A return to the “good old days”: Back to the future of Aotearoa New Zealand social services

The holiday mood is a seductive one, with its many competing discourses of hope, indulgence, generosity and belonging. We don rose coloured glasses to look back at our successes and dare to keep them on while looking forward. We fully expect that in the next few weeks, when our toes are firmly in the sand and our rosy glasses are at their most glorious tint, we will receive the promised report of the CYF ‘overhaul.’ This seasonal blog post is in anticipation of this. It is written by Bobby Bryan, a new social work academic at Te Kuritini o Waikato (Wintec).  Bobby has worked for Child Youth and Family, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Ministry of Health, Department of Corrections, non-government Youth Health Services, Kaupapa Māori family violence services, and as a social services consultant.   He looks back on the good times of social services in Aotearoa New Zealand with the hope that the memory of these will provide strength for social workers and for Child Youth and Family in 2016.

Ko Hikurangi te maunga

Ko Waiapu te awa

Ko Ngati Porou te iwi

Tihei mauri ora

I always get worried when people start talking about the “good old days”. The problem with doing this of course is that its gets in the way of growth, moving forward, adjusting to new environments, or sets of circumstances. It can stop us from “getting on with it.”  So I worry about myself when thinking about this Child, Youth and Family review. Because here I am, thinking about the “good old days”. I think there’s a message in this.

I have been in the social service industry for just on 30 years.  I started my journey handing out benefits and pensions for Department of Social Welfare (DSW) in 1985.  I was young, naïve, just ‘doing a job.’  But something very significant happened to me that year.  I was there when a Ministerial Advisory Group came to town and asked us about working with Māori.

With hindsight I had no idea how big a deal this was; but, by the end of the 1980s, I was very aware.  Puao te ata tu changed my life (several times actually).  Puao tea ta tu was the outcome of this Ministerial Advisory Group, it not only explored the idea of bi-cultural understanding and relationship between Māori and Pākehā, it also explained in clear terms the history of that relationship.  It included 13 recommendations designed to address the issues of this history.  It was, of course, targeted at the then Department of Social Welfare, but it was far bigger than that: it was the first true attempt at bi-cultural practice.  It shocked the conventional world of social services by yelling out: “We have indigenous ways of doing things. Stop using imported models!” It also empowered Māori staff, it gave us (and our culture) a legitimacy.

In 1990 I was afforded an opportunity to change jobs via an organisational review, and in part because of Puao te ata tu, I chose to become a residential social worker.  Thus began my journey as a social worker, starting at the Epuni Residential Centre, which had been reorganised to manage young offenders under the New Act (Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989).

This is where we start the “good old days” stuff.  When the Act was fresh and resourced, and some amazing things were being done by very creative, innovative and motivated social workers. I’ll start, for example, with outcomes for young offenders, their whānau and their victims.  We would attend Family Group Conference (FGC) working on a new premise that we didn’t want the offending to happen again. Amazing outcomes were created and everyone was on board, including the police.  We would talk about setting things right for the victim, arrange situations where the offender would actually do something to make it right.  There are so many ways this happened, and so many stories; too many to tell, but here are just a few.

I was fortunate to be present at an FGC for a young Samoan lad who had broken the window of an elderly woman while fighting outside her property.  This woman had been in her lounge when a rock, thrown by this lad in a fit of rage, landed at her feet after smashing through her window.  She looked out the window and saw an angry, very big Island boy standing outside her property yelling abuse.  She called the police.  An FGC was called and, although this was not the only offence being discussed, it became a focal point as the elderly woman, frail and small, was brave enough to be there.  This boy stood in front of his family, and, with tears in his eyes, he apologised.  His family were sobbing behind him.  Incredibly embarrassed and ashamed, this boy promised to do anything he could to put things right for this woman.  During the conference, at some stage, the elderly woman made a statement that she had a delivery of fire wood coming.  The social worker picked up on this immediately and that was it.  It was put in the plan.  This lad stacked her wood, all of it.  His dad was with him for a while, but his boy did all the work.  He then agreed to pop in once in a while and cut the wood and bring it inside for her use; this wasn’t a part of the plan.  He went around nearly every day after school, and continued to visit even in summer; this wasn’t part of the plan either.  A couple of years later I saw these two walking together towards the local mall.  This was beyond the lessons of the offending, this is community development at its core. And this is the incredible magic of our Act.

Incredible stuff happened in the residence too. I worked at the Epuni Residential Centre, where we worked in an environment without bars on the windows (and you could open all the windows) and where most of the doors were unlocked.  There was no five metre fence around the section; it was wooden, about five foot high and had no barbed wire.  We played spotlight with the young people in an open sports field in the dark.  We took the young people out of the residence for walks and outings.  We hardly ever lost a young person; absconding was rare.  We did have some young people who were permanently contained in our secure unit at Epuni; I worked with six young people charged with murder.  But we were still given a licence to work with these young men in ways we thought would make a real difference.

There was a school on site, and the young people attended this school during school hours. During the school holidays however, we residential social workers were charged with providing education.  I decided we had an opportunity for something special and cultural.  With Puao te ata tu in my hand I developed a hangi programme.  It was great.  I would take the young people off site and harvest wood and rocks, we would learn the history of the hangi, the mana of the hangi.  During the process we would select a group of four young people who would then be the principle hangi “cooks”.  We would have these guys sleep over night in the wharenui on site. At dawn on the day before the hangi we would get them to light the fire and tend it in the first shift.  We would then have shifts work through the day, until the hangi was cooked.  Once cooked and lifted, our principle four would serve the food.  Local families of the young people, staff and others associated with the residence would attend.  We did this every school holiday.  It was simple.  The mana enhancement was simple.  The sheer delight and enjoyment of these young people and the sense of reward was simple.  Managing the young people during this time was simple.

In the early 1990s we did this. We were change agent social workers, working with a strong Puao te ata tu, and a very special Children Young Persons and Their Families Act. When I look back at this, and sure my rose coloured glasses are firmly fixed in place, I feel some amazing pride about what we as social workers, could do and did do.  Fast forward to this current arena, this place where today’s Child Youth and Family social workers find themselves.  Principal Youth Court Judge Beecroft has often talked about the unimaginative state of FGC recommendations coming through Youth Court, he has likened it to a ‘stamp’ applied to all circumstances: “reparation,” “community work hours” and “written apology.”  The review has already highlighted that we are putting too many of our young people into residences and we must do something about this. Today’s residences are different beasts  – high concrete walls, locked doors, youth workers whose primary role is to contain and control, less programming, less social work intervention, and (surprise)  many more behavioural problems.

Are young people inherently worse in today’s world?  They certainly appear to be on the surface, but I highly doubt it. The social worker in me says “if you treat a person with an expectation of poor behaviour, you are going to get poor behaviour.” But that is only part of the problem. The biggest issue we face today is our very extreme response to any “risk,” and the repercussions of this response. There is immense pressure to ensure that things are completely safe, that there is no absconding and no public person is put at risk of these young offenders.  This risk aversion, coupled with a need for fast outcomes, is a dangerous cocktail.   It has seen the police harden their approach, the FGC become a battlefield and in these circumstances the ‘stamp’ that Judge Beecroft talks about has become the only outcome for professionals.

So what does this mean? What have we lost of these Good Old Days, and what should this review be looking at? The answer is Social Work.  Social workers as change agents, as advocates for social justice and as natural justice crusaders of action.   We need to think outside the square, be imaginative, be creative, and be bloody brave.  This place can be risky at times, and things will almost certainly go awry, but they do now, and if we fixate on eliminating all risk we paralyse our practice.   We of course do everything to ensure the risk is minimal and mitigated as much as we can, but we must accept the basic truth that nothing is 100% safe.   We get out and we make a difference again.  We involve the victim in outcomes that are innovative and responsive to everyone’s needs.  We make sure the whānau/family are involved and engaged, and we bloody well teach our kids how to do a hangi.

If we want to make the system better, we seriously need to look at what worked in the past, at what has been lost.  We need to celebrate the good in those “good old days” and see it as a way to move forward. We need to re-read our Children Young Persons and Their Families Act and hold Puao te ata tu firmly in our hands. Most importantly, if we want social work to really have an impact on services provided by Child Youth and Family we need to stop being held hostage by fear.

Bobby Bryan.

4 thoughts on “A return to the “good old days”: Back to the future of Aotearoa New Zealand social services

  1. Bobby!! Here I am researching about the changes in CYF and social work in New Zealand as I ponder the possibility of returning after 12 years working in London and there you are, just like always, to shine some light. Really enjoyed reading your blog. Although it’s sad to hear there is risk averse and rubber stamping practice it gives me hope about what could change and what I may be returning to (fingers crossed). Kia ora e hoa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *