Sunday, May 19, 2019

Distorting the Narrative

I have chosen this particular topic because not only do Nadia and I experience Department social workers distorting our own experiences of meetings and what occurred between the social worker and the parent. I know that many of the people we work with and many of the comments that we see on our Facebook page have people referring to this as "lying". I would prefer to think of it as "distorting the narrative". There are a number of reasons why I think it is important to view it in this way, one of those is that all of us no matter what the situation are likely to present a different view than another person who witnessed or was party to the same event. This is about who we are as human beings and how we interpret what is happening based on our own biases and sometimes just ignorance.

What we need to understand is that if people present with a bias towards you or a cultural group or a religious group they are going to filter everything they hear and see through those biases. It is our job to confront the distortions which are created when people hold certain beliefs about us. We must remember that it is important for those who work for the Department of Child Protection to justify all of their decisions based on the notion that the child has to be protected from their parent or primary caregiver. Everything they do and say has to be underpinned by this notion. It is part of human nature to be right and have your views justified, it is also part of the human experience to not to be wrong. These two ideas, the need to be right and not to be wrong, exacerbate the relationship between the social worker and the parent and in our experience the advocate. This creates an entrenched view which is difficult to shift. This new is also supported by those people that sit about the social workers that parents normally meet and those managers are the ones who will be held responsible if mistakes are made and children are returned to parents, so it is in the best interest of worker and managers that they avoided at risk and therefore maintain their control over a child’s life.

I am going to offer an example where the ideas I have mentioned are evident. During a meeting with my client, who is aboriginal, and Department social workers, I discussed the importance for us to understand, as white people, the cultural and personal challenges faced by the first Australians. I wish to do this because I didn’t believe that the social workers present were considering the situation that my client had found herself in after having her granddaughter removed from her care. They certainly were not interested in who she was as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. My language was not attacking, in fact, it was meant to be informative and raising a different perspective as to how the client has viewed her situation because she is Aboriginal. The two social workers who were present acknowledged what was said and then we moved on with the meeting.

In a report that followed the following was stated. “On 22nd of August 2018, during a meeting with Department workers, Mr. Tony Tonkin (hereinafter referred to as Mr. Tolkien), who identifies as an advocate for the family, stated that the client’s name had been targeted by SAPOL due to her cultural heritage. The client's ongoing pattern of criminal behaviour speaks to a high probability of the clients in gauging in criminal behaviour as set out in her offender history from SAPOL.”

My response to this was that firstly I am an accredited mental health social worker and that is my full title even though the roll I was playing in that meeting was as an advocate. The major point though was that they fail to understand the narrative I was attempting to tell and that this wasn’t about her offending it was about how she was viewed and targeted as an Aboriginal woman. There was no need to raise this issue in the report at all unless it was to criticise me or to diminish the client.

This is what they do, they change the narrative to best suit their narrative. They had to focus on the fact that this person had a history of criminal activity, they completely ignored the point I was raising which was she is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is specifically targeted by the police. Is it a difficult question or a difficult concept to understand? I as a white man never and I repeat never get picked up by the police. But I can assure you that if I was Aboriginal and had a criminal history I would be. In the context of understanding any person’s experience, we need to understand where they have come from what it has been like for them and what are the barriers that prevent them from leading a productive and normal life.

Another example of this which leaves me somewhat confused is the following quote from the report.

“The Circle of Security Program is an intervention program designed to improve the developmental pathway of children and their caregivers. The circle of security program helps promote that security. A secure attachment between child and caregiver is critical to a child’s current and future well-being. The Department see an absence of information with respect to why this program/intervention was seen as necessary if there were no parenting issues and the Department will be seeking further clarity with respect to this.”

The implication here is that because the client has chosen to attend this program that her attendance indicates that she was concerned about her parenting skills. This is a complete distortion of the narrative relating to the reasons why she should wish to attend this program in the first place. Most of the people we work with attend this program because it helps them to become better parents, it is not an indication that they viewed themselves as a bad parent and hence needed to attend this program. The narrative they wanted to pursue is that this person is a bad parent and in a program which most parents attend for some bizarre reason justifies their narrative.

If we are to be a social worker working in this space we need to understand the following.

The preamble to the Code of Ethics 2010 states:

“• Social workers acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,
the First Australians, whose lands, winds and waters we all now share, and
pay respect to their unique values, and their continuing and enduring cultures
which deepen and enrich the life of our nation and communities.
• Social workers commit to acknowledge and understand the historical and
contemporary disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples and the implication of this for social work practice.
• Social workers are responsible for ensuring that their practice is culturally
competent, safe and sensitive.” AASW Code of Ethics 2010 P 5

My point is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or yellow or whatever the colour of your skin or your ethnicity or who you worship, what is important is that you have the right to be respected and not to be judged.

Over the last month, I have had the opportunity to work with a few non-government social workers who come from the same perspective as myself and understand the frustration that Nadia and I feel. One of those social workers in a meeting I attended was very forthright concerning the injustices she saw as being perpetrated against our client. The way the Department managed this problem was to berate her in a report they wrote concerning the client. Because this woman works for a non-government organisation she is uncomfortable taking this matter further. I appreciate her position but it made me aware of how important our role is in the child protection party and through strengthening families, our advocacy arm, where our only obligation rests with the client, and their children. We are from this moment forth combating the distortions which are presented to our clients by Department social workers. This not only presents an imbalance when these cases have to go to court it is also poor professional practice and needs to be called out for what it is. The minister will now be notified every time this practice becomes evident.

Remember this, do not attend a meeting with the social workers from the Department unless you have someone with you who will be able to verify the conversation and present the clients view accurately. You have the right to have someone with you, believe it or not, the Department supports you’re right to have someone with you. We have a letter from the Department which states just that.

Monday, June 4, 2018

This is not the end, it is the beginning

I have reached the point of total frustration with the child protection system and those people who work with in it. For 12 years I have been working with clients who are confronted by a system which ignores their basic human rights. They have the right to be heard, to be understood to be treated fairly and with compassion. What grieves me the most is that there is no avenue in which to confront those who are the gatekeepers of the child protection system. It doesn't seem to matter how loud we shout, or how many people gathered to protest, or how many Facebook pages people have, or videos that are produced. Nothing, ever seems to change.

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a family who needs to be reunited have placed before them further stumbling blocks. A family that has dramatically changed their behaviours and eradicated substance abuse and violence from their lives, rejected and access cut down to 30 minutes per month. A father called me on the weekend to tell me that fifty minutes after a child was born the Department was their to remove the child

This is my life, working with families so that they can be heard and understood and at the same time working against a system which fails parents and their children at every turn. It was suggested to me recently that I need to accept that this system, the people that govern this system are not, is not, going to change. No matter how many sleepless nights we have or how many appointments we attend or how many review meetings we have, nothing, is going to change.

As I sit in this quagmire of despair I am confronted with a range of possibilities one of which is to cease the fight and believe that this should be left up to others who perhaps are better equipped. Then, I wonder who they would be because they have not become apparent in my life apart from my colleague Nadia. I dislike the notion that we have to fight, yet I can't escape the feeling that this is what we are doing. It is as if you're standing in a valley and looking up onto the mountain and from the top of that mountain and the ridges sits a fierce and threatening tribe, prepared to descend down upon you with all the resources they can muster.

They hide behind their sense of righteousness. The belief that they are acting in the best interests of the children and anyone who challenges that belief is unprofessional and therefore doesn't have a place at the table. It is true, they hold all the cards. Their perspective is the only perspective which needs to be considered. Any other view is the anti-thesis to the basic tenant regarding "acting in the best interest of the children". To hold an alternate view counters all that they believe in and certainly challenges the status quo.

Where is the negotiating, the listening to others and understanding their point of view. What is the point of an advocate if the counter view is silenced? How can the children and the parents be heard amongst the noise generated by the social workers who work for the Department? The noise is the views held concerning parents, drug addicted and violent thus creatingT a barrier which prevents alternate views from being heard. It is almost impossible to challenge those views which are founded on gender bias, socio-economic disadvantage, racism and middle class views of the most vulnerable people in our community.

There are many times when I consider giving up. As I look up to that mountain and consider the self-destruction which will follow, accepting the apparent hopelessness and helplessness, I come to the realisation that I am not alone. I look behind me and am encouraged by the faces that I see. The faces of those people who believe in me. Those faces out number those on the mountain. They may not be as well-equipped for the battle as the others but they have a determination and a spirit which, in the end, will counter all that will come down upon them.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Medicating our children

The medication of our children is a disgrace and needs to be investigated. It is estimated that conservatively, 10% of our children are medicated because they have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). As is the case with all mental health issues there is no blood test, there is no specific way of identifying a mental health disorder. As is the case with ADHD, the only way that it can be diagnosed is by observing the behaviour of the subject.

In the child protection system, there are many children who are traumatised by either the experiences they have had when in the care of their parents or the trauma that is experienced by being removed from their parents. It is understandable that amongst this cohort there will be behaviours which most people would find difficult to manage. It the best way to manage children who behave erratically or who have trouble concentrating is to drug them?

This is wrong at every possible level. When working with adults who have been foster children, and who have also been diagnosed with ADHD, it is evident that it was their behaviour and the need for their foster parents, colluding with the government, to have them medicated so they wouldn't be "a problem". Medication is used as a form of social control, and it needs to be understood that this is the primary reason why children are medicated. It has nothing to do with helping the child to develop better ways of managing their behaviour and dealing with the emotional stress they experience. Rather it is a lazy and abusive way of managing bad behaviour.

It is an inexpensive way, one would imagine, that governments can chemically restrain children rather than finding more appropriate therapeutic techniques to help the child through their current distress.

In my work as a therapeutic counsellor, I often meet up with adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD and have been medicated. In most cases clients will say that the medication was able to calm them down, they were less erratic, and in some cases could concentrate more effectively. What was noticeable that as adults their behaviour was often abusive, they struggled to maintain their relationships. There is no lesson that can be learned from taking medication, particularly as a child when the brain is still developing.

The opportunity for children to learn how to manage their behaviour and understand their emotions is lost once they are on this medication. The most important aspect relating to this medication is that the carer has less work to do and there is a calmer household. Meanwhile, the child is left with the hurt and the pain associated with the trauma associated with their life. The emotions just don't vanish into thin air because one is taking a protein blocker, the reasons why a child may be feeling the way they are and therefore acting in a disruptive manner have never been eradicated, understood or dealt with in any productive way. For years the emotions have been suppressed and when a child grows into adulthood those festering emotions rise to the surface and erupt in the most abusive and violent ways.

I have also noticed that these children, now adults, believe that if this medication was able to help them manage their emotions growing up. Then certainly drugs are a powerful way by which they can manage their emotions as adults. Enter, illicit drug taking. So now the struggle begins, to understand how their experiences have impacted them and what emotions have been suppressed and now need to be released.

We need an inquiry into the use of these drugs on children and whether or not these children use drugs, as adults, to help them suppress the effervescent emotional turmoil which sit inside them. For the sake of our children, we need to understand that the continual use of drugs on children, particularly boys, who are in "care" is an abusive process which denigrates the human soul and sends powerfully negative messages to the child concerning the management of any problem.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When are we not a Social Worker?

Over many years I have been working on what it means to be a social worker. This blog originally began over 10 years ago as I was endeavouring to solve that particular question. It is now being over 20 years since I graduated from University I can remember at the time being excited about my new profession and what it meant to me personally and professionally. I remember I wanted to learn as much as I could, I want to know how effective I can be as a social worker. I began with an ideal, the belief that I needed to work on two particular constructs, they being nonjudgemental and value free. It didn't take me long to realise that it was not possible to be either of those, but it was possible to understand where our judgements interfered with the work that we do and to realise that I had no idea as to what my values were.

There have always been ethical issues in relation to the work that I do in fact, it is fair to say that there are many ethical issues which occur sometimes on a daily basis. This can be determined by the way, we thank about a client based on how the addressed their weight their employment nonemployment and even the type of car they may drive. The thoughts I entertained in relation to any of these ideas were judgements I was making about these people and in some cases would affect the way I chose to work with them.

For many years I worked for an Employment Assistance Provider (EAP) where most of my clients were middle-class, they on the whole appeared to have relationship problems and on occasions were finding life hard. I don't think there was ever an occasion where I simply chose not to work with them or I dismissed the particular issues, but I did find them tiring and mundane and wondered why they were using a service which was provided to them by their employer and not paying for it themselves when they could afford to do so.

I've never been concerned about the quality of my work, particularly in the latter years after I'd been able to develop my own form of therapeutic practice. I had become more confident as the years progressed in the way I thought about my practice. I can remember when I first began counselling how difficult it was to focus on the client and try to remember what is an appropriate question to ask based on what the client is saying. This was often difficult because I wasn't listening to the client. I was too busy focusing on the next question. I soon learnt that if I relaxed and knew that the question would just come to me I would find the process more helpful for the client. This proved to be the case and it certainly dispensed with the anxiety which came from having to worry about what question to ask.

The question that has remained with me over the years. Once I have been able to sort out who I was as a therapeutic counsellor relates to who I was and have been as a social work. I have often thought that by doing one I was automatically doing the other. I am very good at asking questions, delving into the depths of a person's experiences, but is that enough if we want to be a good social worker? I have a certain skill set, tools if you like, which I can inject into the session and help the client come to realisations which are new and challenging. But again, does that make me a good social worker? These are tools that anyone can acquire regardless of the training and can appear to be significant and unique to a particular profession, but they are still tools. Anyone, using these tools could be a counsellor, but does that make them a social worker?

The question that concerns me is when are we not a social worker? If I am a mechanic I am a mechanic as long as I'm fixing something mechanical. As a mechanic I go home, I speak to my partner, I play with the kids. I'm not necessarily a mechanic while at home, unless I am fixing something. So am I a social worker when I am in front of the client and something else when I am at home? So as a social worker someone who just has a set of tools and uses them for the purpose of interpersonal discovery? If a mechanic makes a mistake while fixing a customer's car who holds him responsible for that mistake? If the mistake is fatal, the customer can hold the mechanic accountable for the damage caused by his or her mistake. Each of us then are obligated to ensure that all our work leaves the customer or client safe.

Social work is a value laden profession, unlike any other profession. There are a set of values which inherently determine how a social worker should conduct his or her practice. The question that this tends to create is kind of like the question I posed earlier which is when are we not "practising"? Speaking from a position of personal knowledge, I know that in is possible to be dragged before the social work ethics committee based on a private text message. Putting this personal experience aside, I have always believed that our behaviour, under all circumstances, should reflect who we are professionally. My personal experience validates my long held view.

Who, in the public, are aware of the standards expected of a practising social work? Do people believe that those standards should be enacted at all times and under all circumstances? I am unable to say if I know the answers to any of these questions, what I can do is make assumptions about how people may think social workers should behave. What I hear from clients is probably an indicator as to the standard expected from social workers.

The people I work with want to be heard and understood. That they are not heard and not understood indicates that the social worker is failing to perform a primary function of any social worker, and that is to engage with the client so that a relationship can be established which benefits those involved. Regardless of the type of work that a social worker engages in, this is an integral part of being an effective social work. Failing at this basic level is an indicator that the social worker should not be doing social work or is poorly supervised and hasn't been corrected in relation to client engagement. You will never be an effective social worker if the people you're working with don't like working with you.

There are two important elements in relation to the commitment and aims of social work as defined in the Australian Association of Social Work "Code of Ethics." "Working with and supporting people to achieve the best possible levels of personal and social well-being, working to address and redress inequity and injustice affecting the lives of clients, client groups and socially disadvantaged." p7
It is clear as to what our purpose is and how we should be working with our clients and beyond that how we should be behaving in the general community.

In answer to the question when are we not a social worker, the answer is simple. There is not a time when we should not be practising the principles which inform the work we do. We can't advocate for justice and fairness, when we are not just and fair in our personal lives. It is a contradiction to have one set of values for one aspect of our lives and another set of principles in other parts of our lives. Being a social worker is just about "being".

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Minor Importance of Minor Parties

It has been an interesting period over the past couple of months as we the Child Protection Party have embarked on a campaign to have two members elected to the Legislative Council. The battle for recognition and media coverage has been a struggle. We understand that the Legislative Council primarily, and minor parties, battle for a small space in the political landscape. We have come to understand that minor parties have a restricted and sometimes muted voice when it comes to the electoral process.

It is unfortunate that major parties dominate this space, yet it is an important space, where minor parties need to have a voice. It is sad to contemplate that a minor party may win the 10th and 11th seat in the Legislative Council and by doing so will eliminate the voice of another minor party.

During this electoral cycle it has been painful watching the performance of Nick Xenophon as he marches from one media event to another. As an observer of Mr Xenophon for many years and someone who has worked with him as a breakeven gambling counsellor, it is fascinating how he is able to gather media attention to the detriment of parties such as ours and other minor parties.

We all have a voice and that voice needs to be heard. A democracy should not be based on the party or the ideology which is dominant at the time. It should also be based on hearing the voices of those who have significant issues, whether they be singular or multilayered. The Child Protection Party, as do the Dignity Party and other minor parties, represent many of the people who would normally vote for any of the major political parties. It is in the Legislative Council that these people have an opportunity to have their view represented by voting specifically for issues that are specific and relevant to their lives. It is disappointing that those views are not represented via the media.

While energy, unemployment and State development are also important, so are the singular issues raised by all minor parties. The Dignity Party focus on issues which impact thousands of people in this state, and they have a wonderful representative in Kelly Vincent. To my previous point, it would be disappointing to lose someone of her calibre, intelligence and advocacy. We understand that we are pitted against her in a fight for a seat in the Legislative Council, however, we need to acknowledge the important role she and other minor parties play in this state election.

Never before has any party specifically focused on the well-being of children. Until Ms Vincent was elected, no political party had focused on the disabled and the issues they bring to the table. What we represent and what that of the Dignity Party represent are a significant group of voters and in our case, non-voters who need to be represented at the highest possible level. Primarily because major parties do not focus on these two groups of people. Children and the disabled are ignored and should be acknowledged and advocated for by all parties, but regretfully this does not happen. Hence the need for minor parties to take the banner, and fight for these people.

The fight though is difficult and long. It doesn’t end at the voting but continues for as long as we have people who are prepared to continue the fight. Elections come and go and there will always be minor parties who have significant issues which need to be heard. We need their voice, we need their advocacy, we need their passion. It is time that all minor parties joined together as a coalition to advocate with a louder voice and with authority.

It was somewhat disheartening to have the minor parties contact us at the time preferences were being discussed. Self-interest dominated, and anger prevailed. The Child Protection Party takes full responsibility for failing to contact the minor parties prior to nominating preferences. It is evident that some of the minor parties share the same ideology and have similar policies. We could have joined together and discussed those similarities and how we could gain attention from the media. It is my observation that we tend to live in the same bubble, dominated by our own internal issues and our own struggles in getting the message that we think is important to the voters.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is, “do we have significant power and influence as an elected parliamentarian?” The Child Protection Party believes that the sole reason while we are nominating for the Legislative Council is because we can influence decisions on the issues which are important to us and the community. We will filter all legislation that passes through the upper house in light of the impact that legislation will have on children. We have an opportunity to represent all children by ensuring that they have better outcomes than they would if we were not there.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Authority to Create Change

It is vital that at the next state election that we, the Child Protection Party, have the balance of power in the legislative Council.

History will tell us that neither party have a policy which focus specifically on improving the outcomes for children. The power and influence we require comes when we are having to negotiate legislation with the major parties and with the government in particular. Every policy, every legislation which is presented to be passed in the upper house, before it becomes law, will be vetted for the impact that it has on children and their families. When there is legislation which fails the child protection party's "better outcomes" test, then it will not be voted for, and it will not become law.

We need this level of power so that we can make the changes which are going to impact the most vulnerable people in our community. We understand that the primary battle is always held in the house of assembly, because it is from there that the government is formed. It is important for all voters to make a decision about who they wish to govern based on what they believe the government will offer them. Governments in the past have relegated issues around children, and child protection. in particular, to the too hard basket.

The Child Protection Party is aware that we have a small following which at this point, would not be enough for us to win a seat in the upper house. We are aware, that if the general public were aware of what we had to offer, who we are as individuals, what policies we would put in place and how we would make sure that the government is transparent regarding all issues concerning children, then a place in the Upper House would be assured.

Most people don't understand the workings of government generally let alone that of the legislative Council. It is not our role to educate voters about the Parliamentary system. It is our role to convince people that when they do vote, they have a choice in the Upper House which will determine whether children are considered when legislation has to be passed.

The Child Protection Party will be able to voice people's concerns, to name those people who are damaging children and to create a dialogue regarding programs which would vastly improve the child protection system and the well-being of all children.

We will be in a position to ask questions, to demand that the government is transparent, to seek changes in a system which is universally acknowledged as dysfunctional. As a political movement, we will have the support of the majority of those in the community.

By electing two members to the legislative Council, w'e will be provided with the authority to ask questions from those who implement government policies. We will be relentless when it comes to seeking justice for those who have been betrayed by a system which ignores the most vulnerable people in our community.

Even though little is known of us at this particular time we will become increasingly significant as we develop the power and authority to question the decisions of others.

Friday, January 5, 2018

If it happened to me

As a Social Worker working in private practice with a client group who have had their children removed, I notice the struggles parents experience knowing that the State has stepped in and taken their children from them because the parents are "bad" parents.

I was reflecting recently on what that would be like for me, if the Department of Child Protection had entered my life when and removed my children. There was time when my partner and I would have ticked a few boxes which would have been of concern to the Department if we had come under their gaze. I recall a time when my son was eleven months old and walking, climbing and doing what kids of his age do. He had climbed onto a table in the back yard and fell off and landed on his forehead. It created the biggest bump on his forehead that you could imagine. It was a major concern to us but after a little comforting and holding he was fine. We monitored him for sometime and concluded that he was fine.

Risk factor one

If we had taken him to hospital a doctor or nurse may have assumed that the injury was non-accidentally, or that we were not supervising him appropriately. This could have led to a notification to the Department of Child Protection. Because the report came from a nurse or doctor this would have been acted upon immediately.

Risk factor two

Both my wife and I were unemployed. We were barely able to buy food. It was a horrible time and very testing on our relationship. It is likely that the Department would have seen our financial situation also as one which would put our son at risk.

Risk factor three

My wife was in foster care from three to eighteen. As strange as it may seem, I have cited this as being a concern on many Department documents.

Risk factor four

If the Department social workers had landed at our door and wanted to interview us I would have told them in not uncertain terms to mind their own business and I would not have let them in. They would have returned with the police and because I wasn't co-operating would have seen this as a risk factor and would have removed my son.

Risk factor five

My wife and I would have been extremely distressed, and I, back then, would have become somewhat aggressive, mainly because I wouldn't have understood what was going on and certainly didn't see myself and partner as "bad parents". I would have been labelled as aggressive and that my partner was living with an aggressive man and she needed to be removed from the situation. If she had declared that I wasn't abusive of her the Department Social Workers would have declared that she was failing to accept the DV relationship and the damage it was doing to my son.

Even though none of the above happened, under different circumstances it could have happened to me, and it does happen to others.

The labeling and categorizing of clients is endemic within the Department of Child Protection. Young Social Workers, with virtually no experience are making decisions about clients and their children which impact families for the rest of their lives. While they believe that they are saving children from these terrible parents they often fail to understand the impact of removing a child and the long term damage it may cause.

No parent parents perfectly, we all make mistakes, and I admit that I have made my fair share. There are times when we need help. The Department of Child Protection should be the place to go when help is needed. So many clients have asked for this help only to have their children removed until the children are eighteen years old.

Ask yourself how would you respond if the Department of Child Protection knocked on your door and removed your children? At the current rate of removal it is becoming more likely than ever before.