IASSW AIETS logoSocial Dialogue Magazine
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Vasilios Ioakimidis,
Professor of Social Work, Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, University of Essex, UK

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Maria-Ines Martinez,
Lecturer, Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, University of Essex, UK

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Aaron Wyllie,
Lecturer, Centre for Social Work and Social Justice, University of Essex, UK

Guest Editorial: Confronting Social Work’s troubled past: Is it time for a Global Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Social Work and Social Service’s troubled past.

As the painful history of “Franco’s Stolen Babies” unfolds in Spain, evidence of Social Services complicity and state violence comes to the surface. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent defeat of the Republican forces, General Franco created a sophisticated and extensive system aiming at the ideological and political control of the population. It was based on two main pillars: the ruthless suppression of socialist ideology and the creation of the ideal-type Spanish family. The former happened mostly through incarceration, coercion and direct pathologisation of left-wing citizens while the latter primarily focused on the ideological ‘re-education’ of the Spanish family. It is estimated that up to 300,000 new-born babies of leftwing and working class families were illegally removed from their parents and given for adoption to mostly middle class nationalist families.

This practice continued well into the 1970’s. Undoubtedly, its sheer scale betrays the direct involvement of several state institutions and hundreds -if not thousands- of state affiliated professionals including doctors, nurses and social workers. The all-mighty Spanish Catholic Church held a key role in this vast surreptitious network and Franco’s Social Services were directly implicated in the removals. . Neither the case of Franco’s “stolen babies” has been an isolated episode of social work complicity nor can social services’ involvement be attributed to the “few bad apples” theory. A closer look into the political history of countries that also experienced military rule, such as Argentina and Chile, reveals that similar practices were systematic and widespread. Moreover, recent research on the violent assimilation policies targeting First Nations policies in Australia, Canada, the US and Greenland suggests that state Social Services were also actively in attempts to suppress indigenous cultures and forcibly extend settler values to native communities. Once again, manipulating and re-shaping the institution of nuclear family was deemed to be the ‘gold standard’. Details of the brutality and inter-generational trauma caused by the ‘sixties scoop’ in Canada and the ‘stolen generations’ in Australia are yet to be fully explored and recorded. Meanwhile, in South Africa for much of the 20th century mainstream social work, which had largely accepted segregationist ideologies well before 1948, readily adopted the practices of racial separation culminating with the creation of Apartheid.

The most extensive, notorious and sophisticated example of social work’s complicity in practices of segregation and social engineering is that of Nazi Germany. Social services in this context served a dual purpose; on the one hand they aimed to physically and socially segregate and exterminate those families and individuals deemed ‘unworthy’ of being citizens of the Reich. On the other hand, they focused on educating/ reforming the family and ensuring that all members had a clear understanding of the distinct and superior status of the Aryan race. The centrality of Nazi social work in the history of our global profession, informed our decision to dedicate a substantial part of the current special issue to this particular episode.

Histories of resistance

Despite our focus on the most troubling aspects of social work’s past, histories of resistance have not escaped our attention. Although much of the official social work profession colluded extensively with oppressive regimes, it would be a terrible omission to ignore the efforts and sacrifices of several social workers who acted collectively or individually towards resisting authoritarianism and reimagining a progressive social work. In almost every case we recounted above, considerable -albeit minority- numbers of social workers prioritised their commitment to social justice and human rights over unconditional loyalty to the State.

We need to remember and celebrate these stories, such as that of African American social worker Thyra Edwards from Chicago. Thyra Edwards was a dedicated socialist and antiracist, who strongly believed in the universal nature of the struggle against all oppressions. She travelled to Barcelona where she worked in the Rosa Luxembourg children facility while also becoming the primary link between the Afro American Community and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting in Spain. She continued her anti-fascist action through the Second World War and died shortly after while trying to set up care projects for Jewish children in Rome.

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Thyra Johnson Edwards (December 25, 1897 – July 9, 1953) was an African-American educator, journalist, labor activist, and social worker. (public domain source: https://commons.wi- kimedia.org/wiki/File:ThyraJEdwardsPD.jpg)

As Second World War engulfed most of Europe and Northern Africa, the Red Aid, a vast anti-fascist welfare network, mobilized thousands of social workers and social welfare practitioners globally in order to develop services caring for refugees, political activists and orphan children. We also need to remember and celebrate Irena Sendler a Polish-Jewish social worker who between 1940 and 1943 saved nearly 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto.

These individuals and numerous other social workers, the unsung pioneers of the social work profession, suffered from vilification, arbitrary detention, harassment and state violence for decades. It is not a secret that FBI has been the best biographer of radical pre and immediate post-war social workers, such as Thyra Edwards and Jane Adams. In fact, many social workers were persecuted or even murdered because of their anti-fascist action. In Latin America alone, human rights organisations have recorded over 200 “disappearances” of practitioners who actively opposed military regimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Professional accountability and the need for a Global Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Despite those histories of resistance, the stark reality is that millions of people have been subjected to practices of institutional oppression and abuse in the context of Social Services. A thorough exploration of Social Work’s troubled past demonstrates that Social Services are not inherently benevolent but, like most state institutions, they constitute politically contested jurisdictions. History shows that when social workers ignore what is at stake politically and instead, they emphasise on the anodyne “get on with the job” approach, they are more likely to - unwillingly or intentionally- engage with oppressive practices.

The historical tension between professional loyalty to the employer and loyalty to the user of social services is resolvable through an appreciation of the political contradictions. When social workers are expected to abide by unjust state laws, invocation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should always provide a clear and undisputed ethical compass.

Social Services and the Social Work profession have an obligation to explore, appreciate and learn from historical injustices. Communities that have suffered from institutional racism, violence and segregation in the context of social services should have a prominent role in the process of exploring such history. The stories of those affected need to be told and their traumatic experiences need inform meaningful change in policy and professional practice.

It is exactly the centrality of the collective experience of survivors and their sacrosanct right to the Truth that require a meaningful response. Social work cannot celebrate its achievements, progress and commitment to social justice while neglecting its own troubled past. Reaffirming such commitment would require that Social Work becomes the first among all Health and Social Care professions to offer an apology to communities affected by historical injustices and set up a Global Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC). The international organisations representing the Social Work as a profession and academic discipline can lead the way.

The main aims of the GTRC would be to empower communities of survivors to tell their stories, provide a safe space for healing, reaffirm the human rights base of the profession and collectively articulate a vision for truly universal and democratic social services. The purpose of this process will not be to absolve the oppressive role of the State through a devolution of its historical responsibility to constituent professions or services. On the contrary a social work GTRC can provide important evidence towards highlighting the fundamental and politically contested role of the State while also demanding reform and reparations.

Social Work is the fastest-growing profession internationally, mostly because investing in social services evidently has a positive impact on societies. It is high time that the profession also demonstrates the necessary leadership, confidence and determination to re-imagine an ethical future through learning from its troubled past. It is only then that its transformative potential will be fully realised.