“Big brains” and the modernisation of Child, Youth and Family

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.

[First published on the blog Social Work Research in New Zealand]

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.

4 thoughts on ““Big brains” and the modernisation of Child, Youth and Family

  1. There is a huge difference between social work and child protection that you point out really well. CYF child protection worker are faced with a dilemma every day, the funding constraints and inadequate support services in areas like foster care mean that codes of ethics are often meaningless. I read of one “client” who had had a huge succession of social workers as well as foster carers, unfortunately this is not an isolated case. case loads of 30 plus (in my case at one stage 60 plus) mean that one spends a lot of time just running around putting out fires and when it goes pear shaped it is the social worker who gets the blame. Underpaid underresourced and overworked people who are passionate do a good job in the circumstances however it falls well below good practice. Kia Kaha Deb

  2. First and Foremost let me assure the Children’s Commissioner that a social work degree in Aotearoa New Zealand is responsive to the care and protection of our younger folk and their families. As Deb Stanfield rightly points out the degree program I’m involved with has been formulated to ‘industry needs’ and encompasses all fields of practice.

    What I consider social workers not being so responsive to, is the continual progression of ineffectual social policy, reviews, procedures and audits that are more geared to accountability, efficiency, and outputs rather than successful outcomes for people.

    Although I applaud your attention to education as a foundational ‘building block’ Dr Wills, I dismiss your comments on ‘knowing very little’ about my chosen field of practice as ‘uninformed’.

    The C Y F modernization project looks to me as any other ‘top heavy shot in the dark’ that’s aimed at reducing child abuse rates. I suspect that all this project will achieve is more ‘corporate weariness’ for already overloaded social workers. I understand that many hands do indeed make lighter work and perhaps the increased casualization that may result from the ‘project’ could be seen as a step in the right direction, however I tend to think the driving force here is budget and not service user interests.

    To conclude, social workers don’t work miracles, we are educated to work towards them, and the sooner Government get on board with providing some solid support for the social work industry, instead of working inequality with us, the sooner we can resolve our social issues.

  3. I’ve just re-read this great piece Deb and I have been thinking about the person on the panel who has been least discussed -Psychology professor Richie Poulton is the Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Social Development. One might assume that he will thereby take an objective but nuanced view of the outputs of the ‘big brains’ that Commissioner Wills wants employed. We will just have to hope that the big brains imagined aren’t just the usual suspects. White, male and positivists who wouldn’t value lived experience as evidence.

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