I have incorporated some simple arithmetic in the title of this blog post because I want to make the key point clear. As the Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft stated in a recent TV1 interview elaborating on his October 2018 State of Care Report, the proportion of children in state care who are Māori has risen to around two-thirds. Although the report itself is mainly concerned with the proposed development of community group homes as an alternative to institutional care, the text does focus on the lost opportunity for whanau, hapu and Iwi empowerment envisaged in the CYP&tF Act, 1989 and argues that we have a chance to reclaim this vision under the provisions of the reconfigured Oranga Tamariki Act. In many ways it is encouraging to see the Commissioner asserting this position, however the full picture is glossed over somewhat.
The new OT Act is now more conflicted than the original law. There are new pro-Māori principles, but these were included as an outcome of rear-guard agitation from interested parties inside and outside the state social work apparatus. The original flavour of the discourse from the so-called expert advisory panel – which focused on earlier permanent removal of high-risk children to safe secure and loving homes as a means of stemming the long-term cost of inter-generational dysfunction – also sits within the new legal framework. We need to confront these and other contradictions that impact on state social work more squarely if we are to move forward. If, as the Commissioner suggests, the intent is to reclaim the vision of Puao-Te-Ata-Tu, we may in fact need further legislative change (see Devaney, 2018)
To his credit, Andrew Becroft names colonisation and ongoing systemic bias in endeavouring to explain the chronic over-representation of Māori in State Care in the following quote:
“Now that’s a controversial word, colonising, but that’s what took place. It’s never been good for indigenous peoples, especially indigenous children and I think what we’re seeing the care and protection system together with modern, systemic bias plays out in the over-representation”.
It is no secret that the historic cultural alienation of Māori has impacted on individual and collective social well-being. It is also no secret that there was, and is, racial bias in the system. A restoration of mana was the intent of Puao-Te-Ata-Tu. However, what the Commissioner fails to mention is that as well as cultural impoverishment, the historical and contemporary imposition of liberal capitalism has generated economic inequality for Māori. The two go hand in hand. It is not middle-class Māori children who are coming in to state care: it is the children of the brown poor. Although, stepping outside of its brief the Puao-Te-Ata-Tu report captured this convergence in 1988:
“While mindful of our terms of reference we nevertheless believe that most of the socio-economic difficulties Māori clients have with the Department are a reflection of the socio-economic status of Māori in the community. In proposing a Māori perspective for the Department, we cannot ignore the lack of a Māori perspective in the community at large”.
One of the risks in dealing with the convergence of alienation, impoverishment and social suffering is that these factors are interpreted as signs of risk and harm – as quantifiable deficits that specific whanau and individual caregivers are seen to be responsible for reproducing. This view fits well with the neoliberal social investment policy schema but it is a narrow and ultimately both a racist and classist conceptual lens. It is also a mind-set that feeds directly into the issue of over-representation in state care.
It is possible to turn this around, but as Andrew Becroft rightly stresses, more of the same won’t do. Empowering hapu and Iwi to look after their own will take a very significant redistribution of power, material resources and expertise to Māori providers. It also requires economic shifts that address the stark race and class-based social deficit that has been allowed to develop in this country since the 1980’s. We need to do more than transfer state care to out of family Iwi care.
Such a transformation also requires a re-thinking of contemporary child protection theory and practice. As Featherstone, Gupta and Morris (2017) argue, a system rooted in the detection and rescue of ‘battered babies’ is not a good fit with the contemporary realities of chronically unequal western societies:
“The modern child protection system emerged from a concern to stop babies dying or being “battered” by parents who were considered to be suffering from a lack of empathic mothering in their own lives. Poverty, bad housing and so on were screened out as holding helpful explanatory value (Parton, 1985). … Despite all the changes, the story honed in the 1960s has proved remarkably resilient in its stress on the actions of individual parents/carers and its focus on the intra-familial as the locus of cause and consequence”.
The capacity to operationalise our awareness of the relationship between structural inequality and private pain is the unrealised potential of social work. This involves recognising the complexity and contradictions of the child protection task and getting past the shorthand of mantras like child-centric practice or the practice of simply compiling deficit-based inventories of individualised cultural well-being. Child protection will always involve tricky balances. What do you do, for example, when able whanau caregivers fail to meet stringent risk averse care-giver approval standards?
Both discretion and transparency are required. A paradigm change is possible – for Māori and for state social work – but we need to walk into this future with our eyes wide open. Let’s lose the spin and get a grip of the full story.
Devaney, Emily, Are We There Yet? The Journey to Oranga Tamariki the Ministry for Vulnerable Children: An Analysis of the Law Reform Process (June 20, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3200201 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3200201
Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., & Morris, K. (2017). Bringing back the social: the way forward for children’s social work? Journal of Children’s Services, 12(2-3), 190-196.
Maiea te Tūruapō – Fulfilling the Vision – SUPPORTING YOUNG PEOPLE WITH AT-RISK BEHAVIOUR TO LIVE SUCCESSFULLY IN THEIR COMMUNITIES. Office of the Commissioner for Children – October 2018.
Puao Te Ata Tu (day break): The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. (1988). Wellington, New Zealand.