Social Work: Professor Emeritus Dorothy Scott AM

Professor Emeritus Dorothy Scott AM (GDip (Social Studies) 1973, BA (Hons) 1976, M. Social Work 1987, PhD 1995) is a renowned leader in the field of child and family welfare, previously serving as Foundation Chair of Child Protection at the University of South Australia and Inaugural Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection. She is the author of five books.

What led you to study social work at the University of Melbourne?

I had a strong resolve to become a social worker from mid-adolescence. In part, this determination was incited when I joined a girls’ group at the YWCA as a 14-year-old. The group leader was a woman called Di O’Neil, a social work student at the University of Melbourne doing a placement at the YWCA. She let us indulge in things that teen girls like, such as make-up and listening to our voices on tape recorders. But she also took us to visit social welfare agencies. She opened our eyes to a different world, even asking us to help her to make a short film for single Greek migrant women, to see Melbourne through their eyes and help them understand the country to which they were coming. On Open Day, she brought us to the University. When I saw her college room, her books and walked through the Ballieu Library, I suddenly had a thought that maybe I’d like to be like Di O’Neil and come to a place like this, even through tertiary education was something alien to me at the time.

When I was 15, a call went out at my school, Burwood High, looking for volunteers for the Allambie Reception Centre, a place where women police brought children ‘charged in need of care and protection’. These were children who had been abused or neglected and were waiting to have their cased heard in the Children’s Court. I turned up, walked through the gates of this rather formidable institution and I was shocked at what I saw. Back then, we didn’t know the term ‘trauma’, but I could see that these children were emotionally frozen - in a state of great insecurity and uncertainty. I helped the older girls, aged 10-12, with their literacy and I was shocked to discover that, on turning 14, after committing no crime, they were to be transferred to a youth justice centre and put with younf offenders. I burned with the injustice of that. I was very passionate that I had to do what I could to prevent children coming into a place like this. So when I left school, I worked there as a childcare worker before I came to the University, where my focus was on stopping children ending up at a place like Allambie. As my career went on, I changed my focus to stopping children from being removed from their families in the first place.

What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

My strongest memories centre on the spirit of the times, my own individual insecurities but also my intellectual blossoming.

In my first year, I felt very alienated, because I was one of about three students who had come from government schools, out of a cohort of around 90 women. I felt out of place and that I didn’t belong. In those days, the University of Melbourne was a very upper middle class place to be, so I adored the intellectual stimulation and enrichment but I felt that it wasn’t a place for a person like me. So my first memory is of this emotion and deep discomfort. It (the 1970s) was a heady time to be a student in terms of anti-conscription, the Vietnam War, and an exciting time in terms of political awareness and whole new movements around social justice.

I did an honours history degree as part of my studies at UoM, in addition to my degree in social work. I had wonderful teachers in Stuart McIntyre, Donna Merwick, Greg Denning - extraordinarily gifted historians. In social work, we had teachers such as Dr Len Tierney, my mentor, teacher and friend. These teachers helped shape deep intellectual interests.

This helped lead me to achieve intellectual confidence. I was still feeling out of place, but after winning several academic prizes and scholarships I felt that I was with my intellectual peers and that this place was right for me.

What motivates you now?

I still have a passion for the prevention of child abuse and neglect. I’m still very concerned about the causes, and about how we understand the complexity of the issue so that we are able, with our current knowledge, to reduce child abuse and neglect. That means transcending ideology, and really understanding the nuances and the diversity of the experiences of people experiencing abuse and neglect. And it ultimately means, as it’s been said by UNICEF, that the challenge of ending child abuse is the challenge of addressing the adult problems that cause the children’s pain. And the three major adult problems are family violence, parental alcohol and other drug misuse, and mental health problems, usually, but not always, in the context of social disadvantage, poverty and isolation.

So, in more recent decades, my focus has been on research, policy and on trying to pursue child abuse and neglect through two frameworks. Firstly, through a child’s rights framework – a child as a holder of human rights – which requires the state to intervene on their behalf. This is a century-old evolution of a grand idea, but it takes a new form, because we’re only just now recognising the rights of children to participate as citizens within the community and in decisions affecting them. The other framework is what I call, and what others call, a ‘public health approach to child abuse and neglect’, which is to intervene early in the causal pathways, based on epidemiological understanding of the risk factors and the protective factors in relation to child abuse and neglect. So if a protective factor is parent-infant attachment, then what can we do in pregnancy and in early infancy to strengthen parental attachment to the child? A risk factor might be social isolation, particularly for neglect and the risk of maternal depression, so what can we do to increase social support and social connection, like through first-time parent groups?

I’ve spent a lot of time working across these areas and it still motivates me, because the capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect is enormous and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface around the challenge of preventing child abuse. So getting those ideas into currency and working on government reviews and inquiries, working at a systemic level, motivates me, but in doing that for a long time I have missed the direct experience with working with children. So in my voluntary work, I connect with real children and that sustains me to tackle the bigger picture stuff. So I guess what motivates me still is “going from case to cause” as the early American social workers used to say.

I’m very excited about working with Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs at the University of Melbourne on a project called ‘Children as Contributors’, which is not about child abuse and neglect at all, but is about children’s rights to be participants in this society, and seeing children not as consumers of services in education and welfare, but as potential contributors to the wellbeing of others in their family, their school and the wider community. Lisa is leading a very exciting project in partnership with ABC Behind The News, conducting a huge survey with Australian school children, asking them about what they do for others. In the research on resilience in children, there is strong evidence that contributing to the wellbeing of others is an important part of a child’s own resilience. So I’m really excited, not just around the prevention of child abuse and neglect, but also nurturing children to feel the deep satisfaction of belonging and connection that comes from being part of a community and being valued for contributing to it.

What advice do you have for current students?

Pursue your passion, always go “from case to cause” (the big picture), critically reflect on the filters through which you see what is before you. We are very quick to see the errors of the past, particularly in child welfare – the Stolen Generations, the Forgotten Australians, British Child Migrants, forced adoption practices. It’s easy to see what we did wrong in the past. It’s much harder to get an insight into what we are doing in the present for which we will later be held responsible. So, try to transcend the ideological filters through which you see the world now. Whether that’s a psychoanalytic one, whether it’s Marxism, Feminism – be critical of the frameworks you are attached to and that are part of your identity. Listen very, very carefully to what those people who have lived experiences are telling you. Pursue that which gives you a deep satisfaction. Try to nurture a sense of vocation. We live in an era that is very psychologising, an era that focuses on the inner world, the subjective experience, and sometimes minimises the significance of the outer world. Social work is, in essence, about the inner world and the outer world, and I would say always be mindful of the state of affairs, not just the states of mind. Do something about the state of affairs - get your hands dirty. Don’t just think that it’s all about “counselling”. Social work is about the head, the heart and the hands all being present in the service of others.

I think social work is an extraordinary profession, it allows you to be intellectually excited about the inner world and the outer world, but it also allows you to have such a diversity of roles at the individual level, working with family groups, in organisational change, communities and, of course, tackling social change. I don’t know of many other professions that have such a broad remit. You can stay in the one field, going from the individual level right through to the societal level, or you can move across fields of disability, child welfare, health, justice, corrections. It’s a very rich path to take in life.