society such as poverty, institutional discrimination and educational deprivation. Our country still allows children to be brought up in an environment where their parents live well below the poverty line. We allow the monetary sanctioning of benefits of solo mothers who choose not to, or cannot, name the father of their child. Many of the Auckland families I’m engaged with have less than (sometimes well less than) $80 a week to feed and clothe their children after they pay their rent and bills. We know the stresses of poverty are a key driver of Intimate Partner Violence (Gibbs, Duvvury, & Scriber, 2017) and that families living with the most harmful levels of violence are “sitting at the intersection of multiple axes of disadvantage – poverty, racism and sexism” (FVDRD, 2016, p. 131).
Social workers see social injustice everyday but their valuable perspective is often undermined by the media, and (strangely) silenced by the government (who didn’t even include a social worker on the so-called “expert panel” created to review Child Youth and Family. In addition, these media portrayals negatively affect social worker retention levels, and can erode the public’s confidence in our abilities (Stanfield & Beddoe, 2013). The literature shows that the social work profession lacks public relations skills and could benefit from a more collaborative approach with media (Stanfield & Beddoe, 2013). It’s time that social workers start using their networking, advocacy skills and “healthy sense of outrage” (Trevithick, 2011, p. 49) to contribute to a better collective understanding of who we are and what we do.
Beddoe, L. (2018). Heroes or villains, or is social work more complicated. Reimagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2018/01/heroes-or-villains-or-is-social-work-more-complicated/
Family Violence Death Review Committee. (2016). Fifth Report: January 2014 to December 2015. Wellington: Health Quality & Safety Commission. Retrieved from https://www.hqsc.govt.nz/assets/FVDRC/Publications/FVDRC-5th-report-Feb-2016-2.pdf
Gibbs, A., Duvvury, N., & Scriber, S. (2017). What Works Evidence Review: The relationship between poverty and intimate partner violence. United Kingdom: DFID. Retrieved from http://www.whatworks.co.za/documents/publications/115-poverty-ipv-evidence-brief-new-crop/file
Stanfield, D., & Beddoe, L. (2013). Social work and the media: A collaborative challenge. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 25(4), 41-51. Read here
Trevithick, P. (2011). Theoretical knowledge. Social work skills and knowledge: A practice handbook (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Maidenhead, U.K.: Open University Press.