Social Workers: Unappreciated workers in an unappreciated discipline


It must be tough being a social worker. Certainly New Zealand First Member of Parliament Darroch Ball certainly thinks so. In the general debate in support of a Bill of Parliament to allow foster parents or kin carers to approach Kiwi Saver to open an account on behalf of a foster child in their carer, Mr Ball alluded to the work done by social workers.

I agree with Mr Ball. Being a social worker is like being on a high rope above a pool infested with sharks. All of them would have you for dinner in a flash if you fell off. Somehow a social worker has to navigate a mine field that has any number and range of devices – distrustful parents/guardians/caregivers, a community quick to judge, terrified and/or stressed out children, among others.

They always have to be right in the eyes of everyone, who quite forgetting – possibly deliberately – that they are as human as we are, will most probably make a mistake they end up regretting at some point in their career. And even when they are right, are making all the right decisions and their clients are making progress, how many have actually heard someone say “hey, look mate, I know your job is a hard one but you are doing your best – keep it up”. It would make their day in ways I don’t think anyone but the worker in question would be able to appreciate.

They are meant to be the eyes, ears and trained practitioners doing work that increasingly teachers and other professionals such as General Practitioners who come into contact with children seem to be doing. And whilst these professionals can certainly be useful – a teacher who is dealing with a child that used to be well behaved and is now disruptive would be right to want to find out what is going on in their background.

Without doubt they have strict responsibilities to uphold. And just as in any employment there are one or two rotten apples who are just there to play the system or cause as much trouble as they can. Each case is going to be different from the preceding one.

The attrition rate must be high. Under paid, under valued, under staffed, under resourced would all be things that are true about the profession of social workers.

Parliament claims to care about social workers. And maybe it does, but how many of the 120 M.P.’s that sit in the chamber have actually sat down with a social worker in a neutral setting over coffee and just talked to them about their daily routine, the rewards and challenges that they face? And how many of them have talked to Child Youth and Family managers and tried to find out from the middle man what challenges their staff are reporting?

So, say what you will about social workers but they are probably in terms of the humanities, the least appreciated, most overworked and under paid people. But they do not need to be like this. We can do better. And if we want to improve the social statistics for New Zealand children, our mokopuna, our whanau, we must help our social workers.

New Zealand 25 years on from “Once Were Warriors”


25 years ago a movie exploded on to New Zealand theatre screens. Audiences were shaken, stirred, angered, horrified at what they had just seen. A – within its R-16 censorship rating – cold hard look at something New Zealand had been sweeping under the rug: the dreadful toll of domestic violence on our communities, our families/whanau and ourselves. Once Were Warriors, based on the book of the same name by Alan Duff, shone a light onto things and into places in New Zealand society that people did not want to talk about. 25 years later, what has changed?

To understand the problem we should look at the movie itself, first. It centres around a dysfunctional Maori family whose male head is hopelessly lost – not so much wilfully but perhaps having never known any other way. Handsome, muscular but dangerously prone to violence, which is all too frequently inflicted on his wife, his sons and daughter. Slowly Beth Heke is realising that Jake is too dangerous for her and her family and they need to get out, but not before his eldest son Nig becomes a patched gang member and daughter Grace is raped by an uncle. She commits suicide. One day Beth finds her diary and starts reading through it, then she happens on a page where Grace mentions being raped. The movie ends with Beth and Nig confronting Jake in a pub with his drinking mates including Uncle Bully.

25 years later some things have changed for the better, but all who are working towards ending domestic violence and the effects it has on society know there is a long long way to go. Sexual violence, addiction and domestic violence have not changed much. Whereas then it was almost taboo to grumble about sexual violence, it is becoming more acceptable to make a stand, but not without the real risk of being ostracized by supposed friends and family. Whereas alcohol was probably the substance of addiction in 1994, it is more likely now to be methamphetamine or synthetic cannabis.

In 1994 many people would say “harden up” or “get a divorce, Ma’am”, movements such as White Ribbon Day have brought an annual focus with Defence Force and emergency service personnel turning out. Law changes on the books now make strangulation an offence and police have better training and resources for dealing with such violence. Calls for people who have suffered domestic violence to be allowed time off work to get their lives in order are also happening. Most recently recognizing that pets may be the subject of abuse when victims have walked away from dangerous situations, a pet refuge programme has been established to take pets that cannot be taken by families fleeing.

But unless we address how men come to be bullies, dysfunctional people who only know violence, we will not address the causes of domestic violence in full. Unless we look at the broken homes, the lack of male role models and support for those who have learned right from wrong there will still be the Jake Heke’s who know no other way; the Beth Heke’s who find themselves trapped by powerful figure, but know they need to leave. Tragically there will also be the Grace Heke’s who find themselves propping up the sexual violence statistics and the Nig’s who join a gang. We can avoid this, and 25 years later one would have hoped that significant progress would have been made at the least. But all of the statistics suggest that there is a long way to go before Rena Owen can say that her character Beth Heke has done her job.

 

The rotten structure that is our state care sector


New Zealand is approaching a house that is not all that it seems. It is a place with secrets, a place that explorers might visit but most people would steer well away from. On closer inspection though, signs start to emerge that things are not quite right. There is graffiti on the walls along with dried blood. The people living there are not in the best of condition and give the appearance of being rather rough. Cigarette smoke permeates the atmosphere. This structure might or might not exist in real life. That is beside the point – it is representative of the state in which New Zealand now finds its much maligned state care system for abused people.

The structure is basically a giant rotting building. It looks fine on the outside, but touching any part of it and one suddenly has the impression New Zealand should be steering well away from it. Crumbling, under pressure, with gaping holes down which no one knows who has fallen, the framework for dealing with our abused children and helping them get their lives back without going to prison or into institutionalized care, is in dire need of a sustained funding increase and overhaul.

Duncan Garner’s article in yesterday’s edition of The Press dealt with a man known as Patient A in an inquiry into our state care sector that found a myriad of problems, gross underfunding and resourcing. A combination of basic human rights being repeatedly infringed on a prolonged basis with little or no understanding by the authorities of what they were apparently doing, staff trying to make do with what resources and personnel they had whilst knowing at all times they were skating on very thin ice, had led Patient A to spend more than a decade in and out of care and prison.

Mr Garner is right. This will need a huge change of support. At the very core of Oranga Tamariki is an alleged desire to help our children grow into meaningful adults that help to give New Zealand a future. Fluffy nice words are said by Ministers and the Prime Minister, but where is the detail on policies that will meet the Governments objectives and the necessary rules to enforce them? More to the point who will enforce the rules and how?

.It is this kind of maltreatment and associated failures to address the root causes that makes me concerned about the situation we might have in a generations time where a whole lot of patients who should have been under much tighter control become exploding social bombs. Years of conditioning caused by family abuse, neglect, falling in with the wrong people and no guidance, have turned men who might have been under other circumstances okay, have led them to have monumental problems with society, with people, with the law.

It is this kind of maltreatment that puts in the heads of damaged patients that it is somehow okay to attack other people, other peoples property. Many of the people who commit child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence are born into an environment where this mentality is thriving. In order to address #MeToo we must be prepared to address this.

Having now approached the house does New Zealand want to go in, have a look around and try to understand how its social care system for abuse victims got to this and where we might go from here? Or is New Zealand going to be put off by what it sees and just wants to sweep the whole thing under the carpet?

 

How serious is Labour about child poverty


Recently the Government announced the terms of the planned inquiry into abuse of children in state care. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made dealing with child poverty a significant plank of Labour’s policy platform at the election in 2017. In announcing the inquiry, Ms Ardern says that this is a signal of how serious the Government is about dealing with child poverty.

Dealing with child abuse in state care is but one part of what needs to be a much broader plan to reduce New Zealand’s child poverty. Far too many children go to school hungry or do not have access to necessary medical care or items needed for their education because their parents/caregivers cannot afford rental costs. Some come from dysfunctional families, or the parents are constantly at work leaving no one at home to cook meals, help with homework or take them to sports or music practice.

The Government says that it wants to address the issue of state abuse of children in its care. It has set out to address issues arising from abuse prior to 2000. But what about cases of abuse that have happened since?

One can have a dozen inquiries into the issue, but if none of them are acted on then the Government is not that serious after all. After all the hand wringing and calls for action and vows to take action, none of it has meaning until appropriate law and other changes are enacted to give effect to the recommendations put forward in the inquiries.

I wait with somewhat baited breath to see what is going to happen. If an inquiry is then acted on, the likelihood of running into administrative difficulties of one sort or another is likely to be high since individual agencies will have different understandings about what their obligations are under any legislative changes brought in. Even if an inquiry were to announce its results today and the Minister made a vow to act, and kept it, legislation would probably take a year and be forced to go through the select committee stage in Parliament in between the first and second readings. Even once it has passed through Parliament, there will probably still be an adjusting phase for individual ministries and agencies as well as their staff.

But an actual attempt to implement recommendations of existing inquiries might not be so straight forward as one thinks, since the law will have changed. Understandings of what is needed will have had time to evolve and will not look the same on paper.

Labour, to be fair, has set targets, but has not yet shown how it intends to achieve them.

During its time in office, National introduced increases to benefits in 2017. It resisted calls from its conservative base to slash welfare, though attempts at reforming the legislation under which agencies such as Work and Income New Zealand, Child Youth and Family Service and Study Link have only met with modest success. How Labour tackles these interconnecting issues remains to be seen.

It is however, time for a multi-partisan effort that crosses political divides. In politics in order to get things done, sometimes deals that sit uncomfortably with the party base need to be permitted. Both National and Labour would do well to understand this in a child poverty context.

Reducing domestic violence in New Zealand


Today is White Ribbon Day in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and United Kingdom. It is the day when people come together to denounce violence against women across the globe. It is also the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The original White Ribbon movement came about as a result of the massacre of women by Marc Lepine of women at a polytechnic in Canada.

Domestic violence is an ongoing issue in New Zealand. Despite being one of the more advanced societies in the world, police investigated over 118,000 domestic violence incidents in 2016 or one every five minutes. Between 2009 and 2012 13 women, 10 men and nine children on average died each year from domestic violence.

One problem is offenders in high profile positions who have abused their spouses having trouble accepting responsibility for their actions and being backed by their employer. This is evidenced by the case of Tony Veitch, a former broadcaster who was convicted of injuring his wife Kristin Dunne Powell sometimes the remorse is not credible. Mr Veitchs apology referred to how he would suffer from loss of public face, how his social life would suffer. There was little acknowledgement of the significant injuries including a broken back that Ms Dunne Powell suffered, or the effects on her life, family and friends.

I have wondered what real progress the Ministry of Social Development can say it has made in supporting victims of domestic violence, as this can affect their jobs, their livelihoods. I wonder how much work has been done on improving communications with the Police, with medical staff who examine the physical harm. Have they learnt to have more empathy across the desk when dealing with damaged clients?

Perhaps it is because of how we raise our children. Children in their developmental years are heavily influenced by the environment around them. For example do parents drink excessively when around their children or do they have a glass of wine/beer at dinner and save for more social occasions? Do they see Mum and Dad arguing, especially if it turns violent? How does this affect them further down the road? When we take them to sport do we encourage them to applaud fair and good play or do we yell and scream abuse? Do we teach boys that it is not only okay to have empathy, but a good thing?

Much has been made of the serious level of violence against children, including serious cases resulting in murder or manslaughter charges, such as that of Lillybing.

Over the years the Police have much improved their response. Sometime ago in a newspaper Op Ed, I saw someone say that the police response in the 1960’s to complaints about domestic violence was “get a divorce Ma’am”. When the Louise Nicholas case about a lady who claimed to have been raped by three police officers was defeated in court, it was found that the claims had been covered up by another officer who was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice. Following this the Police instigated a raft of changes to their processes.

In 2017 it is clear that dealing with domestic violence is still a work in progress. The police might have made good progress changing how they deal with it, but the Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Courts still have some distance to go.

Sadly so does New Zealand society.