When seeking to understand the performance of Oranga Tamariki (OT) it is important to be mindful of the context. Statutory child protection practice is challenging (and sometimes very rewarding) work that is often carried out by hard working and highly skilled social workers. Currently the work occurs within a risk-averse hierarchical bureaucracy which often tends not to provide the required level of support for good decision making in complex situations. Support for careful whānau and tamariki-centred social work is found in well supervised and resourced practice teams where uncertainty is recognised, responsibility is shared and where capable social workers are nurtured.
Regrettably this is far from always being the case. Practice quality is inconsistent between sites and across the country. Organisational preoccupation with risk means that new social workers in particular – and there are many of these given ongoing retention problems – are reluctant or unable to make the judgements that are required in practice. In my experience when decisions are made at the managerial level, away from direct contact with the lives of children and families, there is a greater chance of delay, error and destructive practice outcomes. The following observation from Parton & O’Byrne (2000) captures a powerful home truth about the identity of social work. I think it also says something about what good quality social work requires. Social workers are:
“… differentiated from workers in other services mainly by their willingness to forsake the formality of their roles, and to work with ordinary people in their natural settings, using the informality of their methods as a means of negotiating solutions to problems rather than imposing them. Imposed, formal solutions are the last resort in social work, whereas they are the norm in other settings. The further social work moves from this situation the more it loses what is distinctive about it.” (p. 33)
The organisational context of OT has been shaped in recent times by the process and outcome of the Expert Advisory Panel review. This exercise did not place a great deal of value on social work. The Panel members knew next to nothing about social work after all. The Rebstock Panel envisaged “not a social welfare system but a social investment system” (Final Report). In this sense, social investment is not about enabling the social rights of disadvantaged citizens. Rather it is about reducing the future costs which failing people visit upon the state. It is important to grasp this distinction because it underpins the recent structural reforms and goes a long way to explain the recent spike in the uplifting of very young children into state care.
For the Expert Panel, a central strategy for achieving the vision of reducing the forward cost associated with maltreatment, and vulnerability, by “50% over a generation” (Final Report) involved the provision of safe, stable and loving homes. This mantra is emotive, persuasive and overly simplistic. The underlying message is that when children are not receiving adequate care at home, they are best removed and permanently placed sooner rather than later. The Panel envisaged an over-haul of the care system to prevent re-abuse. In fact, they seemed to regard the whole child protection structure as a failing care system, rather than a social work process. Notions of ongoing support for very high needs families and / or removing children in times of crisis and managing supported return are pushed aside in this analysis.
The Panel also adopted the goal of high aspirations for Māori – presumably because Māori are currently deficient and need to have their sights raised. More than a whiff of colonial paternalism I would suggest. The real underlying intent in relation to Māori was the proposed target of reducing forward liability associated with poor outcomes for Māori by 25-30% within 5 years (Final Report). Forward liability is another way of saying the cost associated with poor health, prisons and above all benefit payments. The sort of vision proposed is about targeting and fixing deviant Māori and if this requires removal to safe, loving and stable homes in order to stop the rot, so be it.
Of course, there have, and continue to be, tensions and undercurrents running through all of this. Although the principles of the new OT Act contain the injunction to ensure that children needing care under the Act are secured in a safe and loving home, there are also many remaining and sometimes conflicting principles focusing on the central importance of whanau integrity – including references to whakapapa and whanaungatanga, although these seem to be couched as responsibilities rather than rights. This is because the law change was seriously contested by Māori and wider social service stakeholders.
We have ended up with a mixed bag in terms of policy and practice outcomes. Care numbers continue to increase although overall entry numbers are decreasing. However, greater numbers of younger children and babies are entering care and staying longer. Māori dis-proportionality continues to increase. This reflects the somewhat brutal ‘child rescue to prevent future social cost’ focus of the Expert Panel. However, most of the children entering care are being placed with whanau which reflects the other interests at play. Removing children from young Māori mothers living in poverty bothers me. Does it bother you?
This uncomfortable reality is something the Expert Panel approach glossed over in the name of the supposed needs of young people. If you are experiencing the social stresses associated with inequality in Aotearoa-New Zealand – inadequate housing, poor education, second rate health care services, minimal job and/or income security, deprived and risky neighbourhoods – you are far more likely to lose your children to the care of the state. There is personal bias in the system, but structural issues are more important. We should all learn more of our history to understand the disproportionate representation of Māori in this population group. This, then is the context (and the big-picture policy justification) for uplifting Māori babies – that, and poorly supported social work practice at the local level.
There are other forces afoot that engender a more hopeful focus. OT are talking to Iwi it seems, but radical systemic change is needed if a real shift in power relations and outcomes is to be achieved. A few shiny MoU’s won’t do it. There are pockets of very good OT work. We are told that the early intervention and prevention initiatives are yet to be rolled out, but it is difficult to be filled with confidence. Practice that supports high needs families is difficult and expensive and sometimes risky and it involves trust. This is what we should be building at the grass roots level of statutory social work.
We appear to be doing something quite different. There is an unprecedented growth in highly paid corporate jobs in Wellington – strategists and communications managers and system design gurus of all persuasions. This is where the money is going. I have never seen this level of spin and sheer concentric bureaucratic energy – all in defense of a five-year plan based on flawed (vaguely eugenic) ideological social investment assumptions. And there are tensions here too. We have had a change of Government and we now have a Social Well-Being policy frame. How different this is remains unclear – there is still a hint of Foucault’s bio-politics (Gilbert & Powell, 2010) where public well-being is managed by targeting the deviant. But at least it aspires to be different, although I fear our current crop of Welfare politicians have been captured by the ‘there is no alternative to the master plan’ story.
Give me a humane child protection system – I am almost 61! We need to hear survivor voices (reform should have started from the State Care Royal Commission rather than this way around), develop a social, poverty-informed model of practice and front up to real Māori aspirations – I am advised on good authority that we – as Tau Iwi – don’t need to have these for ‘them’. Our track record on this is not inspiring. I think we need to find a better plan than the one handed down by the Expert Panel. This needs to be wrapped up in an inclusive socio-economic policy framework that involves (call me old fashioned) pragmatic decolonisation and significant wealth redistribution. I am very interested in what other people may think.
Image credit: Felipe Skroski
Expert Advisory Panel – Modernising Child, Youth and Family (2015) – Final Report. Wellington, NZ: NZ Govt.
Gilbert, T. & Powell, J. (2010). Power and Social Work in the United Kingdom – A Foucauldian Excursion. Journal of Social Work 10 (1), 3-22.
Parton, N. & O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive Social Work: towards a new practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.