Social Workers’ Practice Wisdom Towards Achieving Social Justice: A Case Study of the Home Children

Jay Marlowe

 The history of children being deported from the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and several other Commonwealth nations can be traced from the 1800s. These children were known as ‘home children’ and were forcibly relocated to these countries, often without their parents’ consent or knowledge (many of these children were told that they were orphans and were denied information about their families). Margaret Humphreys, a British social worker, was a whistle-blower to this scheme.  In 1994, she published a book entitled Empty Cradles (and later turned into a popular film, Oranges and Sunshine, in 2011) where she notes that up to 150,000 children ‘migrated’ under this scheme and about 7,000 of these children went to Australia. The Australian government delivered a formal apology on Monday 16 November 2009 to the former British child migrants who suffered abuse and neglect whilst in state care. In February 2010, the UK Prime Minister followed suit and made a similar apology; the British Ambassador to Australia made a tour of the country to deliver the apology in person.

This history raises important questions and represents a critical case study for social work – particularly as it relates to the realisation of social justice. The institutional abuse of these children and the structural barriers used to prevent an inquiry into the injustices they and their families suffered highlight that social work profession must operate on multiple levels to address the lived experience of oppression.

However, what is social justice?  It is a word that is almost used in everyday social work practice and is an integral part of the International Federation of Social Workers definition of what social work is.  And yet, it remains difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve in practice; particularly in the neo-liberal contexts of outsourcing, short-term funding contracts and the resulting organisational cultures that are averse to risk.  In such a climate, challenging powerful institutions can be a dangerous exercise.

Drawing upon a case study of children being deported from the UK to Adelaide, Australia (sometimes referred to as Home Children or Former British Child Migrants), this recently published paper entitled ‘Restoring Connections’ presents an action-research study that examined social work practice by focusing upon resilience and reconciliation with people who have experienced traumatic loss arising from social injustice or institutional abuse. The project examines the ways in which social workers can foster links and restore connections between the experiences of people’s private experience of loss with public and structural issues drawing on a social work example drawing on the home children experience. This research served as a means of understanding personal trauma arising from unjust social policy and practice, and how such affected people seek and obtain social justice. A focus group of social work practitioners met to discuss questions aimed at eliciting their practice wisdom about moving personal testimony associated with interpersonal practice towards the public sphere.

The social justice insights and questions resulting from this focus group are examined using Finn and Jacobson’s ‘Just Practice Framework’ and Margalit’s writings about a decent society. The findings from this group support previous studies that achieving social justice in social work practice remains a difficult but integral concept in our work. This paper concludes with suggestions for strengthening socially just processes and practices in social work education and professional development through a stronger focus on the concepts of history and possibility.

Read the full article

Restoring Connections: Social Workers’ Practice Wisdom towards Achieving Social Justice
Carol Irizarry; Jay M. Marlowe; Lorna Hallahan; Michael Bull
British Journal of Social Work 2015; doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcv129

Free access to this paper is provided on the links below. Full Text   PDF


Finn J. & Jacobson M. (2003). ‘Just practice: Steps toward a new social work paradigm’, Journal of Social Work Education, 391, 57–78

Margalit A. (1996). The Decent Society, translated by Goldblum N., New York: Harvard University Press.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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2 Responses to Social Workers’ Practice Wisdom Towards Achieving Social Justice: A Case Study of the Home Children

  1. David McNabb says:

    Great work Jay, what a huge story with a creative practice response.

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