A multiple enterprise, Dugald McDonald

Social work in action
Robyn Munford and Mary Nash (eds)
Dunmore Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0864692153

Formal education for social work started on a small scale in New Zealand 46 years ago, building on traditions and activities originating in the late nineteenth century. Today, about 5000 people are classified as employed in social and community work jobs and one church‑run social service (Presbyterian Support) is collectively the largest single employer in the country with a multi‑million dollar turnover. Despite that present scale, social work has been unable to stake a claim as a necessary and valued enterprise in our way of life. Can one really take seriously a vocation which received its first ever New Zealand trade‑published text in 1994?

The common justification has always been that the market fell below the print‑run threshold required for venture publishing. That alone is insufficient to explain why Social Work in Action is the first work to examine comprehensively the scope and purposes of social work in New Zealand/ Aotearoa. Some but not all of the other answers are revealed in this book, which is not a “how to do it” manual but a teachers’ and practitioners’ manifesto on the philosophies, theories and goals of this little‑loved enterprise. It is organised into four major parts. Part I, four chapters on “Setting the Scene”, deals with the professional association, social work education, voluntary agencies and the revolutionary Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 (CYP&F Act). These are commentaries and informed opinions rather than definitive, analytical histories, but serve their purpose nonetheless.

We learn, for example, from Beddoe and Randal that the New Zealand Association of Social Workers seriously confronted the issue of biculturalism only in 1986, that its standards are now driven by Treaty of Waitangi considerations and that its parallel Maori and tau iwi divisions are united and growing in numbers through a 1990 initiative to introduce a form of peer assessment of competency. Ellis, writing about social work in voluntary welfare agencies, reminds us how much invisible social work is carried on the backs of low‑paid and unpaid female labour, as she charts the challenges facing this sector by the retreat of the state.

Although it touches the lives of a considerable proportion of our population, many people are unaware of the far-reaching value changes that the CYP&F Act introduced and Cockburn spells this out very clearly in chapter 4. We moved, at a stroke of the Governor‑General’s pen, to give children a new symbolic status embedded within families and the concept of “family decision‑making” was invented. Of equal interest are the unlikely coalitions which drove those changes. On the one hand, Maori claimed that the state as defender of children’s rights was simply practising a form of cultural genocide by amputating children from their families of origin. On the other hand, it is a fundamental premise of the conservative right that the state has little role to play in welfare, and no right at all interfering in family business. While these kinship imperatives are similar, they do diverge when it comes to question of who should pay when remedial support is required and Cockburn paints a gloomy picture of the chances that the intentional language of the Act will continue to be backed up by resources to operationalise its principles.

In her chapter on education for social work Nash gives a brief history of the early days of formal training and uses those past issues as a counterpoint to the current push for competency‑based education. As this is primarily a teaching textbook, Nash only obliquely traverses the arguments for and against education and training in social work when in my mind this remains an unresolved issue even amongst the intelligentsia. The chances are quite high that in the journey from womb to tomb, ordinary Kiwis, or someone close to them, will fail into the hands of a social worker. Most New Zealanders have only a vague appreciation of what social workers do in general, but their opinions will be rapidly formed by contact with particular workers. Thereafter, they’ll either respect or loath them, as there does not seem to be a middle ground. That’s been helped along in recent times by polarisation in news media accounts of social work intervention in child protection cases, which illustrates the kind of no‑win outcomes facing all disciplines involved in risk assessments. The workers may be chided if they recommend separation of children from parents, and condemned if they failed to rescue children from a homicidal parent. At the same time, there is a kind of grudging admiration for people who do dirty work and a dubious prestige associated with the supposed altruism of charitable and social service work.

Over the years, friends and even a few people in the trade, have insinuated to me that social work shares similar characteristics with a well‑known rodent from Anaheim, California. It’s really no laughing matter and in my view something of a national scandal that we have no expectations of formal training for social workers and no system of validation or registration for the few who do have qualifications.

I’m now quite terse with those who challenge me about the necessity for a formal training. First, I hit them with self interest. “Listen, comrade, when I end up in the geriatric ward of the local psychiatric hospital, as happened to both my minister, Mabel Howard, and my professor before me, I want to be absolutely certain that the do‑gooders who are handling my affairs know what they’re doing” ‑ delivered steely‑eyed and tight‑lipped, so that there’s no mistake that I really think they are going to end up there. Second, there is a piece of homespun pedagogy, the idea that “training is just a shortcut to experience, a way of learning from other people’s mistakes” that usually confounds the “kind hearts brigade”. It’s the confessed anti‑training proponents who make me most nervous and I can see the courtroom from where I stand in the dock. My lawyer (trained, registered, and indemnified) speaks: “Your honour, the complainant was standing in clear view of the defendant’s framed diplomas and practising certificates when he suggested in the most self‑righteous way that training for social work was not only unnecessary, but actually reduced the capacity to be effective …”

Part II offers six chapters of “Cultural Insights”, one on a specific, holistic, approach to healing, three from a Maori perspective, one Samoan and one on the Pacific Island community. Apart from the first, the Waldegrave and Tamasese chapter on “just therapy”, whose ideas already have considerable currency amongst family therapists, the other chapters have been as long‑awaited as the book itself. Again, it’s not so much that the messages are new, but for the first time Maori and Pacific Island stances on social work are set in context. In brief, they reinforce the truism that if you think western models of giving and taking help can be imposed on Polynesian cultures and clients, then, more than misguided, you’re probably deluded.

The biggest section is part III, “Fields of Practice”, comprising 11 chapters which address the questions of “what do social workers do all day?” and “what world views and technologies do they bring to those interventions?”. This is the section that is probably going to be most consulted by students, intending students and the interested layperson, as they seek answers about the mysteries of social work.

If they think about it, lay readers will possibly be overwhelmed by the range and diversity of tasks listed in part III. It is, of course, this diversity of settings and differentiation of tasks that allows social work to be portrayed as lacking focus and therefore credibility. Similarly, I’m sure that the level of public awareness about social work and social workers is owed to a confusing nomenclature. I’m on safe ground to assert that not all the authors in this book would wish to call themselves “social workers”, but prefer more politically correct and less stigmatising job labels such as “family therapist, counsellor, community worker, human relations consultant” and so on. In defence of some, social service agencies are also ambivalent about the term and insist that their social workers describe themselves as “field officer, support worker, case manager” and the like.

In turn, this raises the question of who claims social work? Can any of us name one well‑known, high‑profile person who calls herself or himself a social worker, and is strongly identified with an image of social work as a vocation? The M Mouse factor is strongly evident in the political scene, where a social work persona is something to be used only to advantage; socialists tend to shrug off the stink of social work, while for conservatives it can add to a caring image. Did you know that the Rt Hon Mike Moore was a social worker at Carrington psychiatric hospital before he won the Papanui seat; or that Jim Anderton was the youngest child welfare officer ever appointed in 1959; and that Hon Mrs Whetu Tiritakene‑Sullivan is the only qualified social worker in Parliament? Across the benches, Aussie Malcolm, former Minister of Health, gave prominence on the hustings to his Child Welfare days. At the local body level, one never hears mention that Her Worship, the Mayor of Christchurch, was once an employment‑related social worker.

It would be carping to suggest that two of the chapters, the editors’ own one on a feminist construction and the one by May on a christian perspective, are not strictly fields of practice, as I’m sure most readers will quickly perceive that action in social work is inseparable from the ideologies which direct it. Whether it be the aged, foster care of children, the deaf, the disabled, abortion counselling, family and individual casework, or work with offenders, the topics of this section, each reveals a very strong sense of the authors’ commitment and philosophic positions. Trying to project myself into the role of a naive inquirer, I think I would still be less than satisfied about what social workers actually do, but I’d be stimulated to know more. It’s clear from the number of citations of these chapters now appearing in student projects that they fill a void in foundation knowledge specific to New Zealand.

The last section, part IV, labelled “Critical Perspectives”, is the shortest. Here, O’Brien brings his passion for social justice to bear on the issue of social policy as “establishing and creating the context for practice” and in sequence Shaw, in an examination of radical social work, takes up O’Brien’s proposition that social work is about both a political and a personal component. At the heart of this approach, widely accepted by social work academics, but the barrier to effective practice for the uninitiated is the acceptance that our systems of giving and taking help are social inventions. Inevitably, these are constructed to serve dominant interests and more concerned with control and social order than justice or equality. Therein lies the central dilemma for social workers as agents of authority, conformity and social control, how to work for the revolution while still giving out the soup. What they still do best is to humanise the procedures that ensnare people already in knots.

Social Work in Action begins and ends with chapters in which the editors interview experienced and knowledgeable practitioners. The opening section features Merv Hancock, a leader in practice, education and the professional association. In the closing one, they put questions to long-serving workers, partners Anne Thompson and Geoff Stenton. This editorial device is clever and very well done, because in a low‑key fashion the messages are both the same, starting on a high note with Hancock’s assertion that “social work can make a contribution to defining the kind of society we live in. Therefore it needs to maintain a level of optimism about itself.” Thompson and Stenton stand upon values of respect and caring and reveal plenty of practice wisdom as they work towards their conclusion that “there is much to celebrate in social work”. Social work is about that hope for change at all levels, to finding just and humane solutions to human pain and conflict. When you lose that optimism it’s time to quit.

Dugald McDonald is acting head, department of social work, University of Canterbury. He has been engaged in social work and education in New Zealand since 1959, all of his adult working life.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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