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Norma Parker

Date Posted: 6 August 2012

Norma Alice Parker, CBE, is generally regarded as one of the founders of social work in Australia. Born in 1906, the eldest of the five children born to Annie Westhoven, a Catholic and accountant Ernest Parker, a Methodist, she attended Sacred Heart High School before studying Arts at the University of Western Australia in 1925. Here she formed a strong friendship with Constance Pauline Moffit with whom she travelled to the Catholic University of America to study social work.

Parker specialised in psychiatric social work for her Master of Arts and Diploma of Social Service and worked in Cleveland and Los Angeles, before returning to Australia with Moffit in 1931. The country was in the midst of a depression and Parker was appalled by ‘the acute and dreadful poverty’ later saying, ‘I shall never forget the impression it made on me’ (Age, 9 November 1979). In 1932, she established an almoner department at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, the third such department in Australia. She was also elected to the central committee of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild, a feminised group that mobilised Catholic lay women to monitor economic and social conditions. Her vision, influenced by USA social work, also enabled her to work with Moffit and other Catholic social workers to reform Catholic welfare in Melbourne. As a leader she was able to liaise effectively with the church hierarchy and gain support for her reforms. To co-ordinate the various Catholic welfare initiatives she and Moffit persuaded Archbishop Mannix to establish the Catholic Social Service Bureau in Melbourne in 1936.

Moving to New South Wales in 1936 she founded the almoner department at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. Working again with Moffit, she set up Catholic Welfare Bureaus in Sydney (1941) and Adelaide (1942). She opened the first social work department in an Australian mental hospital at Callan Park and was the first psychiatric worker appointed by the Department of Public Health (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1944). In 1944, she won a Commonwealth Fund of New York fellowship to study psychiatric social work at the University of Chicago, the first Australian psychiatric worker to do so (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1944). Her aim was to learn how to organise psychiatric social worker training for mental hospitals, child guidance clinics and discharged servicemen (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1944).

Parker played an important role in the provision of social work education. She worked at Sydney University’s social work department as assistant to the head, Elizabeth Govan, from 1941 to 1943. Together they reformed the Child Welfare Department. To gather evidence Parker lived in the Girls’ Industrial School at Parramatta. From 1946-1954, she was senior lecturer in social casework, acting as director of the department from 1945-46. Yet, despite her achievements, she was repeatedly passed over as head of department while less experienced younger men were appointed.

Working with Constance Moffit, Elvira Lyons and Eileen Davidson, Parker was central to the foundation of a professional association for social workers. Together they established the Catholic Trained Social Workers’ Association in 1940 (Gleeson, 2006). Parker was president of the first state professional social workers’ association from 1940 to 1943 and was instrumental in the foundation of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), serving as its inaugural president from 1946 to 1954. She convened the committee which established the New South Wales Association for Mental Health in 1956, and was also influential in the foundation of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). In 1946 she was a founding member of the New South Wales branch of the St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance a Catholic group that aimed to empower women to support social justice causes .

In 1957, Parker married ‘Mont’ Brown, a former prisoner of war, who died in 1964. Moving to the University of New South Wales, she was appointed as Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Social Work from 1966-1969. She was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) on 3 June 1972, for services to education and child welfare, and awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Sydney University in 1986. The Norma Parker Correctional Centre for Women at Parramatta, New South Wales and the presidential oration of the AASW are named in her honour. Active in professional associations well beyond her retirement Parker died in 2004.
With characteristic modesty, Parker summed up her attitude to leadership, saying ‘when there was something to be done, we did it. We were, to some extent, feminists’. Described by one of her colleagues as ‘not ambitious’ she is remembered for creating opportunities for ‘good people’ rather than claiming the credit for herself. ‘A visionary’ she ‘perceived no obstacles while she kept her eyes on the goal. If obstacles did appear they were there only to be overcome. She was impatient to achieve results, but achieve them she did’. In her reminiscences, Parker noted how, during her early days in Melbourne, she came to realise that ‘one served quite a long apprenticeship before you earned the right to have anything to say … It took years to be accepted; when that happy day finally arrived, all was well, but it was a weary process’.

Written by Ruth Lee.