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Tamariki On Track

PSA represents over 3000 social workers throughout New Zealand. 1300 of whom work for Oranga Tamariki. As the PSA organiser with national responsibility for Oranga Tamariki and a registered social worker myself, I have thought long and hard about contributing publicly to the current issues. These surround our members, the work they do, and the organisation they work for.

PSA’s priority has been to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our members, who have always experienced fairly high levels of on-line and in-person abuse; for many, this abuse has increased significantly over recent days and weeks. Wrapping support around our members and ensuring their physical and mental safety has been our focus. As conjecture continues in the media, it is important for us to speak up and ensure that the voice of workers is heard.

As an organiser at OT since its inception, I have seen and supported members through many dark places. The nature of their work has been well traversed in the media; statutory social work is a hard, complex, skilled and challenging job. Difficult decisions are made daily and these decisions will have life-changing implications for all of those involved. But they are not decisions that are made lightly, or in isolation from other professionals.

It can be beautiful, lifesaving and life enhancing work. This has not been shared. I have seen social workers return children to whānau after intensive support has helped that family recover from significant trauma. I have observed them engaging tirelessly with whānau to ensure children stay in their family unit and remain safe. I have seen staff receive messages from children years later containing simple words like “Thank you, I am only here because of you.”

I have witnessed Oranga Tamariki members challenge other agencies and systems, at great personal cost, to get the best outcomes for children and their families. There are a lot of selfless amazing people doing incredible, albeit invisible work out there in this community.

Yet, all is not perfect. We know this well. The PSA has advocated for years for social workers to have time and resources to ensure that the highest quality practice is achieved. We are not there yet, but are making steps forward every day (too slowly for our liking).

This issue cannot be overstated. For a profession built on forging strong relationships in difficult circumstances, having the time to do this well is critical. It is a fundamental reality that mistakes are more likely to occur for any worker who is overloaded and stressed.

Oranga Tamariki social workers undertake their mahi within the context of broader society. Poverty, homelessness, intergenerational trauma, social, political and economic alienation are a blight on many of our communities and our people. In these indicators, Māori are disproportionately represented. This is why Oranga Tamariki interacts with whanau to the degree it does. Until we as a society take the necessary steps to eliminate these inequities and injustices, the problems will persist.

It must be acknowledged that our workplaces are manifestations of our communities. Both good and bad. Where racism exists in our communities, it will manifest in workplaces. Oranga Tamariki is no exception to this. We all have a part to play in recognising this and looking to ensure that systems, processes and behaviour in our environments are subject to critical reflection.

Social workers have a responsibility for and a commitment to social justice and social change. It is embedded within our code of ethics and is an integral part of a social workers role. It is a hard task - speaking out can be scary and leave people feeling vulnerable. We know that if social workers feel empowered they will speak out if they feel something is unjust. It is why we went into the profession to start with.

As a union, PSA must continue to protect and enhance this space for our members. Social workers must have the freedom to challenge systems, agencies, policies and their own organisation if outcomes for whānau are to be transformative and rooted in social justice.

The media thus far has focused too much on Oranga Tamariki as a sole entity. As if it alone can end the impacts of colonialism and inequality. There is too much finger pointing and abuse of individuals. This is about all of us. Our members want to be part of the solution and there are few who are better equipped to lead in this space. They need to be able to be heard. Puao-te-ata-tu , Te Tiriti and the PSA’s own Kaupapa Māori principles are embedded within our collective agreement with Oranga Tamariki. These require the promotion and empowerment of Māori voices and leadership, recognition of Te Ao Māori in everyday practice, and policies that fundamentally acknowledge the systemic injustices that Māori continue to face.

Our members put these principles into practice every day and continue to look for ways that they can be woven through every action and decision. As the union for social workers we will continue to use our collective voices and strength to shape the future of the organisation. We hope that our wider communities will join us in working to have constructive, courageous conversations about how we want the future to look and how we might get there.

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