Meeting at the crossroads: community social work and preventative practice

By Riley Pearson

Social work is a unique discipline which allows practitioners to be involved in the lives of the community in a multitude of ways. While key fields include Child Protection and Health, we will explore Community Social Work, in relation to child development and parenting education.

New Zealand has contracted services which focus on early intervention and prevention work with parents and young children. This involves working with working with parents, caregivers and families with young children that are vulnerable (at risk), in relation to their health or development (MSD, 2015).  Social workers in this domain have key roles in:

  • Ensuring child safety by addressing their health and developmental needs are met, and that children have up-to-date immunisations and are enrolled in early childhood education to support their social and educational development.
  • Assisting parents to access necessary resources (e.g. benefits, food grants, adequate housing).
  • Linking families with other community services (e.g. alcohol and drugs, infant and maternal mental health, training and education, early childhood education).

(Baker, 2014; MVCOT, 2017; Shai & Belsky, 2016)

In this sphere, it’s the ability to engage with, and provide, families with links to necessary agencies and community supports that are a crucial contribution of social workers. Social worker’s ability to connect these groups allows the client to access the relevant and necessary rights and supports that they need (MVCOT, 2017). Practitioners in-depth knowledge of clients’ needs allows them to effectively advocate on clients behalves.  And the focus on early intervention also means practitioners can inform and guide parents to mitigate risks, and improve their child’s outcomes, and prevent escalation to statutory social services.

Practitioners also have strength in using evidence-based practice (e.g. attachment theory) to provide parents with knowledge on: child development milestones, developing positive relationships, engagement and play, boundaries and routines, and problem-solving (Baker, 2014, MSD 2015). Other strengths include the strength-based, culturally-appropriate, and empowerment-centred service delivery methods; service liaison skills; and client retention (as engagement with these services are voluntary, retention on these programmes can also indicate strength in practice and relationship-building skills).

Conversely, the voluntary nature of this field means that many parents may choose not to engage with the service, which can affect then their organisation’s contract (e.g. number of clients and outcomes). For social works that means facing reduced access to funding and resources, which can adversely affect practice. Secondly, the families involved in these preventative programmes are often themselves faces with a host of other challenges (e.g. mental health, drug and alcohol, and domestic violence issues), therefore social workers need to be trained and informed on how to address those concerns while undertaking their prescribed role.

Again, social workers will always be faced with crossroads in practice; whether its compounding client challenges, choosing a focus, or trying to negotiate how to practice under different constraints. It reminds us that we have opportunities to act on multiple levels. The mission, however, remains the same: equipping and empowering families to achieve change and improve and maintain positive outcomes for our children.


Baker, J. (2014). Parent Education Programmes for Early Childhood Development: Reflections of Practitioners (Masters of Social Work). Stellenbosch University. Retrieved from:

Ministry of Social Development [MSD], (2015). Family Start Programme Manual: For the Guidance of Family Start Providers. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development, pp.1-56.

Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki [MVCOT]. (2017). Programmes and community forums. (2017). Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki. Retrieved from

Shai, D., & Belsky, J. (2016). Parental embodied mentalizing: how the nonverbal dance between parents and infants predicts children’s socio-emotional functioning. Attachment & Human Development19(2), 191-219.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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