Yellow star

    J O   F I N C H

106 Jo Finch    106 Yellow star

It was inevitable I would become a social worker as there was no other profession where I could ‘live’ my politics. I grew up in a single parent family at a time when there was stigma and shame about living in a so- called ‘broken family’. I knew from an early age, my family was far from broken and I was acutely aware of the neighbours’ (particularly men’s) condescending attitudes towards my mum, constantly offering her unasked for ‘advice’. My brother and I felt under scrutiny and any normal childhood naughtiness was viewed as proof of our inevitable slide towards delinquency due to living in a single parent family.

The beginnings of my feminist and social justice leanings were clearly sown at this time and came to the fore when I attended a radical (now a dirty word) comprehensive school in Crawley, West Sussex (southern England). Our curriculum was deliberately political – we learnt about the Bhopal disaster, apartheid, the holocaust, poverty and inequality. We were encouraged to redirect our teenage angst and be angry instead at such global issues and injustices. We were encouraged to have a voice and stand up for what you believe in. It thus seems a short journey from GSCE humanities, to A level sociology, a politics degree, working in a residential unit for adults with learning disabilities recently discharged from long term institutions, and then undertaking social work training at the London School of Economics.


The Yellow star is a symbol of the holocaust.

I chose Yellow star because …

… it serves as a stark reminder of the risk of how ‘caring’ professions, including social work, can become caught up in ideological frameworks that serve only to breach fundamental human rights. Every year with the new intake of fresh and hopeful MA social work students, I present a teaching session on the history of social work in the UK. I am reminded every year that the profession’s roots are deeply uncomfortable, namely a Victorian ideological and moralising discourse of who is deemed deserving and undeserving, and the influence of the Eugenics movement, with concerns about ‘lunatics’ and the ‘feeble-minded’ breeding. Indeed, eugenics was influential in social work practice in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on ‘mental and social hygiene’; the forced sterilisation of those with learning disabilities in the USA was a common practice.

The Eugenics movement, reached its evil zenith in Nazi Germany. For example, social workers were required (alongside other professionals like social pedagogues) to submit documents to court detailing ‘concerns’ they had about children and young people, namely those seen as delinquent, disabled, mentally ill or not racially pure. Social workers and other caring professions also worked in institutions, where the killing of those with disabilities, mental ill health and those of so-called ‘impure ethnicity’ was commonplace. It would be easy to think such practice were in the past, but in Australia, aborigine children as late as 1970 were forcibly removed from their homes and placed with white families.

This is the dark side of social work, a professional that can be seen as nothing more than agents of the state, removing children from ‘feral families’, for example, and influenced unconsciously by social Darwinism. The care vs control dilemma in still omnipresent.

Our ultimate goal has to aim at challenging social injustice and inequality, upholding human rights and being advocates for those who the system has conspired to make lose their voices. Most importantly, we need to constantly worry whether our practices of today will be the scandals of the future.

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