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.