Social work 'not just a job'

12:06 am on 28 September 2017

A baby girl with broken bones who barely survived her injuries is an extreme case of child abuse, but not an unusual one, social workers say.

A child plays with toys at a kindergarten or early childcare centre.

Photo: 123RF

The baby, who had a fractured skull and is now on anti-seizure medication, is just one of more than 100 cases being overseen by a single team of south Auckland social workers.

She has been put into state care, along with her brother and two sisters.

To mark National Social Workers' Day, RNZ was invited to observe an Oranga Tamariki care and protection team at work, to see what they dealt with on the front line.

Although the violence against the baby girl was extreme, lead case worker Rachel* said it was not unusual. All 60 of the children she was currently overseeing had their own stories from dysfunctional families.

On a glass wall in the open plan office were blown-up photos of the babies Oranga Tamariki worked with.

The photos served as a daily reminder of why the agency's staff did their job, team supervisor Liz Samuel said.

"We're here for these little ones who don't have a voice.

"Even though we're not the ones that care for them day-to-day we still play a significant role in their lives making sure they're safe."

South Auckland social workers Liz Samuel and Rebbecca Njeru

South Auckland social workers Liz Samuel and Rebbecca Njeru Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

Ms Samuel said like many other social workers, she could personally relate to what some of the children they saw had suffered.

"It's not just a job, it means more to us than that because it's about showing people and ... helping to [make sure] that life isn't always going to be about drugs and alcohol or family violence," she said.

"There's absolutely a light at the end of the tunnel."

It was not always possible to change hardened attitudes but the social workers tried their best, Ms Samuel said.

"If I can just plant a seed of change in somebody - in a mother or a father or an auntie and uncle - I walk away knowing that I've been able to contribute to some sort of change in society."

Rachel said it was never a matter of love, but whether parents had the skills and knowledge of what good parenting looked like.

"We're not debating love here - we're looking at safety and the risk to the children's psychological, mental and physical wellbeing."

She had always wanted to be a social worker, after growing up in a family that fostered many children.

Her own past was colourful, including time spent living on the streets, Rachel said. She raised two foster children who now had children of their own.

"That's why I come to work every day - their lives are different because of people like caregivers and people like social workers and someone believed that they could have a different life."

* RNZ has agreed to refer to this social worker by this name only, for privacy reasons.

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