The Modernising Child, Youth and Family ‘Expert’ Panel’s Interim Report is rhetorically powerful at times. The form of the report expands and contracts like a concertina and is replete with what Noam Chomsky (1989) refers to as necessary illusions and emotionally potent over-simplifications. In order to consider the ideological underpinnings of this document it is necessary to dig beneath the surface façade.
The starting point for this modernisation project is an actuarial risk approach which conceives of child maltreatment – and ineffective or inefficient responses to this phenomenon – as resulting in long term costs to the government – particularly prisons and state benefits. The prescribed antidote to this problem of ‘downstream’ costs is a greater focus on the rehabilitation of maltreated children by means of earlier permanent removal from birth parents and placement with ‘loving’ families (be they ‘original’ or ‘new’). The needs of the care system and the reforms which are proposed are conflated with a cure for the inadequacies of statutory social work and a prescription for its future function in healing the abused child and creating safe citizens.
A refocusing on the needs of damaged children is proposed and middle New Zealand is exhorted to open its ‘hearts and homes’ in this worthy endeavour. The report is seriously flawed in terms of the statistics used to justify the conclusions reached and in relation to what is either included or omitted in the construction of the case that is made. Crucially the argument does not deny the relationship between social disadvantage and ‘poor life outcomes’. However, rather than promoting a much needed focus on the structural determinants of social disadvantage, this emphasis is used to justify a more punitive approach to families where child maltreatment is present. This is achieved by constructing social disadvantage as a process that is behaviourally determined and reproduced rather than structurally generated. Accordingly the relationship between government policy, socio-economic inequality and social suffering is ignored.
This blurring of cause and effect is then extended by conflating a cure for the ills of the care system with a panacea for the suggested failings of statutory social work practice. This ‘failure’ is effectively recast as a lapse of social work vision as opposed to a complex mix of unrealistic expectations, inadequate state funding, system design, perverse auditing and political will. The reasoning is essentially that child maltreatment is caused by inadequate families. Since efforts to work with such families have not resolved the problem it is necessary to focus on re-socialising their children. This requires a decentreing of family focused practice within statutory social work and reform of the care system to cater for permanent child rescue. The negative experiences of children in care provide a compelling Trojan horse for this project. State care is quite rightly identified as inadequate and connected with the creation of future vulnerability. However this analysis does not justify the absurd assumption that fixing the care system will break the broader cycle (and reduce the cost) of social disadvantage in an unequal society. Statutory social work is not the central cause of social vulnerability.
The Report argues that statutory social work has not adapted its practices to the higher contemporary rate of emotional abuse and neglect notifications, as opposed to physical and/or sexual abuse intakes. It is unclear why this failure to adapt to ‘societal change’ is linked to the proposed shift in policy and practice direction. The Report also omits to recognise that such changes in reporting patterns are often more about public awareness and shifting social norms than the actual incidence of differing forms of maltreatment (Parton, 2014). Much is made of a rising trend in re-notifications of abusive incidents for specific children. Given that statutory social work has always focussed its attention on particular families or types of families (Ferguson, 2004) it is difficult to accept the accuracy of the figures suggested. It is likely that changes in recording practices and particularly the increased rate of family violence related notifications are a significant part of this picture.
Similarly the persuasive and emotive figures about the rates of re-abuse suffered by children who are returned to the care of parents or to whanau care need some critical consideration. Re-abuse can cover a multitude of events and comparing a re-abuse rate of 23% for children returned to biological family in 2010 with a 1% rate for those placed with non-kin is unlikely to be comparing apples with apples. First the numbers of children in question are unlikely to be comparable and secondly the important variable is the amount of support and resource provided to biological and whanau carers as opposed to long term out of family care arrangements.
I think the information presented is selective. I worked in statutory child protection social work for a long time and I removed my share of children from damaging and deprived family environments. However I am also aware that risk and need are never as neatly separable as our binary systems of classification suggest and that, with the right support, safety and care can generally be developed in the context of family and whanau. It is about time, effort, trust and resources. Clearly, the system – and particularly the care system – has its shortcomings but the ideologically loaded solution that this panel is proposing is not the only answer, and not the right answer in my opinion.
The directive for early out of family permanency calls to be made by statutory practitioners and the inference that restorative social work with high needs families is not part of the core business of statutory practice remains profoundly disconcerting. Perhaps more worrying still is the suggestion that cultural connectedness can be maintained without a primary focus on family connection. The foundations of the modernising project are attuned to a political agenda consistent with neoliberal self-responsibility and to the disingenuous logic of capital – i.e., that the behaviour of the disadvantaged is the cause of their disadvantage.
A cynical – and imaginary – linkage between the abusive behaviour of the under-class poor and the reproduction of social suffering is the most disturbing element of the agenda which is being played out here. The direct causal relationship between state policy, economic inequality and a range of poor outcomes for disadvantaged children and families is obscured in this perverse logic: treatment for the symptoms of social inequality is confused with a cure. This is a politically driven process which suggests that many of the core values of social work have little or no place in statutory child protection. The December Report is much anticipated.
Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Parton, N. (2014). The Politics of child Protection – Contemporary Developments and Future Directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chomsky, N. (1989). Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. London, U.K: South End Press.