How about building a socially just child protection system?

Oranga Tamariki has its challenges, as does every statutory child protection social work system across the English-speaking world.  Something needs to change. I’d like to begin to talk about what a better system might involve. The one that we have risks being part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. We need to accept that the work is complex and that it is not an exact science. We have become over-organised by risk. Statutory child protection does not have to be associated with policing the risk-sodden poor and it can be reconstructed as an anti-oppressive activity (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2016). I think that greater awareness of how the effects of material inequality are played out in the lives of children and their families is critical to the development of more effective child protection social work.

Psychologically-situated understandings of trauma or attachment may help to inform our practice, but they are inadequate tools for grappling with the socio-political context of child maltreatment. It is within this context that the inevitably messy work of social work in child protection is undertaken. A cognitive or behavioural science lens obscures the relationship between material inequality and life-outcomes and, at worst, it can serve to biologise economically generated deprivation (Cummins, 2018; Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2017). As in the racist eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, the assumption is that poor people teach and breed poverty into their children. This is a convenient fantasy of course. It disguises the reality that poverty, structural disadvantage / economic injustice and child protection are entangled. Poorer people are more likely to have contact with child protection systems for a variety of reasons, most of which are obvious and avoidable: avoidable because they are generated by the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.

Relative poverty involves greater social insecurity. You can’t buy your way out of problems. A range of social challenges are associated with materially impoverished neighbourhoods. These circumstances increase the likelihood of poorer health, education and well-being outcomes for the children of the poor. We also know that poverty and inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand is structured by ethnicity and gender. Stressors associated with parenting in poverty, including a lack of access to adequate housing or appropriate support services, are likely to impact upon the quality of care that children receive. Such factors increase, but do not accurately predict, the probability of maltreatment. Families from lower socio-economic neighbourhoods are also more likely to be subject to oversight from the public or quasi-public-sector workers who report child abuse concerns (Bywaters et. al., 2018).

Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone and McCartan (2017) argue that distributive justice is, or should be, the “organising value of social work” but that this commitment has been hijacked by an “individual focus on risk and harm”. A focus on re-moralising the urban poor and / or saving their babies is not consistent with a commitment to reduce “rather than reflect or reinforce social inequality” (Bywaters. 2018, p.60). Appreciation of the demands associated with parenting in poverty is absent from the current narrative. Social workers are increasingly taught a more distant set of preferred practice knowledges. Instead of learning about everyday parenting and how it may be shaped by impoverished circumstances, social workers learn about trauma and its effects. Oranga Tamariki basically provide an investigation – assessment service and / or a ‘care’ service. Family support is farmed out to woefully under-resourced NGOs. Surely, we can do better than this.

The capacity to appreciate the relationship between social structure and the lives of families and individuals is what distinguishes social work as an applied social profession. We need to develop meaningful understandings of the pressures associated with material deprivation and the way in which these pressures impact upon security, trust, communication, choices, relationships, and the possibilities for change. To adapt Bourdieu’s theorisation of the way in which social conditions become subtly embedded within individual subjectivities, social workers in child protection bureaucracies need to develop a feel for those who don’t have a feel for the game (Garrett, 2009). This recognition includes taking account of the symbolic dimensions of poverty: the ways in which socially constructed shame and stigma can shape communication and influence relationships. Gupta (2017) advocates for a poverty-informed social work that recognises and learns from the struggles, strengths, wisdom and rationality of those living with debilitating economic scarcity.

The more that child protection social workers are distanced from the families they engage with, the more de-skilled and de-sensitised they become. Social workers need to get closer to people. We have been seduced by fear of getting too close, too complicit with the experience of the dangerous classes. The neoliberal social order is reinforced, effectively policed, by this kind of bureaucratised clinical practice at a distance. We need to have the audacity to reinvent the relational basis of social work in child protection. This is not an injunction to naïve or unduly idealistic practice but rather a call to engage meaningfully and get closer to the truth (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & Warner, 2017). We need to rethink child protection for the sake of children, families and for the heart and soul of the social profession.

Image credit | Tania Peguero


Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Daniel, B., Featherstone, B., Jones, C., Morris, K., Scourfield, J., Sparks, T., & Webb, C. (2018). Inequalities in English child protection practice under austerity: A universal challenge? Child & Family Social Work, 23 (1), 53-61.

Cummins, I. (2018). Poverty, Inequality and Social Work. The impact of neoliberalism and austerity politics on welfare provision. Bristol, U.K: Policy Press.

Davidson, G., Bunting, L., Bywaters, P., Featherstone B., & McCartan, C. (2017). Child Welfare as Justice: Why Are We Not Effectively Addressing Inequalities? British Journal ofSocial Work, 47, 1641-1651. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcx094

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. & Warner, J. (2016). Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: Towards a social model of child protection.  Families Relationships and Societies. ISSN 20467443  

Garrett, P. (2009). Questioning Habermasian Social Work: A Note on Some Alternative Theoretical Resources.  British Journal of Social Work, 39, 867-883.

Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of earlyintervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Bristol, U.K: Policy Press.

Gupta, A. (2017). Poverty and child neglect – The Elephant in the Room? Families, Relationships and Societies. Doi:10.1332/204674315X14207948135699.


2 thoughts on “How about building a socially just child protection system?

  1. ALL OF THAT! particularly – “We have been seduced by fear of getting too close, too complicit with the experience of the dangerous classes.” is a symptom of “compassion fatigue”
    “Neo Liberalism” could be described as the “religion” of the marketplace, and as such its disciples seek to commodify EVERYTHING. It is a movement that “behaves” like a religion, which has potential to capture almost any political regime from within. The seduction of social services delivery by the “religion” of Neo Liberal philosophy means that social services are consciously under-resourced.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jayne – yep this idea of self-responsible individuals digging themselves out of inequality doesn’t help us. In the Aotearoa context of the 1990s / 2000s whanau were given a degree of autonomy but not the resources needed to care for their own and now the dominant idea is that the vision of Puao te at tu was flawed. I don’t buy this. Child protection will always be tricky and complex – it is silly to pretend otherwise – but we can do a much better job. The current historical abuse in care review will hopefully make us all think about the legacy of state violence in this country and what this should mean for future practice. Very important to start to have this conversation – we didn’t get it with Expert Panel review. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers by a long chalk – a better / accountable care system is one thing but really supporting struggling families in real and respectful ways is missing from too much of the current language of child protection practice. As Tariana Turia pointed out a while back, saving children and leaving their parents behind is not the way to go.

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