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'Pain thermometers' urged to combat injustices

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Pain thermometers' urged to combat injustices

Social workers should draw on their experiences with clients in difficulty to highlight the serious need for policy change on issues such as housing, income support and mental health treatment, says social work and social policy researcher Associate Professor Mike O'Brien.

Dr O'Brien surveyed 192 social workers about their ideas on social justice and how they apply them in their daily practice and found that while some do raise policy issues relating to their client's troubles, many do not because broader issues of social justice and social change have been pushed to the background in New Zealand.

"The concern about the declining public voice and reduced focus on social justice is reflected in what some commentators see as a growing focus on individualism and individualisation," Dr O'Brien says in a paper to be presented at an international conference of social workers in Auckland this week.

Social workers are often described as "thermometers of pain", he says. "The bearers of those thermometers [need] to use the knowledge from their practice to alter the causes of that pain."

His survey asked social workers to define social justice – a key element in social work ethics – and to report on practical examples to reflect their application of it.

Some respondents said they challenged agencies, prompting change at an organisational level in services and/or decisions affecting their clients.

One reported a property agent that appeared to be discriminating on the grounds of race, saying that clients would be told over the phone a flat was available but when they presented in person the listing had "mysteriously" disappeared. "A quick chat with the owner of the company reminded him that we have laws against this, and that a good name for the practice was 'racism'," the social worker wrote. "Clients reported changes in the practice thereafter."

Dr O'Brien says he found a small group of social workers taking actions at a wider political level, from writing to government ministers and arguing and lobbying for changes in government policies at a more general level.

He says professional associations need to provide leadership to encourage more social workers to be active in these ways.

Dr O'Brien will present the paper at the Asia Pacific Social Work Conference tomorrow. Massey's Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Mason Durie was keynote speaker at the opening today. More than 400 social work practitioners and researchers from 29 countries are attending.


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