New child protection laws a regressive move

In the NZ Herald today an oped article by Ian Hyslop

The Government’s proposed reforms to our child protection laws are regressive, myopic and likely to have unfortunate outcomes for children who have been ill-treated in stressed families.They have been narrowly conceived and signal a return to rescue-based fostercare. This, in my opinion, is a huge step backwards for child protection in New Zealand, particularly for Māori.

Read more here 


Hands off our tamariki: An open letter

An Open Letter to Whānau, Hapū, Iwi, Iwi Leaders Forum, Māori Members of Parliament, Māori National and Iwi Organisations

from Te Wharepora Hou

E ngā Pou Whirinaki o tēnā iwi, o tēnā iwi e whiri i ngā nuku, e whiri i ngā rangi tēnā koutou katoa. He whakaaraara tēnei mō te ture hou o te Kawanatanga e pā ana ki a tātou tamariki mokopuna. E kii ana te Kawana he ture tiaki mokopuna. Ehara! He ture huti rito, he ture pare awhi rito, he ture e kato rau tipu, rau rangatira i te pā harakeke a ka tuku ki ngā hau waho ki reira marara haere ai. Inā tipu pā harakeke kore a tātou tamariki mokopuna, ka tipu pēhea rātou otirā tātou. Ka mato, ka mate rānei?

Over the past months a number of Māori women have worked collaboratively across Aotearoa to raise issues regarding the documents released by the Crown related to the restructuring of the current Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) to the Ministry of Vulnerable Children. We have advocated strongly against the development of a Ministry that is based upon deficit approaches to tamariki in this country, and in particular to tamariki Māori and whānau. We have not been alone in such a position, which has been advocated by a range of organisations including both the previous and current Commissioner for Children.

The recent announcement that the government will remove the requirement to prioritise the placement of tamariki with whānau is alarming to us all.

Read more here

The Political Context of CYF Reforms

7425048066_49d664d3ef_z  Ian Hyslop

The proposed changes to our child protection legislation take us back in time. They bury the vision of Püao-te-Āta-tü and signal a return to rescue-mentality foster care. The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 set out to combat the effects of institutional racism by ensuring that children are understood in the context of whanau, the primary unit of Māori society. This emphasis is radically undermined by the proposed law changes. Securing safe and loving homes at the earliest opportunity is the new driving purpose. The outcomes will be discriminatory for Māori – not for middle class whanau mind, but for those at the bottom of the social and economic pile. This, according to the language of accountants, is where the unacceptable fiscal cost associated with benefits and prisons is generated. The most effective way to fix this is earlier removal, permanency and de-traumatisation. Cultural links can be maintained as part of individual identity but failing whanau can be written off. When it is stripped to the bone, this is the racist, classist and eugenic thinking we are up against. How have we come to this?

The current wave of social security and state social work reforms are located within a wider political and ideological framework. The direction for change was charted in the 2015 report of the Productivity Commission – Better Public Services.  The Commission is a small Crown Entity with three Commissioners who represent a particular economic and business-interest perspective in relation to public services.

By the late 1990s the momentum of the initial blitzkrieg of neoliberal reform – privatisation, commercialisation and business model public sector redesign – had stalled. A naïve market model does not generate effective social services. Rather than rolling back the tide, the third way turn associated with the Clark Labour-led governments is best seen as a holding pattern.

It is also now clear that the neoliberal narrative as reflected in the projects of global corporates – radical commodification and marketization of all human exchange – is an empty economic philosophy which simply serves the interests of the very rich. This was dramatically illustrated in the global financial crisis of 2007/8. Monbiot (2016) raises the question of why such a thoroughly discredited discourse continues to replicate itself: why does this dead dogma survive?

Part of the answer lies in the absence of perceived alternatives and also in the ongoing power of the ideology. The current new and more sophisticated push for public sector privatisation (pushing the market onward to fresh feeding grounds) is premised upon the logic of independent reports, such as Better Public Services, which are, in fact, saturated with political bias. As the servant of powerful economic interests the zombie will walk for as long as it remains useful.

These business-speak reports (the Rebstock Expert Panel Report is another example) follow a particular style and form – assertion, guarded expansion, contraction and significant mind-numbing repetition. Underlying assumptions are alternately concealed or presented as facts. Persuasive rhetoric is disguised as neutral common sense. Inequality and social suffering are sanitised. Above all these documents are infused with a quality best described as hubris – a tone of deep arrogance and righteous condescension. Let’s have a quick look at how some of these elements are manifested in the Better Public Services document.

There is an undertone that public services are failing – particularly for the most vulnerable among us (how particularly sad). In part, this is a spin on one of the oldest privatisation gambits – if you run public services down enough, predictions of failure become self-fulfilling.  Alleged failure is linked to the assertion that we don’t know enough about the drivers of poor outcomes. I wonder what it is that we don’t know, but I am guessing the fact that poverty is directly related to the unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society is something which the Commission would prefer us not to think about. The argument is that social services are expected to solve social problems. If they don’t, social services are at fault.  So … disadvantaged New Zealanders are disadvantaged because of under-performing social services. Are you with me so far?  The answer lies, of course, in innovative flexible capitalism.

The report is filled with the language of investment, innovation and choice. Margaret Thatcher (1987) once pronounced that there is no such thing as society – merely self-sufficient individuals and families. This perception of people as micro-economic units permeates the report. We are told for example that, unfortunately, “people may not make optimum investment in themselves”. I assume we are talking about poverty here. The report goes on to enlighten us further: “One reason is that a lack of information or inadequate access to finance can lead to private under-investment.” Poor market signals produce poverty perhaps? – That is my best guess. This sort of wisdom would, I think, be very expensive at half the price.  We are instructed later that “… people, for many reasons, fail to take advantage of private markets.” I see?

Social services are essentially constructed as products in this mind-set. There are the now familiar and often contradictory mantras about breaking down evil silos, budgets following people, targeting funds for greatest net return, the need for agreed measures of value, new service models, service integration, a small cohesive committee to drive reform, evidence based programmes and provider accountability (given that we don’t know enough about what works). We are told the cure requires allowing service recipients greater choice and control – apart from the underclass Quadrant D group that is.

There is a predictable reference to the most expensive 10, 000 people. For this high risk group, the report literally slavers at the prospect of big data identifying individuals with an unacceptable Future Welfare Liability or Future Fiscal Liability. We are told that this accountancy formula can and should be applied to all client groups. Apparently it has worked a treat in the area of social security reform. The focus has been shifted from the damage our social and economic system inflicts upon marginalised people to the costs deviant and defective people visit upon our economy.

The prescribed cure is greater privatisation but the specifics are as clear as mud. There is talk of devolution, government stewardship, and enablement through budget and the data network. A great deal is made of commissioning social services. This is a disturbingly Orwellian concept. We are told that it is not the same as out-sourcing but we are never really quite told what it is, although at one point several differing definitions are offered by way of clarification.  This is what I mean by hubris – the impressions is that if we don’t know what it means we are very silly (as per the Emperor and his new clothes), or that they don’t know what it means and therefore it will mean whatever they want it to mean at any given time, or perhaps that they know what it means but won’t tell us.  It would be funny if it wasn’t real.

This report – like the Rebstock Review – is propaganda disguised as deep enquiry. It is drenched in hubris but what really worries me is the social cost that the zombie doctrine is inflicting.

Real social work with high needs families can protect children and regenerate whanau but it is now seen as too difficult, risky and expensive it seems. We are opting for the safety and love of a mythical middle New Zealand. We can find other ways to pretend to be culturally enlightened – “they need their identity don’t they?” John Rangihau himself and the many Mātua whāngai mokai who gave their hearts and life’s strength to his vision will be spinning in their graves.


Department of Social Welfare,. (1986). Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Daybreak) Report of a Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington: Author.

Monbiot, G. (2016). The Zombie Doctrine. Guardian Newspaper, April, 2016.

Thatcher, M. Interview for Woman’s Day (“No such thing a society’), September, 1987.

Intensive intervention and care services: thoughts on the proposed legislative changes

The latest cabinet papers outlining the legislative proposals in relation to the intensive intervention and care services sections of the Child Youth and Family Review and restructure have now been released. This blog discusses just a few of the many issues raised in these papers: the effects of lack of attention to standard of living; the ‘genericising’ of cultural identity; and the implicit assumptions about foster care.

One interesting fact is that there are numerous sections in the cabinet papers redacted (removed). One section that has 3 of the 7 points redacted is the human rights implications section, and one can only guess at what those sections relate to. Perhaps they relate to the fact that the point in the Iwi leader’s covenant to ensure that every child has ‘an adequate standard of living’ is exempted from the revised purposes of the CYP&tF Act, while all other points are included. The connections between living conditions and contact with the child protection system are widely accepted in the international poverty and inequalities literature, yet the continuing excision of social conditions from the scope of child protection policy here continues to ignore this (Bywaters et al., 2016; Pelton, 2015). Just this week, in response to a judge’s speech relating to the immense and overwhelming increase in care applications before the courts in England, UK academics have reiterated their conceptualisation of a social model of child protection. A social model includes recognition of material factors in the ability to meet children’s needs, given the persistent relationships between deprivation, ethnicity and contact with the child protection system. We are heading in this direction, with the introduction of concurrent care planning (planning for care while also working with family on their issues), and the increased focus on removal at the ‘earliest opportunity’, with little attention to family context.

Maybe the absent human rights implications are related to the removal of the existing requirement for Maori children to be placed if possible with Iwi or Hapuu, and children from other ethnic groups to be placed where possible with people from their own ethnic group. This removal can be seen as a threat to the right to cultural identity expressed in the UNCROC. There are a number of references to retaining cultural identity that remain in the new proposals, but this is portrayed as an individual, generic type identification that has essentially been downgraded from very important to just one in a whole list of factors to consider. This highlights ongoing debates about the relative importance of cultural identities as an aspect of wellbeing. Aside from that, cultural identity generally requires connection to specific kinship networks and for Maori, whakapapa, to be maintained. The view of cultural identity is instead conceptualised in the new legislation as something relating to personal expression, rather than bound up with relationships with specific individuals and collectives (in this case, Hapuu and Iwi). The attempt to balance cultural identity needs with ongoing stability of placement is evident in the new legislation. It’s true that stability and attachment are important, yet the old sections of the Act were put in there for a reason: to stop the tide of Maori children into care arrangements that completely severed them from kinship connections, in recognition of the long arm of colonisation and its associated harms for people reaching adulthood with no anchor into a Maori identity (Ministerial Committee, 1988).

Perhaps the removed human rights implications relate to the ‘bespoke information sharing framework’ mentioned but not fleshed out in the proposals, which undoubtedly has some implications for rights to privacy. One can only guess.

The proposed changes generally encourage earlier removal to permanency. Implicit in this is the assumption that foster care, if done well, is harm free. Improving care is certainly important, and the many efforts to improve the permanent care system in these changes by way of increased support and standards for carers, increased stability and participation for children, and more resources for children transitioning out of care are warmly welcomed. But even a perfect care system is not as good as remaining in one’s own family in a safe environment. Foster care, even when adequately resourced, is not without its harms. As Morton (2016) provocatively argues:

“Removing a child to foster care violates the most basic trust existing in a child’s life that, whatever else may happen, the caregiver will be physically constant… Once the child is removed, the child remains suspicious about the permanence of the caregiver even if returned home. If it happened once, it can happen again. I am not arguing that removal is never necessary, rather that it must be balanced against the certain harm created by removal”

The fact that removal carries known harms means that the decision to do so can never be considered a comparison of the family situation with a uniformly positive alternative, although removal may be the better option in some instances based on a weighing up of harms.

Numerous studies have also shown that the length of time in care predicts family reunification – the longer in care, the less likely a return home is. This leads us to consider the aims of the system, as most studies assume reunification is the aim. For example, a recent study found that “Reunification was most likely during the first 2.5 years of the foster placement. Findings highlighted the importance of timely reunification efforts” (Goemans, Vanderfaeillie, Damen, Pijnenburg, & Van Holen, 2016, p.1). Is the purpose of the system to support families to retain the care of their children where possible, or to remove as soon as problems become apparent? We are moving towards the latter, which tends to result in large numbers of children coming into care, overwhelmingly from families at the margins of high deprivation and multiple complex problems (as is happening in the UK). Is this fair, without first offering the resources that might assist with those problems? Does it adequately balance adult’s right to parent their own children with children’s right to be protected from harm? This simplified dichotomy  leaves out a third right: children also have a right to where possible, family life. The felt loss of this, even in strained family circumstances, is a feature of research into the perceptions of care-leavers. This is why the focus should not be on creating immediate permanency in care arrangements, (apart from in a few extreme cases) but first on return home if possible, as soon as possible. The change in focus to early permanency underpinning these legislative changes is therefore a contested one. It’s also likely to result in a greater proportion of the finite resources available to go into fostercare, while supportive family services get less, a point well made in this article :

Implicit assumptions in these proposals are not only that removal carries no harm, and that early permanency is an out and out good, but also that early removal will result in better long term outcomes. This is unknown. How those outcomes are chosen as valid ones also bears scrutiny. The stated aim assumes that the future outcomes of cost to the welfare and criminal justice systems are valid signs of the success of the social investment approach. As noted, that early removal leads to this is not known, but even if it was, how do we consider the balance between reducing future costs and the current welfare of the child and their family? On the one hand, avoiding future harm seems like a no-brainer. Yet contact with welfare and even the criminal justice system can’t be considered uncomplicated evidence of ‘harm’, or of harm that is within parent’s control (justifying removal). In the child protection context, future costs must be balanced with rights to family life and the undoubtedly disproportionate effects for Maori. Many children in poor families will grow up to be poor. Should we remove them all to reduce the forward liability? Or address the causes of poverty and marginalisation underpinning them? For these ethical reasons, most countries focus on reunification first, while balancing the need to act within children’s time-frames.  We are heading in a different direction, where reunification may no longer be considered a valuable aim. This raises a number of ethical issues and the need for ongoing debates, as well as good evidence regarding the effects of the changes as they unfold.

Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C., & Steils, N. (2016). The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: An evidence review. Coventry: Joseph Rountree Foundation.

Goemans, A., Vanderfaeillie, J., Damen, H., Pijnenburg, H., & Van Holen, F. (2016). Reunification of foster children: Factors associated with reunification outcomes in Flanders and the Netherlands. Children and Youth Services Review. doi:

Ministerial Advisory Committee. (1988). Puao-te-ata-tu (day break): The report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare.  Wellington, New Zealand: Retrieved from

Pelton, L. H. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse & Neglect, 41(0), 30-39. doi:

Like water on a rock


On a recent trip to the UK, I was asked to talk about the work of the RSW collective at Salford University. I didn’t really want to, I wanted to talk about one of my other areas of research interest, but peeps insisted! As I was soon to learn, this was fuelled by the synchronicities between ANZ and the UK in many areas: neoliberal economic and social policies, punitive welfare reform, an increasing emphasis in child protection policy on removal of children earlier to permanency (with little attention to structural or family conditions), and criticism of social work and education. So people were keen to hear about our little project of resistance.

Continue reading Like water on a rock

Enhancing fieldwork education: A strategic approach?


This is the third and final blog post in response to the New Zealand Social Workers Registration Board’s (SWRB) current review of their standards for recognising programmes of social work professional education. In the first blog post I discussed the question of whether required curriculum inputs should be specified in the standards and argued that an emphasis on inputs and content specification in other jurisdictions stifled innovation, overloaded the curriculum and led to students feeling pressured by the sheer amount of content to be covered. I went on to argue that, if we want to improve social work education programmes in Aotearoa New Zealand, then we must focus on the outcomes of qualifying programmes, not curriculum inputs. The second blog post responded to the question of the adequacy of the graduate attributes specified in the standards and argued that, instead of having a set of 14 graduate outcomes, in addition to a set of 10 core competence standards, we ought to articulate a single set of clear, unambiguous and realistic statements of intended graduate outcomes, competencies or capabilities. Furthermore, I argued that we could obtain clarity about the correct level of achievement for new graduates if we adopted a whole of career approach and specify the outcomes we expect at different points in the career journey of a social worker. I also pointed out that the enhance R2P project is national research project funded by Ako Aotearoa to address precisely this issue.

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An outcomes-based approach to social work education?


In a previous blog post I discussed the current review by the New Zealand Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) of its programme recognition standards. Since the programme recognition standards are what the SWRB use to recognise and (every five years) re-recognise a social work qualifying programme, any changes introduced as a result of the review would, in effect, reform social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand.  A consultant has circulated a survey amongst stakeholders to invite comment on the existing standards (SWRB, 2013) including: the graduate profile, the curriculum, requirements for fieldwork placement, admission criteria, modes of delivery, and staffing requirements. In my last post I discussed curriculum content and argued that specifying required curriculum content would hinder rather than help curriculum improvement. Instead, I argued that the focus of our attention ought not to be on curriculum inputs but on clarifying the outcomes of qualifying education. In this post I want to continue with that argument, reflect on the survey questions about the graduate profile, and consider what an effective, outcomes-based social work education might look like.

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Reforming social work education: the question of curriculum inputs


As a distance educator and someone who has been involved with learning technology for over twenty years I am a great fan of the Canadian educational researcher George Siemens. It was George who, along with Stephen Downes, developed the first Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC). However, the original MOOC designed by Siemens and Downes could not be less like the content driven MOOCs offered by the plethora of institutions who now occupy that space, theirs was founded on a connectivist pedagogy driven by the activity of learners and the networks they form, not by a pre-determined content driven structure.

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Submission on the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Advocacy, Workforce, and Age Settings) Amendment Bill

Beehive, NZ government building.

With the first ‘tranche’ of proposed legislative changes associated with the Child Youth and Family review comes the opportunity to make submissions to the Social Services Committee. We have made one in regards to the final proposed change – to delegate fairly substantial powers beyond the state organisation (name as yet unknown) to third party professionals/organisations. They don’t have to be social workers (in fact the point is exactly to extend certain powers beyond social workers to other professionals) and the organisations remain unknown. If passed, this Bill will have two main results we should be concerned about. Firstly, it is a direct challenge to the expertise of social workers – specifically – to be able to receive notifications and make the most intrusive types of orders – without leave. Even more concerning is the move to enable those outside the state (whoever it is) to be able to perform all the functions currently held by the CE of CYF. This includes every coercive power of the state you can think of, and with a direct reference to requiring the appropriate ‘contracting’ to be in place, seems clearly to set the scene for the privatisation not only of less contentious services such as foster care or preventive services (already contracted to a number of NGOS), but of direct front-line decision-making and practice such as taking notifications of concern, applying for declarations, and applying for custody orders. We think it’s a bad idea, for reasons given below.

Continue reading Submission on the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Advocacy, Workforce, and Age Settings) Amendment Bill