Big Brains and the Modernization of Child, Youth and Family

Deb Stanfield

Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills was asked by National Radio last week to respond to Minister Anne Tolley’s proposed CYF modernization project. An even, calm and suitably critical Mr Wills offered himself as an ally for child protection social workers and for the children they work alongside on a daily basis. It is very simply in his words “hard work,” and he couldn’t have agreed more with Nine to Noon interviewer Kathryn Ryan who described the size of social work caseloads as “unfathomable when you consider the complexity of the work.” To have this challenge acknowledged is largely satisfying and affirming for social workers and few would disagree with Dr Wills’ stated support for the application of “big brains” to the task of modernizing our child protection system to better meet the needs of children and young people.

There was a sharp sting for some in his next words however – it appears Dr Wills is not so much an ally of the social work education system. “Currently,” he told listeners, “you can graduate from a university with a bachelor degree in social work in New Zealand and know very little about child protection or domestic violence or the impact of abuse and neglect on a children’s development … That’s not ok.” A kick in the gut for me while sitting in my car hoping the interview would finish in time before class so I could discuss it with social work students that morning.

Social work educators are keenly interested in how the curriculum prepares social workers for their various roles upon graduation. This is our core business; we care about the people social work graduates will be working alongside, about the well being of our social work graduates with their new employers and about our profession and its core drive for social justice. We are proud when students graduate and excited when we hear of their success in finding work – and we know a lot of them will work for CYF.

So where is this coming from – this belief that social work graduates are not skilled enough to do the work? I think the recent Qualitative Review of Social Worker Caseloads, Casework and Workload Management is the likely source, but a vigorous scan of this report is far from helpful. On page 8 it states clearly: “An explicit examination of staff skills, knowledge, experience and professional confidence was out of the scope of this review.” It goes on to say that information related to the above was collected by ‘default’ and informed recommendations in the review – my confidence not captured quite yet.

The report does usefully identify a host of factors influencing the extent to which social workers can offer quality practice; most of the recommendations unsurprisingly have to do with how to create more time for social workers to spend with children and young people. The quality of social work qualifying courses is commented on (by managers) as contributing to the lack of capability in some social workers to do this work; an example of some default data I assume. I suggest with respect that it is a significant stretch on the part of Commissioner Wills to say that social workers are not trained well enough to do child protection work when an overwhelming majority of the findings in this report recognize that impediments to quality social work come in the first instance from so many places within the organization. Clarity is needed in this regard.

I know from personal experience as a CYF social worker how difficult it is to work ethically and “deeply” with children and families when faced with large caseloads. I am satisfied that Dr Wills understands and sympathizes with this. I want to think he understands that the quality of social work skill and knowledge as learned in our degree programs has minimal relevance to quality social work practice in the CYF context. I am concerned that a correlation has been made between social work performance at CYF and the quality of social work education in New Zealand. Unfortunately this places unfounded “blame” on social work competence and perpetuates the commonly held belief that when things go wrong for children, responsibility lies mainly with the social workers who worked with them. I call on the inquiring and grounded minds of our profession to challenge this very concerning message.

Child protection work is deeply invigorating, rich and important work. It is exciting in the classroom to analyze the complexity of the work, to approach it theoretically, politically, personally, and to develop unique social work skills to bring about change for vulnerable children. As Dr Wills acknowledges, there are a large number of talented, creative and motivated statutory child protection social workers who are doing “cutting edge” work. My experience is that there are also mature, critically reflective practitioners, and they will be asking, as I am here, for empirical evidence to support the broad statement about the poor quality of their social work degrees.

Tertiary social work educators offer degrees in social work, not CYF training. We strive to work collaboratively with “industry” but we are social workers in the first instance, with ethical and professional responsibilities which when coupled with our statutory work present ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. This professional and organizational tension is real; and although it is a key source of stress, it is also our responsibility as social workers to manage this with the interests of children and young people at the heart. This means we need to balance the quantitative outcomes (which CYF social workers currently do well) with the qualitative outcomes (which they don’t do so well). We have to understand that one is at the expense of the other, and social work educators will continue to highlight this reality and encourage social work students to be child-centred in the midst of this complexity.

What Dr Wills says is true, we do need to teach about things like family violence and impact of abuse on the child development. And we do. There will be a variation of delivery of this content across social work schools in Aotearoa New Zealand. But we need to teach other things too. Like how social workers respond to ministerial announcements that don’t appear to make sense! I believe our social workers have the skills and knowledge to be among the “big brains” in this country; clearly we now need to work on our advocacy skills to convince Aotearoa New Zealand that social workers should be the experts of choice to offer substance to any review of work done on behalf of the vulnerable people they work with.

And finally, the timing of this announcement was politically impeccable. It would have been critically discussed in social work classrooms across the country last week, had it not been so hard to squeeze in before the Easter break! It will be revisited I’m sure, and although all the views expressed in this post are my own, I trust that my colleagues welcome informed comment on how an Aotearoa New Zealand social work degree in its various forms can be most responsive to the needs of children and young people in this country. We follow Dr Wills’ leadership in making them a priority.

Deb Stanfield is a social work academic at Wintec New Zealand and a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland. The views expressed in this blog post are her own and do not represent views held by her employer or any association to which she belongs.

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About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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7 Responses to Big Brains and the Modernization of Child, Youth and Family

  1. Carole Adamson says:

    Undermining social work education and depicting our programmes as not fit-for-purpose is, I am coming to believe, part of the plan. Generic social work courses that attempt an emphasis on social change and social justice are not seen as necessary or desirable: I hope I am wrong, but I expect a government proposal for child protection training that could sidestep the Registration Board and the Schools of Social Work.

  2. Deb Stanfield says:

    I think so too Carol and here’s a link I cut out because it was getting too long:
    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/13/trainee-social-workers-taught-theory

  3. socialworknz says:

    Thanks for your comment Carole.I am sure that this government will be looking at cheap ways to “train” uncritical functionaries, despite their using all the buzzwords. What alarms me the most is that rather than find out what we teach- perhaps by asking the SWRB- who know our programmes well- they just launch a review with an underpinning assumption that we are doing it wrong. Anything rather than properly address the workload and organisational culture aspects that have been noted in report after report.

  4. Pingback: “Big brains” and the modernisation of Child, Youth and Family | Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand

  5. Rebecca Giles says:

    I am reading these comments and postings and feeling very concerned about our profession and about the communities and families that social workers are part of, know about and are accountable to. I am forwarding the blog links to social workers and others that I know who will have something to say about this. I am keen to provide my support to any action and voice that can draw attention to and counter what is happening here. It is important for all social workers and our local and national professional association to be very active and vocal in presenting the counter to the picture that is being promoted.

  6. mullphill says:

    Reblogged this on mullphill and commented:
    Totally agree with above comments made by my fellow professionals.
    As a practising S/W for the last 15 years plus I regularly see the short comings of this service and believe the system could be altered in a reasonably easy fashion. There needs to be a S/W voice on this panel and I urge all the CYF s/w to make a stand. Positive change can come about if the workers at their desk(I would like to say coal face ,but that is becoming less and less)advocate for themselves and the families/whanau they support and say enough is enough. Why have previous reports been ignored? Why are workers still carrying case loads of 30 plus? Why don’t they receive external supervision? You cannot be effective in your work with case loads this big and the reality is that at least half of that case load is not getting any kind of useful service from the agency anyway.
    If you cant advocate for yourselves, then I’m afraid that this review is going to offer us nothing and what are you doing in your work if you cant stand for this injustice-isn’t that what most of signed up for?

  7. Pingback: A week is a long time in Aotearoa NZ social work…. | Social Work Research in New Zealand

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