Guest blog by Annie Joass.
Tena koutou katoa,
Ko Longman Hill te maunga
Ko River Deveron te awa
Ko Monowai te waka
Ko Joass te hapu
Ko McDuff te iwi
Ko Shirley Bradley toku whaea
Ko Barry Bradley toku matua
Ko Paora Moyle toku hoa rangatira
Ko Annie Joass toku ingoa
No reira, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa
I’m a big believer in reflective practice; it keeps us alert, aware and accountable if only to ourselves. In that vein, this piece of writing is nothing more than a reflection on my place in social work in Aotearoa in 2017. I’m compelled to write it because being a social worker of 20 years plus hasn’t led me to a place of confidence or faith in my own capability to work with people. It’s actually led me to a place of deep uncertainty, to questioning my right to call myself a ‘social worker.’ Also to the uncomfortable feeling that I don’t belong in a profession, which is in my opinion, doing more to impose and perpetuate oppression and structural racism, than not.
Currently I work across two organisations. One is charged with the education / training of social work students and the other is a provider of social work services. Our client group in both institutions is predominantly socially and financially disadvantaged people, mostly tangata whenua. Whilst this has always been a source of tension for me because my people and I have personally benefited from the systemic, violent oppression of the very people I am professing to be able to help. (I know this is not news to anyone)…but what is really getting stuck in my craw is that now more than ever, I am being asked to work within a system of continued structural oppression that is getting tighter, meaner and leaner. Here’s how I see it playing out.
Firstly, in my role as an educator I am required by my organisation to be a paid up member of the Social Work Registration Board (soon to be mandatory). The Social Work Registration Board is the government body that holds statutory responsibility for ensuring professional standards within social work. I and many other Social Workers pay this government agency money and here’s what they do with it. They make decisions about the social work qualification framework, which are discriminatory, and barrier building against Mᾱori and financially disadvantaged students accessing social work education. Whether intended or not, the consequences are far reaching and will have a profound impact on the profession.
The insistence of the Social Work Registration Board that all social work qualifications must be gained via a 4 year degree, instead of a 3 year degree or even a 2 year diploma, has effectively locked out an entire cohort of students who can’t afford to study for 4 years. In particular students over 40 who now only qualify for 3 years full time student allowance supported study. This affects many more Mᾱori than non-Mᾱori who are far more likely to have been excluded or dis-advantaged by New Zealand’s inherently euro-centric education system. Many of these students have returned to education later in life and more often than not require or are being directed to some form of pre-degree tertiary skills course. The result is 6 to 12 months of their 36 months funding is used with some students facing the choice of self-funding up to 2 years of their social work education now. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the demographic most likely to be affected by this disastrous combination of policy.
This leads me to the actual registration process itself where the next hurdle has been erected. I wouldn’t recommend trying to be social worker these days if you have criminal convictions or a vulnerable background (history with the department, such as a former state ward). Students with previous convictions are struggling to get a straight answer out of the Social Work Registration Board before they engage in study and are told each application will be reviewed on its merits at the time of application, which is now at the end of a very expensive 4 year degree. Who are most affected most by this? Mᾱori. We have overwhelming evidence that the judicial system in this country is at its core biased against Mᾱori, we know that Mᾱori are far more likely to be arrested than non-Mᾱori for the same offense, we know that Mᾱori are far more likely to be convicted than non-Mᾱori for the same or similar offense and we also know that many of the best social workers are those with lived-experience of the issues our clients are dealing with.
“From 2010-2014, police and justice figures show Maori made up 51 per cent of prison sentences, 40 per cent of prosecutions and convictions. And yet, over the same period, Maori made up only 30 per cent of those who received pre-charge warnings – in other words, were let off – compared to 57 per cent of Påkehå. Of those who got to court and were offered diversion – a system which enables offenders to escape a record – Måori made up only 20 per cent. In other words, if you’re caught with cannabis and you’re Påkehå, you’re more likely to receive a pre-charge warning or get diversion. If you’re Måori, you’re more likely to be convicted and sent to jail.”
Ok, let’s assume you do manage to get registered in spite of some of these things. The bar now appears to be set higher again if you want to work with MSD as part of the re-structure to the Ministry of Vulnerable Children actively weeding out staff with a vulnerable background and replacing experienced New Zealand social workers with Canadian, British or South African imports. Then add into this mix the stringent new Vulnerable Children’s Act vetting policy. Basically, if you’ve ever ‘f’ed up, no matter the circumstances or length of time passed since, you’re out.
Finally, if you are one of the lucky few that qualify to become a registered social worker, here’s the kicker; you can’t un-register. So if you can’t find a position as a social worker and have to work in a lower paid role such as a support worker, you still have to pay your APC of $380 per annum or run the risk of being investigated (in case you are using any of your social work skills and knowledge in your low paid job.) And should you find yourself the subject of such an investigation there’s a good chance you will also find yourself named and shamed in the Social Work Registration Board newsletter. I have had the rationale for this explained to me in this way “we can’t allow NGO’s to employ someone for their social work skills and refuse to pay for their registration”. Those naughty, greedy NGO’s, they’re always on the take aren’t they. Please follow the link below to the example downloaded from the SWRB Website.
But seriously, what’s the up-shot of all of this? Fewer Måori Social Workers eligible to train and / or practice. And if we think back to what the ground-breaking report Puao Te Ata tu (1988) had to say on the largely white-streamed department, it gives us insight into the impact policy like this is going to have some 40 years later.
“The most insidious and destructive form of racism, though, is institutional racism. It is the outcome of monocultural institutions, which simply ignore and freeze out the cultures of those who do not belong to the majority. National structures are evolved which are rooted in the values, systems and viewpoints of one culture only. Participation by minorities is conditional on their subjugating their own values and systems to those of “the system” of the power culture.”
“One of the major criticisms of the Department concerned the numbers of Maori people employed. People believed that more Maori people, particularly mature people, well grounded in both Maori and Pakeha lifestyles were needed in both the front line and as decision makers. Maori staff often complained that they were used as window dressing and expected to share the knowledge of their culture whenever required without having this knowledge recognized as a work-related skill.”
“Because of the insistence on academic qualifications for many positions in the Department, Maori people saw this as effectively locking the gate against Maori applicants. People asked for qualifications to be interpreted broadly. Life experience, fluency in Maori language and ability to relate to another cultural group should be qualifications for certain positions. These skills should be recognized in classification, salary and grading. “
The question I have then is this? Do we really think that making social work education longer, more expensive and less accessible, in addition to increasingly tighter restrictions around who will meet the requirements for registration, is going to enhance the integrity of our profession?
In thinking about my other role as a frontline social worker I find I feel even more confused. My role involves working with women who are vulnerable, pregnant or have small children who are struggling with addiction and mental illness. Many of these women will be impacted by the multi-generational trauma associated with colonisation. They will be impacted by poverty, lack of meaningful opportunity, lack of participation in the mainstream “legitimate” capitalist culture of non-Måori. It will be my job to support these women to make change in their lives, so that hopefully the “cycle” will end their and their babies will grow up loved, cared for and happy. Good goal to have.
So how does this get achieved? Well, ideally being able to work systemically, having the time and space to work with the multi-faceted issues impacting the woman, her whanau, hapu and iwi if necessary. Having the time to understand and harness the strengths within the whanau to make lasting change. But here’s why I’m afraid that won’t work; the Ministry of Vulnerable Children.
I would like to highlight the two most problematic areas for those of us who want to ensure that tamariki Måori aren’t transacted through the system in greater numbers than ever.
The removal of the “whanau first” provision from the Act means that Social Workers are no longer compelled by the Act to seek placement within whånau, hapu or iwi (although I have been reassured that it’s “encouraged” I am not encouraged). This may seem subtle but it is not when it is coupled with the addition of an amendment, which states that “if a child is removed from the care of the whanau, then permanency within a loving stable home should be achieved at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Reflect for a moment on the fact that the Ministry is overwhelmingly staffed by Påkehå and Tau iwi social workers who even if they do understand the intrinsic importance of whakapapa to a Måori child, may not have the skills to do this (remembering that Måori Social Workers are not going to be coming through in greater but smaller numbers). Combine this with the new preference for hiring Canadian, English and South African Social Workers in the Ministry, who may or may not be skilled social workers, but I seriously doubt are competent and capable whakapapa chasers. This work takes time, it requires a deep appreciation of the importance of whakapapa within te ao Måori, and it is information given and received only in the presence of trust.
Let’s say that you are working with a Mum who hasn’t managed to make adequate changes in her life before baby comes along. And that through good relationship building and focusing on strengths within the whånau, you have found a whånau member who is willing and able to love and care for baby in the interim. This whånau member must be fully cognizant of the fact that they will be thoroughly vetted, police checked, and monitored if they are to receive any financial resources for the care of that baby through the Ministry. Any previous convictions are looked at; a raft of information is gathered (which now also can be shared with the new data sharing requirements of the Act about to come into law). And not only is the whånau member vetted but their mates are too. Anyone who will visit the house regularly. I am genuine when I ask this question. Who would seriously want this level of intrusion in their lives? I would think twice about it whether I had anything to “hide” or not.
The risk of not finding suitable kin-placement however is now amplified with the clearly stated intent within the amendment of the Act which relates to achieving permanency within a loving stable home at the earliest possible opportunity. This equates to fast-tracking children to permanency. It isn’t stated implicitly in the Act what these timeframes will be exactly but it is underpinned by the belief that a permanent loving home is better for a child than temporary care regardless of whether the home is kin or not. Now someone cynical might construe this as being driven by fiscal goals rather than what is best for the child because when permanency is achieved, financial contributions for the child’s care from the State ends. I have been told by Ministry workers that the guidelines are 6 months for a baby and 12 months for an older child. Also when permanency is achieved that is the end of any hope that the child will ever return to the care of their mother.
So when I think about the kinds of young women I will be working with, women with multiple, complex issues affecting their ability to be a stable, loving parent at that time and knowing that making real and lasting change takes time because overcoming addiction, trauma and abuse is not something that happens overnight. It could take Mum 6 months to a few years to get her life back on track. But under the new amendments her chances of being able to get baby back at the end of it are nil if permanency has been achieved. Unless she gets her shit sorted within a prescribed timeframe she will never get to be a mother to her own child.
This is the space we now have to work in between. And it’s going to be tight, my prediction is at times it’s going to feel like we just have a finger in the dyke. Holding back the wall of harm, which feels like a State determined to punish women, and babies who only need time, resources and support. What does that do to her? What does it do to the child? The whånau, hapu and iwi? It perpetuates and reinforces the myth that Måori are intrinsically in-capable parents, it also denies the impact of historical trauma and it re-traumatises another generation. The State has become the abuser.
At a personal level I know exactly what it does. I am adopted, both of my children came into my care via the Ministry and my partner grew up in state care. I have lived with the loss, the complexity and the hurt of not knowing anyone you look like, not knowing why you do the things you do, where your mannerisms came from. I’ve seen it in my girls even when their connection to their birthparents was retained; it is still not the same. When whakapapa is severed it damages your physical and mental health at a primal level and it’s a long road back to strong sense of self from there, more often than not via addiction, incarceration and mental health issues.
So my hope is that as a team of social workers we can hold the space. That we can work in a way where risk to baby is not denied but openly discussed and managed. Where alternate care within whanau, hapu and iwi is recognised as being best for baby (if baby really can’t be with mum) but also resourced accordingly and with open-ness and trust, and where potential whanau carers are not afraid to put their hands up. Where Mum could have the time and space to address the root cause of her pain, to heal, to grow, to learn and where eventually she becomes a leader and mentor to other Mums. Where there is always hope for tamariki Måori to return fully to their birthright, their whakapapa, their true home.
In writing about and discussing these racist, oppressive policies with every social worker, politician and student whom I come into contact with, I’ve realised that co-mingling with my self-doubt and confusion is a small but growing sense, that maybe being a dog with a bone, someone who won’t shut up or just live with it, is in fact an OK place to be. Maybe I am meant to be here after all.
Yeah, fuck it. I’m not going anywhere. Too much to do!
By Annie Joass