Conflict. Due to our intrinsic differences as individuals, there will always be some level of conflict in human interactions. As a consequence of these differences though, conflict can also become a common occurrence in families. This doesn’t always have to be problematic, as personal growth can come from being challenged and having our ideas questioned; however, in the social work sector, most of the family conflict we come into contact with is excessive or damaging. When working with such issues, we think it’s important to always be willing to learn and adapt to new ideas that might help inform and improve your practice. The likelihood of one social worker knowing the perfect solution to every single case they encounter is incredibly low, so our sector relies heavily on the power of a community. This idea of working together to resolve issues has been developed steadily by New Zealand social workers, who in the mid-1980s took a leaf out of the Maori book and implement a policy of restorative practice, as a recent article in “The Ecologist” explains.
Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand Aoteroa, whose cultures and traditions have helped shaped the whole country, but now are being recognised as applicable in a more international context. Traditionally, Maori communities resolved conflict in a very open and collaborative manner: opting to share ideas and concerns about the protection and care of children or working on conflict within families as a community. During the 1980s – a divisive period for social work in New Zealand – the Maori raised concerns about how the children of their community were being treated in care which led practitioners to adopt a more Maori-style process for family conflict resolution.
Restorative practice recognises that an individual’s actions affect others and enables people to reflect on how they interact with each other and what can be done to creative more positive interactions moving forward. “Restorative practice can be used anywhere to prevent conflict, build relationships and repair harm by enabling people to communicate effectively and positively.” It’s therefore a good tool to use during the child safeguarding process, to ensure that families, practitioners and carers are communicating effectively with a vulnerable child. This ties in greatly with the Maori way of resolving issues within their community, and so reflected a much more respectful approach for their culture to handle family conflict and child safeguarding in this manner. Practitioners began holding ‘family networking meetings’ where the Maori community could come together to discuss instances of family conflict and find resolutions as a collective.
However, what began as a way to integrate the Maori culture in related cases became a precedent for social work across the country. In 1989, legislation was passed which meant that ‘family network meetings’ were mandatory across all communities; implementing a legislative push towards restorative practice. The solutions were noted to be more enduring and sustainable, as families came up with the solutions themselves. The core pillars of these family meetings as honesty, clarity, participation and empowerment; which led into more structured and positive communication across the board.
While New Zealand is about as far from the UK as you can get, the principles of social work should still be the same. No matter where you are in the world, the end goal of facilitating change where needed and supporting the vulnerable members of a society is the same. Every country may go about it in a different way, but realistically we all want the same. So why not learn from other countries and cultures? In New Zealand, they integrated Maori traditions and found a way to rethink resolving family conflict, even in cases of abuse or neglect. Surely there’s got to be something good here, so why not consider integrating more restorative practice across our social work community? Involving the people who care about the child in the process of resolving conflict is a way that could keep the interests of the child and their family at the heart of the matter – which in my eyes, isn’t a terrible idea. Facilitating change requires strong communication, and New Zealand social workers have found a way to have more effective communication in the child protection process; so maybe it’s time we all became a bit more Maori?