Following Anne Tolley’s (Minister of Social Development) announcement last week of the formation of an ‘independent expert panel’ to review Child, Youth and Family (CYF), there has been an avalanche of responses on social media. Having read and reflected on this material I found myself wondering, as a social work educator, what it is that front line social workers in CYF actually need to complete their job in a competent, timely and safe manner?
These thoughts were reinforced when I heard the Commissioner for Children, Russell Wills, assert in a radio interview with Kathryn Ryan that it was possible to graduate with a Bachelor of Social Work in New Zealand and know very little about child protection, or domestic violence, or the impact of abuse and neglect on children’s development. Seriously? Not on our social work programme. This was a remarkably sweeping claim made without reference to an iota of empirical evidence and suggests to me that Mr. Wills had not been well briefed on the educational programmes offered by New Zealand’s schools of social work.
It is well documented that there are a number of complexities for a new graduate social workers as they move from a relatively well-protected position of student to that of a professionally qualified social worker, especially for those graduates employed in the front-line of statutory social work. Would this not be true though for any newly qualified professional? I cannot imagine for one minute that a newly qualified architect would be asked to work immediately on a developing the new design for a replacement sky tower or harbour bridge. Nor could I imagine a newly employed police officer being asked to head a murder inquiry. Frankly these suggestions are ridiculous; so why would anyone expect a newly qualified social worker to be able to cope with, to understand the complexities of and to manage the finer details of one of the many highly complex scenarios that a social worker will come across every day of their lives in CYF?
If the Commissioner meant that, at present, we do not have an educational standard specifying the level of understanding required of new social work graduates in relation to child protection (or indeed any of the other specialised fields of practice), then I agree, that is the case. However, in order to assert that the skill level of current graduates is less than adequate would require investment in a careful study of social worker’s readiness to practice. Investment in similar studies overseas has been made and the studies undertaken have generated some useful results. It is possible to make all sorts of claims about the preparedness of social work graduates to practice, but without evidence this simply feeds popular prejudices.
This issue also raises a plethora of questions about the continued education of social workers and their capability at different levels of practice. What should we expect of social workers at the point of graduation? What should we expect of them two years into practice? What should they be able to know and do to claim advanced practice skills and undertake the expert clinical work described by the Commissioner? How these different levels of expertise should be mapped and monitored across a social worker’s professional career is a subject that is being keenly discussed currently by Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Worker (ANZASW), the professional association of social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The resources that need to be in place to enable social workers to access advanced programmes of education and training is another matter that needs continued debate.
One of the items included in the terms of reference of the “expert panel” is to consider:
The professional knowledge, skills and expertise required by Child, Youth and Family to deliver improved results for children and young people they work with, and implications of this for providers of training, development and contracted services.
Yet how will (what the Commissioner refers to as) the “big brains” on the panel tackle this complex issue when none of them is an expert in social work education, and all of the work is assumed to take an “investment approach” that, paradoxically, requires no additional resources. The production of a paper that specifies a wish list of competencies that new graduates require (the most likely scenario) will not solve the problem, if indeed there is a problem.
Social work educators in Aotearoa New Zealand care about how education prepares our graduates for practice. Indeed, along with several colleagues, I am in the process of writing an article, as part of a longitudinal study that focuses on the needs of BSW graduates as they enter their first post-qualified position in social work. However, I am acutely aware that we need to know much more about the impact of educational practices on our students, the match between the needs of social work employers (including CYF) and capabilities of our graduates, and the continuing educational needs of child protection (and other) practitioners at advanced levels of practice. All of this requires research, and research requires resources.
Of course, to an extent, CYF and MSD already recognise what is needed for new graduates in their service. They recently undertook a pilot study for newly graduated social workers employed in CYF. The pilot study supported new graduates to have reduced caseloads both in terms of volume and complexity. The pilot also enabled new graduates to have more regular supervision from managers and regular mentoring from experienced CYF staff. It supported new graduates to have more regular and in depth post-graduate training. When this pilot scheme was presented to me, eighteen months ago, I was delighted, and thought that MSD had taken a significant step forward in trying to understand and support the difficult roles that CYF social workers manage on a daily basis. Sadly, the teams with which I worked (albeit in an external role) could not implement the pilot due to lack of staffing and pressure of work. So, an evidenced based programme with potential to support CYF newly graduated staff, at one of the most vulnerable times in their career, was discontinued. Along with the review of the project because, it would seem, there was a lack of resources to enable its implementation.
So, the results of their own pilot study suggest that new graduate social workers in CYF need a variety of support mechanisms to be in place. Time is probably the most valuable asset that a CYF social worker lacks. Time to organise their caseload, time to spend discussing situations with other relevant professionals, time to meet with the children and families with whom they are working, time to stop and reflect, time to take in regular supervision with supervisors who are not so stressed with their wait list that they have to take on individual cases themselves. Time to participate in learning both informally within the workplace, and formally in specialist advanced level programmes. Programmes that do not yet exist in New Zealand for instance, the Applied Studies (Child Welfare and Protection), time that social workers just do not have because of their massive workload.
CYF social workers also need to feel valued. All of the training and education in the world cannot provide pressured child protection workers with the sense of worth and value their work brings to the world. My greatest fear about this latest review, however necessary it may be, is that its conduct may generate a climate of fear and distrust. A review that is completed with integrity, in an ethical manner and with clear and transparent processes has the potential to generate renewed commitment to the task in hand. However, the terms of reference of this review, the membership of the panel, and the insistence in the terms of reference that the Ministry of Social Development “consult with the Expert Panel on engagement with the media” instills no confidence in this commentator.
Sharpen your metaphorical pencils colleagues, and remind yourself how to make a request for official information
Simon Lowe is a Senior Tutor and Fieldwork Placement Coordinator on the Social Work Programme at the University of Waikato.
The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not represent views held by my employer or any association to which I belong.